Notre Dame de Paris was not on the itinerary. It was July 2011, I was on my first trip out of the United States and we only had one more day in Paris before the night train to Florence would whisk us away to finish our 12-day European whirlwind tour. My copy of Victor Hugo’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” was weighing down my backpack and I feared I wouldn’t get to visit one of the places I had most wanted to see.
But my fear was short-lived. Our tour director herded us out of the Louvre and onto a city bus and, before I knew it, I was standing in the square looking up at the setting of my favorite story.
I'd become fascinated by Disney’s version of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” as a child. I subsequently devoured the original book and sought out every film adaptation I could find, so being in this cathedral I’d only seen in pictures, in an animated movie and in my imagination when reading the novel was almost unbelievable. We only had 15 minutes in the cathedral, just enough time to make the u-shaped walk through the aisles around the nave with the crowd of other tourists, but not enough time for me. I promised myself I would come back, and though it took me eight years, I did.
Late last year, I stumbled across a video of rehearsals for a 20th anniversary tour of a Canadian musical from 1998 titled “Notre Dame de Paris.” I had fallen in love with this French-language production's powerful songs that cut right to the heart of the story’s themes of alienation and acceptance, and I powered through the language barrier until I knew the French lyrics by heart.
So I was ecstatic to learn that not only would my favorite singer from the original production be returning to the role but also that the show would end its Paris run on Jan. 6, the day when all the action in the story begins. Julia, a childhood friend fluent in French, had just moved to England, so I had a travel guide. The convergence of circumstances was irresistible, and within a week I had plane tickets.
Once Julia and I got to Paris, we made a beeline for Notre Dame. I had planned to climb the towers that first day, but a full day of train travel left us too tired to conquer those 400-plus stairs. Instead, we retraced my steps through the cathedral from eight years prior, marveling at the architecture, the windows, the candles, the decorations. The quiet atmosphere of faith and reverence was palpable and moving. I lit a candle at St. Joan of Arc’s statue.
But my main goal was seeing the musical. I spent all two hours with a huge smile on my face, hardly daring to believe my luck. The climactic confrontation between refugees seeking asylum and the soldiers of the religious establishment, played out in dance, drove home the reason why Hugo’s story remains relevant. It is a timeless story about abuse of power and overcoming injustice, one that resonates strongly today.
We saw the last show of the Paris run on a day important to the plot, so I was not entirely surprised when the composer came onstage after the curtain call to comment about the show’s important message. But the most magical moment came next: an actor sang the beginning of the show’s opening number then dropped out while the audience continued on, an impromptu chorus of fans. When the rest of the cast joined us to finish the song, I could barely stay on pitch for joy.
As we left the theater, I thanked Julia for helping me fulfill a lifelong dream, and she indulged me with one more visit to Notre Dame to get a picture of me holding the program in front of the cathedral. The square was almost deserted when we got there in the early evening, but as we left we heard the faint sounds of someone playing “Belle,” the best-known song from the show.
I could not have imagined that, three months after I posed for that picture, a fire would blaze through the cathedral for more than 10 hours on April 15. It destroyed the roof, the original medieval woodwork and toppled the 19th-century spire as the world looked on. This cathedral which had survived a revolution and two world wars during its 856 years seemed to be turning to ashes before our eyes.
As I listened to a news livestream from France for three hours that day, I heard the references to Hugo’s novel and its influence on the cathedral. He wrote “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” in 1831 because the cathedral was in a state of horrible disrepair and he wanted to change that. Hearing newscasters reference this novel almost 200 years later, and realizing how important this cathedral is to people around the world as a religious, national and cultural monument, reassured me that the cathedral would be restored.
When critics complained about billionaire donors who rush to fund the restoration but fail to help France’s chronically poor, once again I was reminded of Hugo’s “Hunchback” and his advocating for social justice. If this fire at Notre Dame can prompt society to come together and examine its priorities, then Hugo would be glad to know that his novel and beloved cathedral — our beloved cathedral! — is still changing the world.
Debbie Clark is a news clerk at The Post and Courier.