It seemed as if nothing would ever displace “The Phantom of the Opera” as my most-viewed musical.
And then, “Notre Dame de Paris” happened.
The 1998 French musical, which is based on Victor Hugo’s epic 19th-century novel (as is the 1996 Disney animated adaptation), made its New York premiere last summer at the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center.
I saw it twice then and, when it returned this summer, two more times; a fifth viewing is planned for Sunday’s closing performance in New York. And I’m not done: While in Paris this fall, I’ll see it twice at its original theater, the Palais des Congrès, for its 25th anniversary.
As an avid theatergoer, I rarely go to the same production twice. (A recent exception was the Broadway revival of “A Doll’s House,” starring Jessica Chastain in a bewitching, minimalist march to self-discovery.)
And after initially seeing “Notre Dame de Paris,” a second viewing didn’t seem essential. The musical, which is sung in French with English supertitles, follows the beautiful Esmeralda and the three men who vie to win her love: the kind hunchback Quasimodo; the twisted archdeacon Frollo; and the egotistic soldier Phoebus.
The production has a plentiful serving of ear candy-esque power ballads sprinkled among its more than 50 (!) songs, but parts of it were also cheesy. A song debating the merits of the printing press at the top of Act II after a cliffhanger Act I ending? (I guess they had to leave at least one trademark Hugo tangent in there!) Frollo falling to one knee because he’s so overwhelmed by his desire for Esmeralda? The poet-narrator Gringoire’s Donny Osmond “Joseph” hair and psychedelic pants?
Of course, those elements were meant to be campy. And now, they’re only part of my affection for the show.
But it’s the show’s particular brand of rock opera sorcery that wormed its way into my heart and took hold.
Let me explain: About two-thirds of the way through the first act, there comes a song for the three men in love with Esmeralda that is the earworm equivalent of “The Music of the Night” in “The Phantom of the Opera.” “Belle” (the French word for “beautiful”) became the biggest-selling single of 1998 in France.
A YouTube video of the song from the original production — featuring Daniel Lavoie as Frollo (Lavoie, now 74, is reprising the role in New York), along with Garou as Quasimodo and Patrick Fiori as Phoebus — played on a loop for a week in my apartment.
Seeing the show for a second time last summer was a revelation: Already familiar with the plot, I didn’t need to read the supertitles as much and could actually watch the actors, especially the mesmerizing acrobats. (What does the guy who spins on his head for 20 seconds have to do to get a chance with Esmeralda?)
The show, I have since learned, has a cadre of superfans who have seen it six, 10, even 20 times. And they travel. (One treat for New York audiences: an orchestra. “Notre Dame” is usually performed with recorded music.)
So what is its hold on people?
The Canadian director Gilles Maheu, who oversaw the original Paris run and several tours since, including the current one, credits the show’s timeless themes and music with its longevity.
“I wanted to do the show outside of current fashion,” Maheu said of the musical, which maintains its original staging, in a recent video interview from his home in Frelighsburg, Quebec.
“The traditional story line of three different people loving the same woman is one I think people recognize easily,” he added. “The songs are beautiful, and not only ‘Belle.’”
Holly Thomas, 26, a guest service representative for a Broadway ticketing company and a stage manager, first saw the show in New York last summer — and is on track to have seen it 11 times here by the time it closes Sunday.
“It deals with issues that we’re constantly dealing with as a general society — racism, misogyny, the correction of power,” she said.
Michael Lewis, 52, an I.T. consultant based in Boston, attended one of the original performances in Paris 25 years ago, and has also seen the musical in London and New York. In addition to its timelessness, he said, “the theme of migrants seeking asylum has resonance today,” he said, “especially given what just happened with the Pakistani immigrants on the way to Greece.”
Here in New York, which is experiencing its own migrant crisis, the show’s overtures for shelter and asylum have had similar poignancy.
My boss at The New York Times recently saw the show with his daughters — and the next day I received a message from him: “I must have watched this video of ‘Belle’ on YouTube at least a dozen times today,” he wrote.
“Is this how it starts?”