The Bells of Notre Dame

6e235c86 d270 467d af11 2c6e03316245The above title is a song from the stage musical version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. You may be familiar with the original Victor Hugo novel, or perhaps with the Disney animated adaptation from 1996. The recently created stage musical is a combination of the two, darker than what Disney did with the property, but with many of the songs from that version and new music written just for the theatre. The new Hunchback is an amazing show… and even more amazing is the opportunity for area youth to perform it for the first time in Iowa.

Waukee High School is known for its great theatre productions. They did a fantastic version of Peter and the Starcatcher last fall, and over the last couple years have presented Les Miserables and Legally Blonde: the Musical. Director Chelsea Haaland wanted to continue to challenge her students, and went looking for the right show to create that environment.


“We looked for a show that allowed us to showcase skilled acting chops, incredible voices, and a growing understanding of the role of technical elements in storytelling,” says Haaland. “Additionally, our current casting policy includes casting all students who audition and can reasonably attend practices. This results in large casts. We needed to find a show that featured a large ensemble, a large student orchestra, and would push students toward growth.”

In a Place of Miracles

Over 100 students are involved in the production, whether onstage, behind the scenes, or in the orchestra. And Hunchback is the perfect show for such a group. “The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a unique script; outside of several principal characters, no other lines or solos are specifically assigned out. This allowed us flexibility to assign roles to as many as we prefer. Every member of the cast of 59 has a solo spoken or singing line. This created so much opportunity for our students!”


Senior Marisa Spahn is no stranger to musicals, having been chosen as a Triple-Threat Award winner by the Civic Center last year and representing Iowa at the national competition on Broadway. “I’m very excited to perform this version of Hunchback, because it’s such an intricate show. You could see it over and over and discover something you didn’t catch before. Many high schools don’t get the opportunity to do this type of heavy material and that makes me even more excited to perform this show!”


The lead character of Quasimodo, the tortured hunchback of the title, is played by senior Will Adams. For him, this version of the well-known tale is a special experience. “Bringing this masterpiece of a story to a live audience will be both impactful and memorable. Quasimodo’s appearance, posture, and personality are important traits that will be portrayed best when it is live. The physicality and posture of Quasimodo is unlike any other character I have played. It is so unique, and very taxing on the body. It took a week or so to get used to it but I am enjoying every second of the process.”

Rhythm of the Tambourine

There’s a lot in Hunchback to challenge all the performers, and not just the ones onstage. Senior Alex Ertl plays the trombone in the pit orchestra, and he discovered very quickly the depth he was in. “I was both surprised and excited when seeing that there are euphonium cues in the trombone part, which has so far allowed me to expand my playing abilities as a brass player. I will remember the first time I looked at the music and stressing out over the 80+ pages of music, and the feeling of accomplishment after our last performance knowing I was able to play all that music at a high level.”


Fellow musician Hima Joseph is a junior playing the violin for the production. “As we are the very first Iowa high school to perform it, I love the idea that we are basically setting the bar. Most ideas that we bring, and our individual interpretations, will likely be the first ones anyone has seen/heard.”


Some of those interpretations are in the small details the production will give to an audience. Sometimes the least noticed things are the most influential in the overall perception of a show. Senior Emily Pajazetovic gets to be a part of every character and moment onstage as Co-Head Costume Designer for Hunchback.


“As a costume designer, I get the honor and privilege to take these actors that can speak and act the part of a 1400’s character, and make them LOOK the part, which really brings it all together for the audience and the actors. It is the utmost rewarding feeling being able to look during a dress rehearsal as the story that comes to life BECAUSE of the costumes, set, lights, etc.”


Aiding the performers and the backstage crew is senior Kyler Johnson, who has the unique job of being the Education Coordinator for Hunchback. After all, we are talking about a school production, so there are lessons to be learned.


“Having just taken a Foundations of Education where I taught in a middle school speech and drama classroom, this role seemed to me the perfect way to bridge what I had just learned about in school to my extracurricular. Crafting different workshops and coordinating with other leaders in the production, I’ve gotten to practice my ability to educate others and yet work in a cohesive leadership team in a production. This role has been a niche, but it’s been a niche that I’ve appreciated given my time availability and my interests in both education and theatre.”


Getting to utilize their strengths in a creative way, and do work that will provide dividends in their future, is something many students come to value during their high school years. “I have hopes of becoming a film director someday,” says Sound Designer Nate Goodwin. “Joining the production team for Hunchback gives me a hands-on experience that will help me learn new things while also contributing to the creation of an absolutely fantastic show with all my friends.”


Some will use this and other experiences with Waukee Drama to further their theatre dreams in the future. “I do indeed want to continue my passion in theatre throughout my life,” comments Ga-Young Kim, the Head Production Stage Manager. “I want to be part of shows in college and hopefully community theatre. The Waukee theatre department really gives everyone a strong foundation and gives us many opportunities to grow and succeed. They prepare you for all aspects of the arts, in performance and/or technical. In any production, we are expected to work in a professional manner which prepares us for the other opportunities outside of high school.”


High school is an extremely busy time. Studies, social life, family, and everything else in this crazy world means a student’s time is a valuable commodity. And yet, a tremendous number of people put forth amazing hours and dedication towards four shows at the end of April. It’s wonderful to hear from some of them just why they do it….


“I do it because I crave the feeling of a performance,” exclaims Mackenzie Devoto, a junior in the ensemble Choir. “I keep doing the musical because I want to work hard to become a better performer and to hopefully represent my school as a lead. In addition, I do it for the community. I absolutely love spending time with the people in Hunchback, they’re my best friends – I would even call them my family.”


The sacrifices are enormous, but they’re more than worth it, according to senior Jocelyn Smith. She listed all the things she’s missed recently. “Sleep, food, a social life, a decently functioning brain. I do it, because honestly, I don’t know what else I would do. Enjoy the moment while you are in it, because shows only last so long. Theatre is as close to living someone else’s life as we can get, and because of this, it is an incredibly powerful tool in teaching compassion.”


She goes on. “The longing for belonging in Quasimodo, the rebellion in Phoebus, the confidence despite the fear in Esmeralda, and even the worry of what higher powers might think of you in Frollo. All these emotions are powerful and raw. It’s exciting to bring this version to Iowa because the story we tell, a boy hated and hurt simply because of the way he looks, is still so applicable to the 21st century.”

Director Haaland is justifiably proud of her cast and crew, and can’t wait to share their work with all those who come to see The Hunchback of Notre Dame. “We think you will be impressed by the stellar craftsmanship of our designers as well as the poise of our performers. We are eager to share this story with Iowa audiences for the very first time!”


Waukee Theatre Department presents The Hunchback of Notre Dame, for the first time in Iowa! The production runs Thursday thru Saturday, April 19, 20, and 21 at 7pm, with an additional Saturday matinee at 1pm. (Note: that’s a SATURDAY matinee, not a Sunday!). Performances are at the Waukee High School, and tickets are available (for as long as they last) online at

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Waukee High School Chelsea Haaland The Hunchback of Notre Dame