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Getting just the right voices for "Hunchback"'s Gargoyles proved to be a pretty gruesome go

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Getting just the right voices for "Hunchback"'s Gargoyles proved to be a pretty gruesome go

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How tough can it be to do the voicework for the comic relief in a Disney animated film?

I mean, what do you do? You show up at the studio, schmooze with the director, say a few jokes, take an hour for lunch, do a few more jokes, break for tea, do another couple of jokes, then -- ooops -- it's time to go home. The hardest part of the job would seem to be that long walk out to the mailbox, where you have to pick up that oversized check.

At least that's what people seem to think happens when actors are hired to do voices for Disney films. The reality of the job is considerably different -- particularly when you're working on a film that's in trouble.

Think of poor Cyndi Lauper. All her life, this colorful pop star had wanted to be in an animated film for Disney. Whenever she went to one of the studio's film openings or attended a Disneyland press event with her family, Lauper would badger company executives, repeatedly telling them "I want to do a cartoon with you guys." The executives all assured Cyndi that they knew about her interest. They promised Lauper that -- once the right project came along -- she would be the first person that the Mouse would call.

Cyndi pestered the Mouse for years until in late 1993, that phone call she'd been waiting for finally came. Disney was just beginning development of a musical cartoon version of Victor Hugo's "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." The folks over at Feature Animation were wondering whether Lauper would be interesting in being a part of the project.

Would she? Lauper practically flew over to Burbank, so eager was she to find out what the Mouse had in store for her. On the drive over, Cyndi wondered: "They couldn't be thinking of me for the voice of Esmerelda ... could they?"

Ah ... actually, no. Disney wanted Lauper to audition to be the voice of one of Quasimodo's made-of-stone friends: Quinn, a gargoyle.

Cyndi was somewhat taken aback by this request. I mean, she knew that her voice and her looks were ... somewhat unconventional. But to be considered the perfect person to portray an ugly stone statue didn't seem like much of a compliment to Lauper.

But Cyndi -- who still dreamed of achieved screen immortality as a character in a Disney animated film -- shrugged off the perceived insult and threw herself into the audition process. She did a reading with Disney's casting department, then met with the film's directors, Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale. They liked the energy and humor Lauper brought to the part. A week later, Cyndi was hired.

Now keep in mind that Ms. Lauper was brought on board fairly early during "Hunchaback"'s production. Tom Hulce, Demi Moore and Kevin Kline hadn't even been hired at this point. At the time, Wise and Trousdale still weren't quite sure how they were doing with the film. Given how serious the original Victor Hugo novel was, they knew that a new film version would need considerable comic relief -- particularly if they wanted to make the project palatable to modern audiences. But what sort of jokes should they do to lighten this somber story? And where?

Wise and Trousdale felt that one of the keys to making "Hunchback" work as animation was to give Quasimodo some silly sidekicks. These characters would have to serve two purposes: 1) Give the Hunchback someone to talk with and confide in while he was locked away in his bell tower, and -- more importantly -- 2) Make Quasimodo seem more lovable. A person with loyal, funny sidekicks has got to be lovable, right?
Hoping to find the right ingredients, the "Hunchback" development team spent a few months tossing around sidekick ideas for the hunchback. One concept was to have Quasi befriended all of the birds that lived up in the rafters of the cathedral with him. Just like in Cinderella, his little feathered friends would have helped the hunchback through his day -- doing little chores for him, cheering him up, cheering him on. You get the idea.

But -- because this same bird friend idea had already been so thoroughly played out in Disney's 1950 animated feature, "Cinderella" -- Wise and Trousdale opted not to go forward with this story idea (though you can still see a hint of this character development in Quasi's interaction with the fledgling pigeon at the beginning of the film).

Then the directors toyed with the idea of having Quasi actually be friends with the bells in the tower; this was something that Hugo himself had touched on in the original novel. He had the hunchback name many of the bells in the belfry -- little Sophia, Jean Marie, Anne Marie, Louise Marie and Big Marie -- as well as converse with the bells. So it didn't seem like too much of a leap for the filmmakers to have the bells talking back to Quasi.

But -- again -- Wise and Trousdale weren't all that anxious to repeat something that had already been in done in a Disney film. As the directors of "Beauty and the Beast," these guys had already made a candelabra, a mantleclock, and a teapot talk. So turning a 10 ton bell into Quasi's close intimate friend didn't seem like that much of a challenge to them.

So that left the gargoyles -- those strange stone statues that lined the parapets of Notre Dame. Wise and Trousdale liked the idea of giving Quasi some misfit gargoyles -- statues so ugly that the stonemason didn't dare put them out on display -- to hang out with. The directors and their "Hunchback" development team knocked around a few ideas and came away with some unique names and personalities for these proposed gargoyle characters. They were:

Chaney: the big fat stupid one. Think of Pumbaa, only carved in stone.
Laughton: the haughty, stiff, proper one. A Felix Ungar frieze.
Quinn: the young, kind-hearted nurturing one. (This was the character Disney had hired Lauper to do the voice for.)

Okay ... I know. You're probably already saying to yourself: "But Jim. Those aren't the names I remember from Disney's animated 'Hunchback' movie. Weren't the gargoyles called Victor, Hugo and Laverne?"

Yes they were ... eventually.

But -- when Disney's "Hunchback" project started out -- Kirk and Trousdale wanted to call the movie's gargoyle characters Chaney, Laughton, and Quinn. Why? Well, if things had worked out the way Kirk and Gary had intended, these character's names would have made a great in-joke as well as paid tribute to three great actors who already had strong ties to this story.

How so? Well, Lon Chaney starred in the first version of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," a silent movie Universal Studio produced in 1923. Charles Laughton appeared in the first sound version of "Hunchback," a black and white film that RKO Studios produced in 1939. And Anthony Quinn made the first color film version of "Hunchback," which Allied Artists released in 1957.

Chaney. Laughton. Quinn. Get it now?

Wise and Trousdale thought that -- by using these names -- they'd come up with a really clever way to pay tribute to these actors who had already done such a superb job portraying Victor Hugo's tragic hero. Unfortunately, Disney's legal department thought otherwise.

The Mouse's lawyers were worried that Chaney and Laughton's heirs might be offended by this gesture and decide to sue the studio. They were particularly concerned about Anthony Quinn -- who is very much alive and had a reputation for suing folks at the drop of a hat -- coming after the company with an army of attorneys.

So Disney's lawyers told the "Hunchback" development team that there was no way that they'd be allowed to name their gargoyle characters after any actors -- living or dead. But Kirk and Trousdale were really reluctant to give up on this gag / tribute. So, for a short time, the "Hunchback" gargoyle characters were called Lon, Charles and Anthony. Surely Disney's legal department wouldn't have a problem if the development team named the characters by using only the first names of the actors who'd played Quasimodo?

They could. They did. Disney's legal department said "No" again. Which left the production team with three gargoyles to name.

The Victor and Hugo idea came very quickly. After all, the names paid tribute to the author of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." More to the point, he was a dead guy -- so Hugo wasn't around to try and sue Disney. The legal department LOVED this idea.

But what to call that third gargoyle? Wise and Trousdale pondered over this one for a while. As written, the character was a female as well as being a member of a trio. The name they came up with had to fit the character. More importantly, it had to be funny.

Finally, Kirk was the one who came up with the solution. He recalled the Andrew Sisters, a legendary musical trio from the 1940s -- best known for their performance of the "Boogy Woogy Bugle Boy of Company B."

And what were the sisters' names? Patty, Maxine and Laverne. Laverne seemed like the funniest name of the three, so that's how Cyndi Lauper's character became known as Laverne.

Only now ... it wasn't so certain that Lauper's character was going to stay Lauper's character. Cyndi was doing wonderful work in her recording sessions. Good, clear, sharp professional stuff. The problem was that the script -- as originally written -- wasn't working. The way Lauper was portraying the character of Laverne sounded like a contemporary of Quasimodo. Someone his own age, who understood his need to get out of the bell tower and explore that great, big world "Out There."

The trouble was that Cyndi's youthful voice sounded too youthful. Instead of coming across as a friend who was offering Quasi wise counsel, this earlier version of Laverne sounded like some young kid urging Quasimodo to bust out of the belfry and go party. Take a walk on the wild side. Which was not how Wise and Trousdale wanted Laverne to sound, because -- in the original version of the script -- this was the sort of stuff Hugo was telling Quasi.

As you might have guessed, Wise and Trousdale were having script trouble with their short fat gargoyle too. They had hired veteran sitcom performer Sam McMurray -- best known for his work on "The Tracey Ullman Show" -- to voice Hugo. And Sam was doing a great job with Hugo as the character was written then: sort of a stone version of John Belushi's Bluto character from the 1978 comedy, "Animal House." A big gross funny guy.

But perhaps too gross. As test versions of Disney's "Hunchback" were assembled -- using images off of the pre-production storyboards as well as audio from those early recording sessions -- it became obvious that the gargoyle trio just wasn't jelling. Charles Kimbrough's work as Victor seemed right on the money. Kimbrough gave his gargoyle character the same prissy air he brought to his stuffy newscaster character, Jim Dial, on the CBS sitcom, "Murphy Brown." This was exactly what Wise and Trousdale wanted. But there was something obviously wrong with Hugo and Laverne.

So the "Hunchback" development team reworked the script, then called Lauper and McMurray back to do some additional recording sessions. When the tapes from these sessions didn't work out either, Kirk and Gary made another stab at fixing the script, then called Cyndi and Sam back in again to have another stab at the material.

When the tapes from these sessions fell flat as well, Wise and Trousdale had to face facts. The problem wasn't the material. They'd just hired the wrong actors to perform their script.

It was now obvious that Lauper and McMurray needed to be replaced. While nobody likes to make phone calls like this, Gary and Kirk personally called Cyndi and Sam to let them know that they were off the project. Wise and Trousdale apologized profusely, explaining to Lauper and McMurray that they'd both done fine work. It was just that the characters of Laverne and Hugo -- as originally written -- weren't working. Disney wanted to see if getting a fresh start on the characters, bringing in some new actors to portray these parts, might be able to get "Hunchback" back on track.

McMurray took this sad bit of news stoically, like the industry veteran that he is. But Lauper was heartbroken. She had pursued a part in a Disney animated film for nearly a decade. And Cyndi had been on board "Hunchback" almost from the project's inception -- long before Hulce, Moore, or Kline had been hired. Now she was out of the movie. Her dream job gone. Needless to say, Lauper took her dismissal very badly.

Wise and Trousdale felt awful about dashing Cyndi's hopes for animation immortality. But they also had a film that was in production that was in serious trouble. Sometimes tough decisions have to be made. So they put the memory of Lauper's tears behind them and tried to figure out how to fix Hugo and Laverne.

Based on the early test footage, it was fairly obvious that one of Wise and Trousdale's biggest problems is that they'd just gone too far with Hugo. The fat obnoxious gargoyle was just coming across as too gross for audiences to warm up to. When recasting Hugo, Gary and Kirk needed to find someone who was gifted at playing annoying but amusing characters that still managed to hold audience's sympathies. But who had talent enough to pull that amazing feat off?

Luckily, they didn't have to look much further than the "Must See TV" line-up Thursday nights on NBC. There was Jason Alexander -- playing his heart out as the neurotic but still somewhat loveable George Costanzo on "Seinfeld." Here clearly was the man who could pull off Hugo, having already walked that thin line between amusing and annoying for five seasons of television.

When Alexander got the call to come out to Burbank and audition, he was thrilled. Just like Cyndi, Jason had been trying for years to land a part in a Disney animated film. Previously, he had tried out for the roles of Lefou and Cogsworth in "Beauty and the Beast" as well as Timon and Pumbaa in "The Lion King." But the closest that Alexander had come to making his toon dreams come true was landing the role of the comic villain, Abis Mal, in the 1994 direct-to-video sequel to "Aladdin," "The Return of Jafar."

But here ... finally ... was his big break. So Jason zoomed over to Disney Feature Animation and wowed Wise and Trousdale with his audition. Alexander immediately got Hugo, figuring out -- almost instinctively -- how far he could take the character without making him too obnoxious. With Jason voicing this grubby little gargoyle, Hugo finally worked. Funny but feisty, Alexander's gargoyle contrasted beautifully with Kimbrough's tight, prissy portrayal of Victor. These two characters could now be counted on to produce huge laughs for the movie.

So now what do Gary and Kirk do with Laverne?

It should be noted here that -- at this point in the production -- Wise and Trousdale were under tremendous pressure to cut the third gargoyle out of the picture. Given how well Victor and Hugo were now working, Laverne suddenly seemed unnecessary. A third wheel, if you will. Dropping that character would have saved the film a lot of money, as well as freeing up a lot more screen time for the two other gargoyles to cavort.

But Gary and Kirk felt Laverne was crucial to the film. Hugo kept urging Quasi to take a chance, go for the gusto. Victor was the voice of prudence and caution. Wise and Trousdale knew that their lead character needed someone in the middle, someone with the common touch who'd tell Quasi just to listen to his heart.

So "Hunchback" Head of Story Will Finn took a stab at rethinking Laverne. Working with Trousdale, they re-imagined the female gargoyle not so much as a nurturing contemporary of Quasi but as a wise if somewhat crazy old grandmother. "The sort of woman who had a million cats and sat out on her front porch, cradling a shotgun" was how Gary liked to describe her.

This new version of Laverne looked to be just what Wise and Trousdale were looking for. Still funny, but obviously different enough from Victor and Hugo. Plus this rethink of the character -- playing her as more of a favorite old aunt of Quasi -- allowed Laverne to deliver that common sense advice that the lonely young hunchback so desperately needed to hear.

Having finally fixed this troubled character, Gary and Kirk were saddled with an even bigger problem: Who do they find to portray this cranky but kind-hearted old gargoyle?

It was just about this time that the sequel to Disney's 1992 hit, "Sister Act" -- "Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit" -- was hitting theaters. And there in a supporting role as feisty old Sister Mary Lazarus was veteran character actress Mary Wickes.

If ever you could call someone an old show business trouper, it was Mary Wickes. Her career started 'way back in the 1940s, when Wickes played second banana to Abbott and Costello in their 1941 Universal Studios comedy, "Hold that Ghost." For the next five decades, Wickes never stopped working. She did TV with Lucille Ball, sketch comedy with Bob Hope, movie musicals with Bing Crosby, Broadway, commercials. You name it. Mary Wickes did it.

As soon as Disney Feature Animation's casting office pointed out Wickes to Wise and Trousdale, they knew that this might finally be the person who could pull off Laverne. Wickes' reedy mid-western voice along with her crack comic timing might just be the combination Gary and Kirk were looking for to make their third gargoyle work.

Wickes came in for her audition in early 1993. While basically a novice at feature animation, having a little voice work for TV animation in the early 1990s, Mary still nailed the part. Wickes brought to Laverne everything Wise and Trousdale had hoped she would: the humor, the heart, as well as a real sense of wisdom.

As soon as they heard Wickes' audition tape, Gary and Kirk offered her the part. Being the old show business hand that she was, Mary was happy to just to be working. In spite of being well over 80 years old at the time, Wickes never let her age slow her down. Mary was on time to every session and gave 100% every time she was behind the mike.

Now with Alexander and Wickes on board, the gargoyle scenes in "Hunchback" finally started firing on all four cylinders. Here was the humor and the heart that Wise and Trousdale had been looking for all those months. Finally these early crucial scenes in the film -- where Quasi revealed his longing to leave the bell tower and journey "Out There" into the world -- began to play properly.

In fact, the Victor, Hugo and Laverne sequences began working so well that -- late in production, as "Hunchback" hit a trouble spot -- Wise and Trousdale turned to the gargoyles to help bail them out.

Okay. Remember the film? The trouble spot comes up well into the third act of the film. Frollo is burning down Paris in his desperate search for Esmerelda. Phoebus has been shot in the back with an arrow for defying an order from the crazed cleric. Esmerelda ends up rescuing the wounded soldier from a watery grave. Meanwhile, Quasi sit high in his belltower, wringing his hands as he rings his bells, wondering if he'll ever see the beautiful gypsy girl alive again.

Sounds kind of depressing, doesn't it?

If ever a film needed to be lightened up for a while, it was Disney's "Hunchback of Notre Dame" at this particular point in the plot. So Wise and Trousdale turned their gaze back on their comic relief and thought: "Maybe it's time to give these guys a song."

So they asked composer Alan Menken and lyricist Stephen Schwarz to come up with a comic number for the gargoyles to sing to Quasi, as they tried to buck up their pal's spirits as well as distract him -- at least for a moment -- away from his concerns for Esmerelda's safety. Schwarz then came up with the idea that -- in Hugo, Victor and Laverne's eyes -- the hunchback was a pretty fine looking fellow.

Out of that notion came the showstopper, "A Guy Like You," one of the wildest, funniest numbers ever to be presented in a Disney animated film. Not since Ward Kimball's eye-popping work in the title tune from the studio's 1944 "The Three Caballeros" has a musical number featured so many gags. That song did just what it was supposed to: diverted Quasi's attention -- as well as the audience's -- from all the troubles in the film for a few minutes.

This song made the movie all the more heart wrenching when Esmerelda showed up -- just moments later -- with the injured Phoebus in tow. As the gypsy girl revealed her love for the wounded soldier, our hearts immediately went out to Quasimodo. Just seconds earlier, his friends had been assuring the hunchback that Esmerelda had to love him. Now here was the truth, slapping him in the face. It was brutal but still masterful storytelling by Wise and Trousdale. You'd have to had a heart of stone to not have been moved by that scene.

Sadly, "A Guy Like You" would turn out to be the very last thing Mary Wickes worked on. In October 1995, just weeks after recording the song, Wickes passed away quietly in her sleep.

Wickes' death saddened the "Hunchback" production team, but also left them with a bit of a problem. Prior to her untimely passing, Mary had recorded almost everything that Disney needed to finish the film. But there were still a few additional pick-up lines Wise and Trousdale needed recorded to finish up Laverne's speaking part as well as a couple of lines from "A Guy Like You" that the directors wanted smoothed over. But -- with Wickes gone -- how were they ever going to get this additional dialogue recorded?

Since there was obviously no way to replace a talent like Mary Wickes, Disney began searching for a Mary Wickes sound-alike. Happily, the Mouse found one in former child star Jane Withers. Withers -- best known these days for her work as Josephine the Plumber, the spokesperson for Comet Cleanser -- is a gifted mimic. More to the point, she was a lifelong friend of Mary Wickes. So she could do a killer impression of Wickes' reedy twang without even trying.

Withers was glad to help Disney out of its predicament, both for the opportunity to work as well as sort of pay tribute to her longtime friend. Jane came in quietly and quickly recorded the few little snippets of things Wise and Trousdale needed to finish up Laverne's role in "Hunchback." Withers was so good at doing Wickes that it's damn near impossible to tell which actress did which part in the movie.

With that ... the gargoyle portions of "Hunchback" were completed. The finished film was released in the summer of 1996. While not a huge hit like "The Lion King," Disney's "Hunchback of Notre Dame" got respectful reviews and did okay at the box office.

But one guy really fell in love with this movie: Disney chairman Michael Eisner. "Hunchback" is -- hands down -- Eisner's favorite film among all the animated cartoons that Disney Studio has created in the 15 years he's been running the company. Michael liked this movie so much that he asked Disney Theatrical Production to create a stage version of the show.

Under the direction of noted Broadway playwright / director James Lapine, a stage version of Disney's "Hunchback" was produced last year. But not in New York. Instead, this live stage version of the movie musical had its world premiere in the summer of 1999 in Berlin. (Why Berlin? Because -- of all the countries in all the world -- the one place where Disney's animated version of "Hunchback" was a true blockbuster at the box office was Germany. So -- when it came time to roll out the live stage version of the show -- Berlin seemed like the obvious place to go.)

The live stage version of Disney's "Der Glockner Von Notre Dame" proved to be very popular with German audiences. It played to mostly sold out houses at the Musical Theater Berlin for three years before finally closing in June 2002.

And -- even as you read this -- Neal Meron and Craig Zadan of Storyline Entertainment are prepping a live action TV movie version of Disney's "Hunchback of Notre Dame" (which is expected to air on ABC during the 2003 - 2004 television season). And since Neal and Craig are reportedly right in the middle of casting their version of "Hunchback," I was kind of hoping that they'd give Cyndi Lauper a chance to audition for the role of Laverne.

I mean, come on. Fair's fair. Given all the heartbreak Lauper went through during the production of the animated version of "Hunchback," it only stands to reason that Cyndi at least deserves a shot at playing a gargoyle in the TV movie version of "Hunchback."

I mean, it isn't starring in a Disney animated cartoon. But it's close.

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