How Does a Hunchback Dance? Ask Chase Brock
Chase Brock is the kind of guy who could make anyone feel like an underachiever. He made his Broadway debut as a performer in 2000 in Susan Stroman's revival of "The Music Man" and has since worked as a choreographer on more than a dozen Broadway and Off-Broadway shows (including the reboot of the notorious "Spider Man: Turn Off the Dark"), as well as formed his own modern dance company, The Chase Brock Experience.
Now, the 32-year-old wunderkind has reached his own personal nirvana, as choreographer of Disney's new stage musical "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," which debuted at San Diego's La Jolla Playhouse in December and is now in previews at New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse, running through March 29. The show has a book by Peter Parnell, based on the novel by Victor Hugo, a score by Oscar winners Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz, and is directed by Schwartz's son, Scott.
"I have been a lifelong Disney fan, and have a real passion for their careful, respectful stewardship of their beloved properties," says Brock. "This project is the happy result of over three years of meetings with their development department, and I couldn't be happier than to have been chosen to work on this particular show. The score is so epic and sweeping, with this beautiful marriage of lyrics and music. I've loved it for so long."
As Brock relates, working on "Hunchback" has already been the high point of his career in musical theater for a variety of reasons. "This has been a rare event where the process has been lovely and harmonious. There has been very little ego around the table, which is a striking contrast to some other projects I've worked on," he says. "I think we're all proud of the work, which communicates the story we've wanted to tell and which we all feel connected to. And the audience response at La Jolla has been so positive and passionate. Yet we've learned so much from them, especially about the best way to tell this story both effectively and emotionally. One of the great things is that the show is inspired by both the Disney animated film and the novel, so all of us, especially Peter, have been encouraged to restore certain elements from the book that weren't in the movie."
As a choreographer, a large part of Brock's job has been working with the character of the gypsy dancer, Esmeralda, played by Ciara Renee. "It is critical not just to show that Esmeralda is a great dancer, but to show how her spell affects all the men in the show - Quasimodo, Clopin, Frollo - and especially the real threat she poses to Frollo, which puts him over the edge," he says. "And I just love working with Ciara. I'm the new president of her fan club! This role really suits her both vocally and otherwise, and watching her you understand why all the men on stage are bewitched by her."
Even more thrilling for Brock has been collaborating with openly gay actor Michael Arden, who plays Quasimodo, since the men have been friends since they were teenagers. "We met when he was in high school, and we've stayed close for the past 15 years. I can still remember sitting in his dorm room at Juilliard and dreaming of something like this," says Brock. "He's an amazing collaborator, so generous, and willing to try anything. It wasn't so much about creating choreography for him; it's more like we were all his first audience, which then led to a lot of feedback and conversation. He has so many smart instincts about his own physicality."
Before throwing himself back into work for the Paper Mill run, Brock enjoyed spending his time off in the homes he shares with his husband, music director Rob Berman (who did the dance arrangements on "Hunchback"), as well as preparing a workshop production of Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater's new musical "Alice by Heart" (loosely based on "Alice in Wonderland") and a lab of the musical "Fat Camp" with Scott Schwartz.
His own company is on break right now, but he looks forward to reconnecting with it when time allows. "It's been so refreshing to be able to go back and forth between both worlds," he notes. "I have found a nice balance between the modern dance world, which is small and where I basically act also as actor and director, and musical theater, where I have all these wonderful tools and toys at my disposal."
And whether or not "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" proves to be Brock's ticket back to Broadway is up in the air. But he says, either result will suit him just fine. "Anytime you do a show that's been helped by Disney, the B-word comes up. People were talking about Broadway before we even cast the first workshop," he notes. "But if I've learned anything in the 15 years I've been in this business is that you shouldn't get ahead of yourself and your job is just to make the best show you can."