BWW Interview: THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME's Julissa Sabino Opens up About Her Journey as Esmeralda
At the end of this month, prolific Atlanta leading lady Julissa Sabino is stepping into the shoes of the most un-princess-like of Disney heroines. Most recently seen reprising her role as Vanessa in Aurora Theatre's IN THE HEIGHTS this summer, Sabino returns to the Aurora stage as Esmeralda in THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME under the direction of IN THE HEIGHTS' Justin Anderson. Below, Sabino shares with us how she has learned from her gypsy character, what a dream come true addition to her 2017 this role has been, and much more!
We're so excited for the Southeastern regional premiere of THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME at the end of this month at Aurora!
Yeah, so cool right? I can't believe the Aurora's doing it! It's awesome. I used to have an Esmeralda backpack when I was a little kid, and the little front pocket was a tambourine, and it used to make all the noise. All of my friends hated it, but you couldn't tell me anything because I was living my life with that backpack!
Wow! And now you get to be Esmeralda yourself!
Yeah, it's really, really great. I've seen the sketches for the costumes for this show, and they bought all of this fabric from a traditional Indian store, so all of the fabrics are beautiful colors and flowing and it looks great! It looks like all very deep, kind of Pocahontas colors. It's one of the most beautiful costume and set plots I've ever laid my eyes on.
With your history with the character, particularly your Esmeralda backpack as a child, how did you feel when you found out you would be playing Esmeralda?
It was not real to me. I mean, I got the phone call, and I was like, "Really? Are you sure?!" Any show where there's only one girl, there are so many people in town who are completely fit to play Esmeralda. And there are people in this cast who are completely fit to play Esmeralda. Gosh, I love the Aurora so much, and I'm excited to go back and bust my butt really hard to make this show. I'm so excited. This year has been insanely a dream, just getting to play Rizzo, and now getting to play Esmeralda. It's unreal!
So how have you been liking the new songs, the ones that were not in the movie?
I like them! I like them a lot! I think I'm going to like them even more with our band. I always like what things sound like live in a theatre, I wonder why! So I'm sure we know it's all going to sound gorgeous. I'm really lucky because for my track, Esmeralda, it's clearly written as an alto for this show. Thank heavens, because that never happens!
So really Haden Rider, the guy who's playing Quasimodo, has all the high notes. Honesty, it's kind of like a cake walk vocally for me, but I'm excited to hang out! He's written essentially as a soprano Quasi, so I get to sing under him all the time. If he's not the cherry on top- I mean, everyone's going to fall in love with him! When they pulled out the Quasi costume at the photoshoot, I freaked out. I think that'll be really exciting for everyone to see. And he's really agile and strong, so it's really cool.
What have you been learning about your character so far?
I think every generation has its "gypsies," you know what I mean? Every society has its kind of gypsies, who people decide, "Ok this group of people who have decided to not live their ways confined to the social constructs that we've created, we're going to outcast them and say that what they're doing is wrong," and I think that's present now. That can either be the super liberal people or the hippies, or whatever. There are so many different versions of that, and I think that sometimes those people, when you take the time out to just sit and converse, can be the most empathetic and the most understanding, and the most in a position to help, to offer you a solution you haven't thought of yet!
And that's what I think is so cool about Esmeralda, that there are so many perceptions of her, and yet somehow she doesn't let that define her or stop her, which I think is way stronger than I am! I think the Disney character was one of the stronger women examples I had growing up, and I think that's true of the character in this HUNCHBACK too.
Justin told me, "We're gonna want shoulders back, chest up." That's such a position of strength, but it's also very vulnerable way to stand if you ever try, just with your heart out. It takes an almost slightly crazy person, but also a really wonderful, strong person. I'm excited to play with all the layers that Esmeralda has.
So which things from this production would you say are specifically the most different from the movie?
If there's one word to describe this show, I'm going to go with "dark." There's really nothing Disney-fied about this version. When people are asking if they can bring their children, I would say "No" personally, but I'm sure there's an age gap where that's an ok thing. There are some heavy, heavy motifs with Frollo and Esmeralda and other things like that. It's also based on Victor Hugo's book, so it's nice that you still get the music from Alan Menken, from the Disney movie, and lyrics are written by Stephen Schwartz. So you still get this light music with a really dark book [laughs]. That's kind of how the worlds are married together. Justin Anderson is directing that. There's nothing I don't trust him with, so I'm really excited to do that.
In this production you get a lot more of the backstory to Frollo. I mean, the first time I read it, I felt for him more. There was more empathy immediately created for Frollo than in the movie, because in the movie you don't really see where he comes from. It's kind of that whole Scrooge thing. Once you see his past, it's like, "Oh, well he's not just evil. He's become this way." So I think that's one of the major differences from the movie to this version. It's clearly a lot darker. So all of those dark things that are slightly like that in the movie are completely explored in this version.
So what's the most special thing about this show so far?
I think, you know it's gonna be a show that you can kind of just sit into. It's not campy, it's not hokey, and I think they just cast such insanely good actors, the fact that David de Vries is in it and Kevin Harry, Lowrey Brown, and there were some people who were in the IN THE HEIGHTS ensemble. The girl who played ChaCha in GREASE [at Serenbe] is in it, so it's just an awesome cast just like IN THE HEIGHTS. I don't really see how it can go wrong, given the casting!
THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME opens Aurora Theatre's 2017-2018 season with an end-of-summer run, July 20-August 27. Click here for more information and to buy tickets!
Based on the Victor Hugo novel, this epic musical traces the journey of Quasimodo, a deformed bell ringer in a cold, cathedral tower as he discovers his inner strength. His guardian, Archdeacon Frollo, seethes as all of Paris readies for the annual Feast of Fools. Frollo becomes obsessed with scouring the Gypsies from the city, even as he lusts after the beautiful dancer Esmeralda. This beloved medieval love story examines, "What makes a monster and what makes a man?" and features a lush score by Alan Menken (Disney's The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast) and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz (Wicked, Pippin).
Photo credit: Chris Bartelski