For the first time ever, a deaf actor is playing a classical deaf character
It’s not very common to see deaf actors having leading roles in plays. However, Disney just gave a huge step forward in promoting deaf talent. Even though this is not their first time having deaf actors, this is the first time ever, both on stage and screen that an iconic deaf character is being played by a deaf actor.
Disney hired a Deaf actor for 2016’s Music Circus, featuring The Hunchback of Notre Dame. John McGinty plays the role of Quasimodo. If you’re not familiar with the story, this Victor Hugo novel from 1831 is centered on the deaf and deformed Quasimodo. He is described as a “creation of the devil” and “hideous” with a huge wart covering his left eye and a severe hunchback. Because of his looks, he is abandoned as a baby and adopted and raised by Claude Frollo, the Archdeacon of Notre Dame. Quasimodo is the bell-ringer of the Cathedral for all of his life, which is exactly what makes him deaf – the extremely loud and constant noise of the bells.
The play is focused on how Quasimodo is loyal to Frollo, doing everything he asks. However, a time comes when he falls in love with Esmeralda who is simply terrified of him as well as repulsed. He saves her from death once, however, when they were least expecting, she is seized and hanged for witchcraft. The devastating thing about the story is that it was his master Frollo who had her killed. Quasimodo feels betrayed and murdered Frollo, finishing the play with Quasimodo dying next to Esmeralda’s body.
Even though this story is dated from 1831, there are many situations and lessons we can relate to in our current times. The prominent lesson is the fact that most people still discriminate others based on appearance and disability. No matter how good or bad-looking someone is, this doesn’t make them a good or a bad person as the handsome yet cold-hearted Phoebus proves in the play. There are lovely individuals who happen to be deaf as well as there are terrible individuals who happen to not be deaf, as Quasimodo shows. This is what made the story a timeless classic and reproduced on screen and stage over and over again.
This is also why it’s important that such a big company as Disney has taken this step; especially because it’s not easy for any actor to play Quasimodo. However, for a deaf actor to play it it’s even more challenging and raw. John McGinty has experience performing on professional stages and even he says this is a new challenge, he speaks his own lines and signs during the songs. The role of Billy in an all-hearing production of Tribes was easier for McGinty compared to Quasimodo’s in Hunchback of Notre Dame. He only had 9 days of rehearsals with his singing voice actor, Dino Nicandros at the La Mirada theater. In Sacramento, McGinty’s singing voice was Jim Hogan at the California Musical Theater. They had to work closely together in a short window of time to ensure that they are seamless on stage and their tempo is right in such a short time!
At 30 years old, McGinty relates on a personal level to the character Quasimodo. McGinty reveals that he feels he is living a life of exclusion and being set apart for his outward identity. McGinty describes it: “it’s one of those things of being a deaf individual in a hearing world. I feel alone. I feel depressed sometimes. He’s [Quasimodo] so innocent and tries to open his world…that relates to my life because here I am signing, and I really desire communication with the hearing world.”
The Hunchback of Notre Dame premiered at the California Musical Theater of Sacramento on August 23 and traveled to Los Angeles to perform at the La Mirada theater.
Editor’s Note 10/4/16: Corrections were made regarding the singing voice actors; Dino Nicandros is the singer for the LA performance while Jim Hogan performed in Sacramento.
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