Film plus musical theater = rockin' Vox
People going to the Cutler Majestic Theatre to check out the combination film, and theater production of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” might at first think they’ve mistakenly wandered into a rock concert. There’s multilevel staging, instruments are set up, three screens loom at the back.
But then the lights go down, and the stage becomes a cathedral. The band starts playing, the silent 1923 Lon Chaney film begins, and characters enter the stage as their counterparts are being introduced on the screen.
No, you’re not having an acid flashback: Vox Lumiere has landed in Boston. The Los Angeles-based company — the creation of Kevin Saunders Hayes — brings this spectacular theatrical treatment to a number of silent films, including “Metropolis,” “Phantom of the Opera” and “Peter Pan.”
“I write instrumental music and songs,” says Hayes, who at one point made his living playing the tuba. “Writing music is a strange skill set to have, and it’s a pretty esoteric thing to do for a living, and I’m very fortunate to get to do it.”
Hayes went to college on a vocal scholarship, but regularly learned how to play different instruments.
“Then I discovered that what I really liked to do best was write music,” he says. After a stint as a musician on the road, “I moved to New York to see if I could write with the big boys.”
Hayes knocked on doors, cassette tapes of his work in hand, and landed both staff work and freelance gigs writing music for TV, films and commercials. At night, he and some friends were writing musical theater pieces, finding bars that would host them, and putting on shows.
Just before moving to Los Angeles, where he hoped to write music for TV, film and theater, Hayes was rummaging through one of New York’s many 99-cent stores.
“I stumbled across a bin of video cassette tapes that said ‘silent films, one dollar’,” he says. “I remember standing in the aisle, going, ‘Hmmm.’ I picked up five of them and took them home. Three of them — ‘Metropolis,’ ‘Phantom’ and ‘’Hunchback’ — were later turned into shows.”
The first was “Metropolis.” Hayes’ idea was to watch the silent films, try to figure out what the characters were thinking and feeling, then create a score — including songs — that would help tell the story.
“As I watch, I think, ‘This part feels like a song to me,’ or ‘this part feels like the story would be best told just with the instruments’,” he explains. “There’s no speaking at all, and you can’t have someone singing straight through, all the time. So it’s a combination of mapping things out.”
Hayes recalls that for “Metropolis,” he originally just had some friends come over to his place in L.A. to sing the parts he had written.
“I told them it was this thing I was experimenting with,” he says. “And we had one of those 3 o’clock in the morning ideas: ‘Wouldn’t it be fun if we did this live?’ ”
Not long afterward, a phone came from New York, via some friends of friends. Someone said to Hayes, “I hear you’re working on a new score for ‘Metropolis.’ I’ve got this film festival. Will you come perform for us?’
Hayes assembled eight singers, a chorus and a band. He conducted. They flew to New York, and brought the house down in a concert version of “Metropolis,” with the film playing behind them.
“Then I started getting more calls,” he says. “We even went to France and did it at the Avignon Opera House. Afterward the director of the opera house came up to me and said, ‘So what are you doing for us next year?’ I had been working on ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame,’ and realized that it would be great to do it in France, so I told him ‘Hunchback.’ And then it was time to finish working on it.”
Hayes and Vox Lumiere have come a long way since then. He liked the concert versions of the productions, but wanted to give them more heft.
“I kept thinking the actors had to interact with the movie more,” he says. “There are ways to help tell the story better. What could we do with the lighting and the staging of the actors? Sometimes we want people in the audience watching the singers, at other times we want them watching the movie. And the band is always right onstage performing. So that’s how we ended up where we are now.”
Vox Lumiere’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”
Cutler Majestic Theatre in Boston