We Talked Meatballs, Big Bells and ‘Hunchback’ With Dennis DeYoung and Michael Unger

You can tell these two have been friends for a long time in this Q&A.

Dennis DeYoung – yes, the singer/songwriter/keyboardist for Styx – is bringing his musical adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame to Milwaukee with the help of Michael Unger, the artistic director at Skylight Music Theatre. 

The two have been friends since a chance encounter 20 years ago, and now they’re putting together the Skylight’s biggest production to date. 

The show runs May 20-June 12. For tickets and more information, go to the Skylight’s website

We talked to the friends ahead of the musical’s opening night. Here’s what they had to say about the show, local talent and whether they’d ever do it again: 


Q&A

Milwaukee Magazine: You two have been friends since 1994. Tell me, how does the Artistic Director at Milwaukee’s Skylight Music Theatre come to know rock legend Dennis DeYoung?

Michael Unger: He rides his bicycle to work one day and recognizes Dennis DeYoung. 

Dennis DeYoung: I had a name tag on that said “Hello, I’m Dennis DeYoung from Styx. I hope you remember me, I’m famous.”

MU: And I just told him what a Styx fan I was. And that was, I figured, the end of the conversation. And then he said, “Do you like musicals?” I said, “I do like musicals a lot.” And he said, “Well, I’m writing a musical version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Might you be interested in hearing it when I’m finished?” I was like, “Of course!” So we exchanged numbers. … And 20 years later, here we are.

DD: What Michael doesn’t tell you is the thing that really sold him on this musical was when I sang for Esmeralda, I had a beaded bustier.

MU: What sold me on it is that I love Styx. … And to have a musical that tells this fabulous story with Dennis’ melodies, it’s just too good to be true.

Alanis Sophia (Esmerelda); Photo by Mark Frohna

MM: And about that first listen to the score. Dennis, what was it like to share it with someone outside of your family and main community? And Michael, what was it like to hear it? 

DD: What I had was a description of the scene with very minimal dialogue. And then I said, “then they sing here,” and that’s what Michael heard. It wasn’t until later that I worked with the scenes more intensely and worked with a very good dramaturge in general. And we came up with the book, the initial book, and so Michael didn’t even hear that. 

MU: It was ear candy times 25. There were all these great melodies that are like hummable cookies, stick-in-your-ear, but like, in all the good ways. And melody after melody just blew me away. 

MM: What drew you to Hunchback?

DD: I was in [Jesus Christ] Superstar in 1993 … and I realized that these classic storylines are great for the kind of music that I would write. Now, I can write all kinds of music – you’re talking to the guy who wrote “Babe” and “Mr. Roboto” – I think that’s a nice spread. What I do best is to create melody. 

MM: So why for Hunchback did you land on pop melodies? Did you consider any other genres for the show? 

DD: Here it is: I was looking – like all us cheapskates do – for a book that you don’t have to pay an author. … That’s why the French guys did Les Mis[érables] because they said, “we’re not paying [Victor] Hugo, he’s dead.” So I just thought Hugo, what else did he write? Hunchback. I know the Hunchback! I’ve seen the movie, the ’39 movie with Charles Laughton and Maureen O’Hara, when I was a kid. And I thought, “Hey, let me look at that, let me read that book.” That’s how it started. So I went and bought five different translations and finally I got one in English so it was easy to read. I love that joke. Michael, don’t you love that joke? 

MU: I do. Every time I hear it, I laugh! 

DD: I didn’t like the book. But I love the character so I thought, “What if?” … I came up with my own idea, because Hugo clearly states why he did it in the book. But for me, I meant this to be the story of a man who was well-intentioned, with a good heart, who ends up being a priest, not by choice, but by circumstance. And we follow him on his fall from grace. When he starts out, adopting this deformed child, raising him and loving him as his son. He’s not the one-dimensional villain we see in so many portrayals. For me he’s just a guy. 

MM: What can you tell me about the production? And what are you most excited for audiences to see?

MU: I’m most excited for audiences to see this story told with Dennis’ music, honestly. … I’m excited for people to experience the story in a new way. Because lots of people have seen the movies – lots of people have seen the Disney version. I think a lot of people expect to see characters behave a certain way. And I think you’ll walk in and be transported, because the score is so phenomenal. … We also have a very special cast. I mean, is it a dreamy, dreamy cast, from Opera singers to pop singers to phenomenal actors who sing, a real showcase of talent. And I think one of the largest casts we’ve had at Skylight, certainly in my time here. And one of the largest productions scenically. … There are only four or five pieces, but they are massive. They’re huge. The bells are bigger than like, literally taller than me. But they tell the story in a really epic way, which is the way Dennis’ music is portrayed. It’s the way the story was written. So all this epic-ness comes together, and I think it will be a great experience for audiences.

DD: Hearing us talk about it might be better than the musical. Expect to come in like this, “What is he talking about? These songs aren’t that good. And the bells – I’ve seen bigger bells.” 

MU: “I’ve Seen Bigger Bells,” that’s the headline. That’s a good headline.

Alanis Sophia (Esmerelda), Ben Gulley (Quasimodo) and Kevin Anderson (Frollo); Photo by Mark Frohna

MM: Talk to our local audience and give them a pitch as to why this is worth their time and why this is worth their money. 

MU: It’s a transporting story. You will relate to it because seeing pure people and flawed people always teaches us something. You will certainly get your money’s worth in the music department. And the performances are quite amazing. But it’s a great, great story that speaks to some of the issues of our time. And there’s also humor and color and vibrancy. It’s an important story to tell, and I think we’re going to tell it in a way that will be very enjoyable for people. 

DD: Wisconsinites, I’m just going to say this. I personally have played more concerts in the state of Wisconsin than any other state in the Union outside of my home state of Illinois. And you should come simply to pay us back for the Packers beating the crap out of the Bears for the last 30 years. You owe me. … I think this is the greatest collection of songs I’ve ever written in my whole life. And if you preferred Metallica, don’t come, but if you like Styx, I think you’ll enjoy yourself.

MM: You say this is the greatest collection of songs you’ve ever written. How would you say writing a musical differs from writing for a band or for your solo music?

DD: If you make an album, it’s a three-bedroom ranch, two baths. To do a musical, it’s a 250-room hotel. That’s the difference. … Musicals are the most difficult form of entertainment. They bring every possible form of entertainment into real time, live in front of your puss. It’s not five guys behind microphones singing songs they wrote.

Ben Gulley (Quasimodo, center) and the cast in Skylight Music Theatre’s production of ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’; Photo by Mark Frohna

MM: You say musicals are the hardest to make. That begs the question. Would you do it again given the chance? 

DD: I would do it again with Michael. … Michael and I are cut from the same cloth. We’re decent human beings. We have families, we’re family men. We have lives outside of art. And we understand the value of human relationships. … If somebody else wanted to do Hunchback with me, I don’t know that I would unless Michael was involved. 

MM: Michael, what about you? Would you do another musical with Dennis? 

MU: I’d do 10 musicals with Dennis. He’s a wonderful collaborator and he’s a really good writer, too. … He’s also really savvy, super smart and knows a lot about musicals. It’s been a joyous collaboration and our cast, you know, it’s been a marvelous cast who are just in love with the piece and in love with the room. It’s been a really positive experience. So far, so good. 

MM: Is there anything either of you want to add?

MU: It’s a great celebration of local talent. There’s a lot of local artists out there on that stage. 

DD: You can say this: “Dennis DeYoung sucks, but you should spend your money just to see Ben Gulley [as Quasimodo].”

Ben Gulley (Quasimodo); Photo by Mark Frohna

MU: He’s just remarkable. Lovely, lovely guy. And that’s just one of the 22 people that are extremely talented in this cast. I mean, it’s really an embarrassment of riches in this cast. And that’s not hyperbole, I’m not just saying that because it sounds great. It truly is a great company. 

DD: And one last thing, and I mean it. I’d like to thank my wife of 52 years who traveled up here with me on this idiotic journey I put her on when she was 15 years old. Before we left [for Milwaukee], she froze 25 meals, which I eat every day. … And she’s making meatballs tonight. 

MU: Here’s the new headline: “I’ve Seen Bigger Meatballs.” 

*pause as Dennis listens to his wife in the kitchen.

DD: She said, “Not in this place.” … Platinum albums are simple, try staying married for 52 years, kids. 


*This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

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Allison Garcia is the Digital Editor for Milwaukee Magazine.