Broadway meets Buffalo in the production of Hunchback


Keith Ersing and Ben Fankhauser with Margot Voisinet, Amanda Whalen, Amelia Waddell and Olivia Sylvester.

By Olivia Sylvester, Margot Voisinet, Amelia Waddell & Amanda Whalen

“The Hunchback Of Notre Dame” is a thrilling tale about the outcasts in society and the ones who persecute them. The nonprofit organization Starring Buffalo is putting on this magical tale Oct 19-20 at SUNY Buffalo State. They have brought together both Broadway and local actors to create the performance of this well known and beloved musical. This is truly an act of magic because, Starring Buffalo is creating it with just a few days. The talent on the stage is undeniable and fills the entire theatre, even just seeing the first rehearsal.

Keith Ersing, who is a local actor playing the role of the dark archbishop, Frollo, spoke about how the time constraint can be a common occurrence in the world of show business.

“You have to come in prepared and I think that is by far the biggest challenge and the book, the score itself is not easy to put together in a short amount of time,” he said. “Luckily we’ve got some wonderful people to do that, so I think we’ll be in great shape.”

The actors have to be prepared to leave their comfort zone and enter into a state of complete acceptance.

Ben Fankhauser previously on the Broadway production of Newsies, now playing Quasimodo, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, said, “It’s impossible for there not to be screw-ups and mistakes, so you have to adopt a different sense of your relationship towards screwing up. You have to run towards the bang, as I like to say and really go with the flow when you only have three days.”

Keith and Ben’s characters play opposite each other a lot and have a very complicated relationship. While talking with them both, it was discovered that they had only met an hour before talking with

“As an actor you have to be willing to take those risks to make sure the story is told and be good storytellers,” Keith said.

From the perspective of the audience, it could not be known that they had just met. They were completely immersed in their characters, seeming as if they had this life long relationship that defined who they were. This is a skill every actor or actress has to be able to have. The performers in this show become different people and enchant the audience with the lives they have a hand in creating.

As spoke with a few of these actors including Ben Fankhauser, Keith Ersing, and Devin Ilaw, it was found that the musical theater world has many layers that are not always visible to the public. The behind the scenes. From discussing the show to learning real life lessons from these performers, it is truly a captivating story of intriguing art.

Ersing’s character Frollo is the main antagonist. He is a ruthless and religious man who adopts Quasimodo. Ersing spoke about the difficulty of playing Frollo and how different it is from his everyday personality.

“For me personally, Frollo is a darker character I tend to be a funny guy I like to crack jokes and laugh a lot,” Ersing said. “It’s neat to do something completely different than I normally do. The darkness of the character is something I really worked on. I tried to be a little be darker even the color of the tone, the speaking voice and just the way that I carry myself, because I’m kind of very expressive kind of guy just trying to pull something in and make some good choices even in the concert setting.”

While Ersing was growing up, one of his dream roles was actually Quasimodo and now as he said, “I really loved the role,” he said. “I was telling Ben earlier that on my senior solo I sang ‘Out There,’ I also cracked on the high note like I told Ben earlier. For me it was Quasimodo, so to be on this project is kind of full circle.”

Being an actor is difficult, especially when you have to begin playing a character opposite of someone you have just met. Actors have to be able to be thrown into something last minute and then adapt to it right away. Ersing tells us about his time auditioning for West Side Story, “There was a callback one time, for ‘West Side Story’ for Artpark, back in the day that I was up for Tony, I was probably thirty pounds less, with a full head of hair. I walk in and meet the girl, we were about to read the side and I said ‘are we doing this we kissing’ is this part of it and we said, ‘yeah ok let’s do it we’re in’ and I just met her.”

Now these actors have had about three days to perfect their singing and acting and all the little things that go into making a musical great. Ersing lets us know what is difficult for him when they have such little time, “One hundred percent I think the amount of time that’s allocated,” he said. “As an actor you have to prep for that and you have to know that the rehearsal time is limited and you have to go into to it in a really good place and not expect to learn your stuff as you go.”

The Hunchback named Quasimodo, played by Fankhauser, struggles with being deaf as well as having a birth defect that causes him to have to have a hump on his back. He is a kind-hearted, hardworking man but is treated as an outcast of society. While having the voice and the walk is already difficult enough.

“My back is getting a little sore,” Fankhauser admitted.

“People in the play refer to him as ‘monster’ and as ‘ugly,’” Fankhauser said. “That has been a challenge to try and play someone who is deformed in a way. But what I can relate to is this guy is an outcast and doesn’t feel a part of the people around him. He just wants to feel like a normal person and I can really relate to that. He’s very hopeful.”

In order to dig deep into a character, actors have to find a way to be able to connect to the part so they can better understand what it entails and put a little more of their personality into the character. Anybody involved in theatre can relate,because you have to be the character; not make it known to the audience that you are acting.      

Fankhauser explained while dealing with portraying such a unique role, he looks at the shortage of time in a more optimistic way, just like his character Quasimodo.

“I think what makes this show different than the normal rehearsal process besides the time constraint is being okay with mistakes,” he said, “because you only have three days.”

It is interesting that Fankhauser did not have a particular so called ‘dream role’ of a typical performer. “I was always superstitious (that if) I had a particular role that I wanted to do I better not wish for it because if I never go do it than it would be a wish wasted,” he said.

He is so humble even when playing this intriguing lead role.

While it is hard enough to memorize lines and songs with the limited amount of time, actors have to struggle with being put on the spot but also it gives them a new perspective.

“It’s very common to have to do intimate scenes and difficult scenes with someone you just met,” Fankhauser said. “The fun thing about that is all your preparation you’ve done in your bedroom leading up to the day kind of takes a back seat to what’s happening right in front of you.”

Devin Ilaw, who was in “Les Miserables” and “Miss Saigon,” plays Clopin, King of the Gypsies, a comedic, clownish character. With the crazy personality and deep emotions underneath, Devin’s take on his dream role is captivating. With only two days of rehearsal, a critical aspect of this show is practice. While other people would think that spending hours a day rehearsing is the optimal strategy, Devin believes that you should practice for a few days, then rest, so when you revisit the material, you can have a new angle, and possibly notice things you didn’t notice before.

“It’s not about the quantity, the hours,” he said, “but it’s about the quality of the work you’re doing.”

He also offers advice for people going into theater, which is, “Just be yourself, because you as yourself are never wrong.” For auditioning, casting directors want to see who you are as a person, and not you as a character. Having a hobby is also important to help relax. For Devin, this hobby is knitting.

Throughout all his years of experience in theater, and life in general, he learned that it’s important to listen and learn from others because they each have their own story and lessons

“Try everything,” he said. “Fail at everything. Get used to it. That’s the only way you can grow.”

 The struggles of the show business world can teach valuable life lessons that can be used in any life situation. This riveting tale of struggle, friendship, and love is not one to miss. The actors portray each character with determination.

(Editor’s note: “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” is at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 19 and 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Oct. 20.)

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