For moviegoers, Peter Dinklage singing the title role of Cyrano may be a surprise – because they don’t think about the game of thrones actor as a musical performer; because Dinklage plays Edmond Rostand’s hero in 1897 without the character’s characteristic nose; for despite the play’s many cinematic incarnations, the musical versions have not been typical on screen. But musicalized Cyrano de Bergeracs are part of a long performing tradition.
The new film, directed by Joe Wright, is adapted by Erica Schmidt from her stage version, with a score by Matt Berninger and The National’s Carin Besser. He performed off-Broadway in 2019 at the Daryl Roth Theater in a production by the new band, under the direction of Schmidt. A development production had played at Goodspeed Musicals in Connecticut a year earlier. Dinklage starred in both productions, while the film’s female lead, Haley Bennett, appeared as Cyrano’s beloved Roxanne at Goodspeed, and Jasmine Cephas Jones played the part in New York.
Musical comedy Cyrano, with Dinklage as the reluctant romantic, was the most recent version of the story to have a major production in New York. The play previously played on Broadway in 2012 with Douglas Hodge in the title role, and in 2007 with Kevin Kline. As early as 1899, the famous Victor Herbert wrote a musical version for Broadway. (A musical parody, Cyrano from Bric-a-Brac, featuring a score by John Stromberg, ran concurrently with the original version of the play.) The last musical version on Broadway was from the Netherlands: Cyrano – The Musical, which played during the 1993 season -94, receiving four Tony nominations including Best Musical. But many have forgotten one of only two productions in Rostand’s history to get a Tony: the 1973 musical Cyrano, which earned Christopher Plummer his first Broadway honor in the title role (Jose Ferrer had won, tied, for the play in 1947). Playing just five previews and 49 performances, this Cyrano had a score by film composer Michael J. Lewis, and book and lyrics by Anthony Burgess, author of the 1962 novel A clockwork orange
Plummer, who died last year, was no stranger to the (non-musical) role, having performed it on stage at the Stratford Festival in his native Canada in 1962; he had also played the supporting role of Christian opposite Ferrer for a 1951 television version. .
The Guthrie continued this production, which marked the start of Burgess’ non-musical translation of the French play, with Paul Hecht in the title role and Len Cariou as his romantic rival, Christian. But when producer Richard Gregson commissioned the musical version and Langham put it on Guthrie’s program a year later, Plummer signed on, directed by Langham; Broadway was already in his sights. The path to New York, however, didn’t have the panache that Cyrano’s character would have liked.
“They wanted to make one musical“, says Leigh Beery, who played Roxanne, “which kind of changed the direction. We were all in the attitude of playing with the music. We had already decided that it was a play with music.”
This move led to a major change right after Guthrie opened.
“A terrible, terrible thing happened,” said Mark Lamos, the current artistic director of the Westport Country Playhouse, who was cast shortly before rehearsals began for Christian, replacing Chris Sarandon. “Michael Langham was fired. It was unbelievable that this happened. Then Michael Kidd was brought in.”
“At the first rehearsal, [Kidd] said, “We’re going to make it a musical, not a play with music,” Beery recalled. The songs that were added, we felt at the time – and it may not be true now – we felt they weren’t important enough to be as good as the ones we had already.”
Lamos described the turbulent time at Guthrie as extremely unsettling. “I would go on stage at night,” Lamos says, “and I wouldn’t recognize three or four faces. We would meet at intermission. a rehearsal. It started at 10 a.m. this morning. I got very nervous about being replaced.”
Both Beery and Lamos recall the changes to the show, implemented at the Guthrie and on subsequent pre-Broadway tours in Toronto and Boston, as being primarily the addition of dance sequences and some small tweaks to songs.
The 1973 version received respectful reviews, but many questioned the need to musicalize Rostand’s piece, as it already had the breadth and emotion of a musical. “It’s strange that someone wanted to make a musical of Cyrano because Cyrano de Bergerac is practically a musical to begin with,” Walter Kerr wrote in The New York Times. “Rostand’s original melodies are, of course, all verbal melodies, undulating rococo cadences of tongues that still seem to taste candy.”
Such advice ignored the long musical tradition surrounding Cyrano de Bergerac, which had also included two operas – one by Walter Damrosch which had premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in 1913 and another by Franco Alfano from 1936, although it only reached the United States, at the Met, in 2005. The famous choreographer Roland Petit transformed Cyrano de Bergerac in dance for the Paris Ballet in 1959, part of which was seen in the 1962 film Black tights.
In a situation prior to the dueling versions of The Wild Party two decades ago, 1973 saw a second musical Cyrano, the other being A song for Cyrano, directed by and starring Jose Ferrer, who had won an Oscar in the non-musical film 33 years earlier. The score was by the team of Wright and Forrest, the Kismet writers who will experience new success a few years later via Grand Hotel. A song for Cyrano played out-of-town engagements, but folded in the summer, shortly after Burgess and Lewis’ version breathed its last breath in New York.
With the new Wright-Schmidt-Dinklage Cyrano to appear on many film critics’ top 10 lists for 2021, it may be time for a musical Cyrano de Bergerac to take the popular crown among a crowded field. And despite so many attempts over the years, if he does, he won’t win by a nose, but a mile.