How the many pairs behind 'Cyrano' made music for the movie's lovelorn couples
Early in the movie named after him, Cyrano de Bergerac — played by Peter Dinklage — is talking with his friend and fellow soldier. A fiddle player noodles something folkish in the background when Le Bret (Bashir Salahuddin) says: "May I ask you a question?"
"Anything," Cyrano replies.
"It's a little personal," Le Bret warns.
Cyrano: "I have no secrets from you."
Le Bret: "Are you in love?"
Cyrano hedges, but quickly spills his guts. Yes – he's in love, madly, with the beautiful Roxanne. His eyes fill with longing and pain. He flops down onto the table where he's been standing... and he starts to sing.
"Have you ever wanted something so badly you cannot breathe?" he sighs in a low bass, harmonizing with the fiddler (Sam Amidon). "Have you ever loved someone... madly?"
The words for this love song, and all the songs in Cyrano, were written by Carin Besser and Matt Berninger.
"When they break into song, all their sort of defenses and their guard is down," says Berninger, "and it's almost like their purest inner thoughts — which aren't highly crafted. They're simple. You know, it's just like, 'I just love you so much I can't breathe.'"
"And you do really sense that time is short for them," adds Besser. "That, I think, also adds to the intensity and makes it feel closer to, I guess, a feeling we associate with first love, and undying love and unconsummated love."
Cyrano is a classic love triangle about a brilliant but unconventional-looking poet who loves a beautiful girl who loves a handsome soldier. This new take on the old 1897 play by Edmond Rostand subs in Dinklage's small stature for the usual long nose, lending it a more grounded realism. Dinklage imbues the part with lived-in pain and pathos, and he dives headlong into the lovesickness and bleeding heart emotions.
Haley Bennett's Roxanne and Christian, played by Kelvin Harrison Jr., fall in love at first sight, but in order for the inarticulate soldier to impress the somewhat haughty hottie, Cyrano agrees to write poetic love letters to Roxanne in Christian's name — expressing his own love for Roxanne in the only way he believes she'll ever accept it. In his confessional song to his friend Le Bret ("Madly"), Cyrano spells it out: "She's gonna laugh at the one that brings her love... like this," he sings, gesturing to his body.
Roxanne dreams and sings of "someone to say that they can't live without me and they'll be there forever." Cyrano pines for her in private: "Sorrow and glory and blinding euphoria — everything's there in your name." The heart of the score is "Overcome," where Cyrano sings from the shadows, pretending to be Christian and pouring out his true feelings in disguise, with Roxanne duetting from her balcony.
"What is it you're so afraid of losing?" she asks in song. "That I might lose everything," he admits, "if I lose the pain."
Everyone in the film is too proud to come clean and say what they really feel. It's the story of lovelorn couples, trying and failing to communicate — communicated in song by a bunch of couples.
Lyricists Besser and Berninger have been in love since 2003, and married since 2007. They've often co-written words for Berninger's band: The National.
"It's definitely always seamless, and always really easy," jokes Besser who, like Cyrano, is a poet. "We do spend a funny amount of time talking about the process," she says. "I think because these songs were going to be performed [by actors], it felt new to us, and that was really exciting. We had a lot of fun pretending to be these characters as we would work it out."
Cyrano is uniquely the product of couples or pairs in long-term relationships. It was first conceived in 2018 as a stage play by writer Erica Schmidt, who is married to Dinklage. It wasn't originally going to be a musical, but Schmidt — a fan of The National — reached out to Berninger to supply a few songs. As he always does, Berninger called up Bryce and Aaron Dessner, the band's composer twins.
"The original idea was that music would be continuous," says Bryce, who offered Schmidt a folder full of "pre-song" ideas he and Aaron had already cooked up. "I think Erica fell in love with a lot of our demos, our instrumental sketches, and wanted music to kind of play under the dialogue and then play into the songs."
Before they knew it, the Dessner brothers were composing a full songbook with Berninger and Besser.
Joe Wright, the English director of Atonement and Pride and Prejudice (2005), adapted Schmidt's play into the new film starring Bennett — his partner. Like Bennett, Dinklage is foremost an actor, although he did sing in a rock band called Whizzy in the '90s. But Berninger liked that this was a non-traditional "musical" – featuring actors singing as opposed to singers acting.
"Peter and I talked about this," Berninger says. "It wasn't about having this operatic voice or the technical skill of the singer. Because I don't have the kind of technical skill that most capital-S singers have, but I'm good at embodying a character ... so that was a good fit with Peter. He didn't have to worry so much about how hard the song was going to be to sing — he just had to be himself, and just be a great actor, and hit a few notes."
The characters in Cyrano don't burst into arias or showstopping showtunes. The songs — which the Dessners dramatically revised and added to for the film version — are meditative and rolling, like folk-rock recitative. Bryce, a classically trained composer of concert music, did ornament their casual melodies with orchestration inspired by the baroque architecture of Noto, Sicily, where the film was shot and some of the score was recorded. But the overall effect is an ever-flowing river that these melodized emotions bob up from organically, sweeping up a willing audience who might not necessarily go for capital-M musical theater.
"If you think about every rom-com with a karaoke scene," says Besser, "singing is just another way to know each other better."
In a way, Cyrano is an extension of the 20-year project Berninger has been building with The National.
"Before I met Carin, I was writing so much about my own angst," he says. "And then meeting Carin, and meeting somebody who was a poet and a writer, added a whole other sort of dimension to the way I thought of myself, and she changed the way I wrote."
"Most of what I've been writing, and we've been writing together, is the evolution of that naive sense of love and partnership and marriage and commitment and openness — and letting each other see [our] worst sides," he adds. "All of that is a slow, slow process, and the longer you're together... it never stops, the getting to know your partner. We change as time goes on. I think everybody — Erica and Peter, and Joe and Haley — knows how complicated love is, and how painful it can be in so many different types of ways. And then, also, how beautiful it can be over time."
For Cyrano, Berninger and company had to reach back into the feeling of almost a puppy love — overly romanticized, euphoric and drug-like. But he says that isn't too hard when you've got the Brothers Dessner on your team.
"They're very emotional musicians," Berninger says. "I think fans of the band are romantic, and really love to wallow in their own emotional mess. Aaron and Bryce's music... I don't know if it's because they're brothers or where it comes from, but it's so packed with romance, and emotion, and pain, and longing. It's very emotional water for me to swim around in when I'm writing. I think that's why Erica approached us. We all had that same tendency to want to just feel all those big, big dramatic emotions. We want to swim around in the lovelorn-ness of everything."
It was the first time Berninger had attempted narrative songwriting, although these songs don't really concern themselves with plot exposition. Like his writing for The National, they're conversational and interior, expressing an emotional state.
Aaron Dessner talks about the "weird, magic connection that we have with Matt, where we can write music, and he then pulls a subject out of the air. He'll be the first to say he feels like it's already kind of speaking to him. So it was really magical to have an actual clear narrative to respond to, and to write songs for, because usually when we're writing music it's sort of like a very vague emotional feeling that we're writing toward. This was more concrete, and I think it came naturally."
Besser admits she's probably the least emo of the bunch — "yeah, maybe my natural tendency of what to share would probably be much more coded" — but the emotional register of the Cyrano team undeniably matched the material. And the fact that they're all pairs, either romantic or fraternal, turned this movie musical romance into a genuine lovefest.
"There's intense love between us, really," says Bryce Dessner. "And I think that when we write for each other, there's always a feeling of doing your best work for the people that you care about."
Cyrano was filmed during the height of the pandemic, which forced a physical separation between the members of The National family for the first time in twenty years. It was the longest Bryce and Aaron had been apart since they were born.
"No matter how long we've been doing it," Bryce says, "it never gets old to try to make something beautiful with your family.
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