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When playwright Erica Schmidt was commissioned to write a musical version of Edmond Rostand’s classic Cyrano de Bergerac, there was one feature of the play she immediately wanted to lose.
“You always see a well-respected actor, usually a very attractive man, put on a big fake nose,” says Schmidt of the exaggerated proboscis audiences now associate with Cyrano that serves as a visual metaphor for his self-loathing despite his genius and panache. “[That actor] spends the majority of the play talking about how hideous his nose is, but at the end of the day, he takes the nose off and goes home. I wondered what it would be like if you got rid of that, if what about himself made him unlovable [wasn’t so obvious].”
Collaborating with The National — brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner tackled the score, while frontman Matt Berninger wrote the lyrics with his wife, Carin Besser — Schmidt, who has directed a few off-Broadway plays, wanted the music to be the “heartbeat” of her Cyrano. It was the band’s involvement that attracted Schmidt’s husband, Peter Dinklage, to the project.
“Bryce was coming over to play some sketches of music he’d written while actors read the play aloud,” Schmidt remembers. “Peter really loves the band and was excited that Bryce was coming over. He said, ‘Why don’t I read it?’ ” As soon as he began to dig into the text, Schmidt knew she had her Cyrano.
“The minute he started reading, I thought, ‘It’s his,’ ” Schmidt says. “There’s something about how Cyrano deflects with wit — he’s not self-pitying at all. That’s exactly how Peter is. There was a frictive energy happening that was really exciting.”
The show premiered in 2018 with a scaled-down production at the Goodspeed in Chester, Connecticut, featuring Hayley Bennett as Roxanne. After director Joe Wright attended a performance, he called Schmidt about adapting it for film, with Dinklage and Bennett reprising their roles. The next task for the playwright was turning her 10-person musical into a massive film production — complete with lush costumes, vibrant production design and violent clashes on a battlefield.
“I conceived it to be cinematic onstage,” Schmidt says of her original directorial choice. “It felt like that’s really where [the songs] belonged, because they don’t function in a traditional musical-theater way. They don’t forward the action — they really are windows into the characters’ souls.”
This story first appeared in the Dec. 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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