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Interview: Carin Besser on What the Addition of Music Brings to CYRANO

Cyrano is now playing in theaters.

Interview: Carin Besser on What the Addition of Music Brings to CYRANO

The classic tale of Cyrano returns with a new musical twist in Joe Wright's new adaption of the recent Off-Broadway musical by Erica Schmidt.

A man ahead of his time, Cyrano de Bergerac (played by Peter Dinklage) dazzles whether with ferocious wordplay at a verbal joust or with brilliant swordplay in a duel. But, convinced that his appearance renders him unworthy of the love of a devoted friend, the luminous Roxanne (Haley Bennett), Cyrano has yet to declare his feelings for her - and Roxanne has fallen in love, at first sight, with Christian (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.).

Adapted from Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand, the film features music by Aaron & Bryce Dessner and lyrics by Matt Berninger & Carin Besser.

BroadwayWorld caught up with Besser to discuss the creation of her lyrics for the film, what the addition of song adds to the classic story, and more.

What was your first impression when you were approached to work on this project?

My very first interaction with it was, I think Matt [Berninger] was in New York performing on one of the late shows and I remember being sort of backstage in a hallway and, because we were in New York, Erica [Schmidt] had come in person to give him a copy of the play. I think that was either the first or second time I met Erica to sort of talk to us about the project. She's just so fun to talk to about a creative endeavor and she got us thinking about it sort of right away. Matt had loved the Steve Martin version of Cyrano and always had sort of related to Cyrano as a character and as a fun character, the self-loathing of that character, I think, was something he felt like he had some connection to and some interest in. He was not hard to convince. I think the next thing for me was Erica arranged to have some actors read it and kind of get it up off its feet and start trying some of the songs.

So Matt and Erica had already worked on a bunch of songs before I got involved and the whole process was so much fun but really exciting and also scary. We were writing songs to perform the next day in early versions. So it took a kind of fast writing, even though we, of course then revised a lot. It was exciting and it was very different for Matt and I, because we're so used to making songs that he's gonna perform, which means we sort of have the access to change things we don't like up until the very, very last second and sometimes a song really does get totally torn down and remade. I think for us, we're so used to knowing we have that out, if we keep going down a path that we just can't make spark. In this case, we had to give things away much, much, much sooner, and trust our performers to come help us make certain lines work or make ideas work or tell us that doesn't seem like that's going to work in this scene, or it just falls a little flat because it doesn't do X, Y, or Z.

So we were really learning initially from Erica and her strong sense of what the script needed, what the characters wanted to say and then from Joe [Wright]. But also to be honest, we were really tracing three things. It was Aaron and Bryce's incredible music, which was incredible from the get-go, and trying to find this gorgeous script, all of these great performances and this beautiful sort of like what Erica and Bryce and Aaron would call it "Cyrano's heartbeat" like throughout the whole thing. The music is another kind of thinking throughout the piece. It's another mood and feeling about Cyrano. So we were trying to kind of fit in somewhere in between what the script is already telling you and what the performances are already telling you, and then what the music is, and often would be like, "Guys, cut the song. You don't need it anymore." To a degree, if I'm being honest, like we still sort of feel that when we're watching the movie every once in a while, except that each performance has kind of now lifted it out of what we could have made out of it. So that part of it is just so fun.

The sound of the music is so unique and somewhat new to the musical theater landscape. Were there any other musical theater lyricists that you had taken inspiration from while you were writing or did you just do your own thing?

Well, that's such a good question. I mean, I tend to love movie musicals and of course grew up on them. Honestly, I am a big Grease fan and I did have "Hopelessly Devoted to You" in my head at some point. I know that that was a song written for the movie for Olivia Newton John, but there's something about, for us, we were trying to find these really big declarations of romance that could feel so sweet and not ironic. But it wasn't always the easiest tone for us.
So we did kind of look to some other, mostly, probably older work and then just kind of songs and singing that we would as singers feel inspired by.

I mean, Haley is such a great singer. "Someone to Say," that was one song I kind of kept trying to complicate even more because I think she's just got so many ideas in her head and she was such an adept singer that you could kind of give her a lot to do melodically. And for me, the way the singing is, especially in the film, what you wanted from it, since the script was so solid, the performances are so solid, that the singing is just a moment to feel even closer to the characters. So you kind of want to force the singers to go into all these interesting pockets of their voice, but it's a big challenge. That was part of it, really just tuning into our singers and what they were doing.

The show did have such a long journey from stage to screen. What were some ways that you had tweaked the project, especially having time throughout the pandemic to go through it before you started filming?

We sort of rewrote that first song Peter has when he's in a sword fight, because that hadn't really worked on the stage version. For me, I love that moment in the play or in various versions where it's like his verbal dexterity, but it's also about his self-protection, which is like, "What are you going to say to me that I can't say to myself? You wanna try to insult me? Okay, here you go." So that song was so fun to write. So we wrote multiple, multiple, multiple versions of that, and then just really trusted, Peter [Dinklage] and Joe, because that had a lot going on. It had to work. He was singing it live on set, much like in the play, it wasn't going to be any easier to pull off alongside all of the choreography. We really tried to help with that one. I'm not sure always how much help we were, but Joe and Peter really had to figure out how to do that. I was a little bit focused on Haley's character and Haley's portrayal of Roxanne, which, I think for me, Haley really solved a lot of the problems. If she just has to be a sort of an object of adoration, where's the fun in that. She just always made that character so alive and so interesting. Simultaneously, you had to believe that she was blind enough not to know, not to ruin the essential conceit of the play, but so bright and brilliant that she's has this sort of verbal dexterity and this love of poetry that gets her into trouble. So she's fun to write songs for because she can really tie herself in knots, I think. she can really like trip the light fantastic. In terms of like her notions of love and exactly how it should be described and exactly how potent someone's language should be ... Knowing that Haley just had that voice, it was fun to throw a lot of language at it and see. But we really, once again, relied so much on our collaborators there to make it all work.

We've seen Cyrano in so many different adaptions throughout the years. What do you think the addition of music adds to the story for this film?

Well, I think the music in particular, not really just the songs, but the music, the bed of music that was always one of the bright shining points that kept all the collaborative writers wanting to make it ... The music was so interesting and so beautiful and then Erica's script was so beautifully spare, and then you had these great actor performers. Erica has been in theater for a long time and has had a career and theater. Every actor, the actors in each stage version, I mean, I wish we could have written for all of them. They were so fun to work with.

So for us, it was daunting because we were really just trying to kind of keep up with what was working. Sometimes I think we'd say like, "I'm not sure we need the song. I think the music and the script are really doing it." There were moments where we had a song that we liked as a song, but it just didn't work. There were heartbreaking moments where we had to be like, "Oh, that was the only good set of lyrics we had so far." But it just didn't work in the context. So it was a funny sort of process like that.

Listen to the Cyrano soundtrack here:

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