Work in Memory: The Long Road to Cyrano

Erica Schmidt charts her 17-year journey adapting Cyrano for the stage and then screen with Peter Dinklage, the National and Joe Wright.

I’m a theater director. The body, the substance, the heart of my work exists only in memory. I had an idea to adapt Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac into a musical. I did a lot of research.

I needed a producer, so I wrote to Michael Gennaro at the Paper Mill Playhouse. (This was in 2005.)

He commissioned me to write the adaptation, but I didn’t have a composer in mind who could create the music as I imagined it – not like a traditional musical, but like a through-composed cinematic score where the songs were the love poems and the music the heartbeat of the piece.

The adaptation went into a desk drawer for 10 years until Gennaro landed at the Goodspeed Opera House and asked me to revisit it and find a composer. I was obsessed with the band the National, so I wrote to three of its members: Bryce and Aaron Dessner and Matt Berninger. Matt responded, saying he would be in New York soon and could we meet?

In October 2015, I took a copy of Rostand’s script to Matt backstage on his break between rehearsal and playing Conan with his band EL VY. Then I went to see them play in Williamsburg.

We hung out after the show and I got to meet Aaron, as he was also there. No one wants to talk theater after a rock concert.

Michael invited me to apply to the Mercer Colony at the Goodspeed to work on Cyrano. I applied and got in. Matt gave me access to a file of unpublished National music that Bryce and Aaron had written.

This was about four hours of sound. Sketches or tracks – as yet undeveloped themes – with cool names like “Wilbur’ and “Sharptown,” “Cain,” “Coyote” and “Gambler.”

January 2016. The Goodspeed was magical and super cold; I rewrote listening to Bryce and Aaron’s music and I inserted their track names into my script creating a through-composed piece.

Rostand’s play is five acts: the theater, the bakery, the balcony, the war and the convent. I had an idea that each act could have a different color and look: red curtains and wood boards for the theater, flour thrown in the air against a backdrop of copper pots for the bakery, wisteria for the balcony, snow for the war, and falling autumnal leaves for the convent.

We had to share our work each night at the Mercer Colony, so I played the track “Gambler” as two writers read the bakery scene. Gennaro said he would produce the show. I said, “We don’t have any songs yet and I don’t have permission to use this music.” He told me to go get it.

Now there was a ticking clock to a potential production.

Matt and I started working on lyric ideas. I gave him the track names that I was hoping would turn into songs and outlined one song per act – one to replace the nose speech, one for the duel, one for the balcony scene, one for the war, and a love theme to run through it all.

He started working.

I convinced Bryce by inviting him to a reading of my adaptation while I pressed play on his music. Peter Dinklage read Cyrano and Amanda Seyfried read Roxanne. I was so nervous, I sweated through my clothes. Bryce and Aaron agreed to work on the show.

Aaron, Bryce and Matt live in three different parts of the world and the band was touring, so I made plans to catch them wherever I could; Matt and I made deadlines for songwriting.

(Photo by Matt Berninger.)

The National played an outdoor concert in New York in July 2016. Matt and I met before the show and he played me a couple of his first drafts – they were brilliant and so very sad.

After a year of work, we did a reading of Cyrano for the Goodspeed in New York in April 2017. I cast Haley Bennett as Roxanne. Aaron played the reading. Carin Besser, Matt’s lyric partner, joined the team. Matt and Carin wrote a new song for Roxanne in the war called “Every Letter.”

After the workshop, we met at Aaron’s studio, Long Pond, as the band got ready to tour.

Peter and I moved to Belfast for the final season of Game of Thrones. The National played Dublin in September 2017. Our second child was just over a month old and we brought him to the show.

Walking around Belfast every day, I started to think we should include the sword fighting – but how could we do it in the show and not have it look like bad stage combat?

In January 2018, Matt, Bryce, Aaron, Haley, Peter, Carin and I all managed to meet at Long Pond for three days of work to develop the songs. Same place, same time; it was a miracle. They are all so hard to find.

We now had 11 songs. More than double the five I had originally asked for. The titles are written here in black (Matt named them) and the green names are the original Bryce and Aaron track titles. “Anything,” from the sketch “Montmartre” that Bryce wrote, is the first draft of the song that became “Someone To Say.”

While we were in New York, before going back to Belfast, I met with the design team. The brilliant team of Christine Jones and Amy Rubin did the sets. This was their very first pass. The idea was to set the play almost in the recording studio to establish its not-traditional-musical-theater vibe, to keep the show informal and allow the songs to be as they are: windows into the characters’ souls.

In April, we did a second development reading in New York. In June, I went from Belfast to Dublin. The National played Donnybrook Stadium and we met and worked on the show, adjusting for what we learned in the reading. There was so much to fix and change, add and rewrite. So many wonderful notes.

In July 2018, Peter wrapped the final season of GoT and we moved from Belfast to company housing in East Haddam, Connecticut, for the Goodspeed workshop production of Cyrano.

These were the set inspiration images and my Act to Act visual collages on the wall at rehearsal.

The set was covered in Matt and Carin’s lyrics, written in chalk by Christine and Amy.

Haley dressed as Roxanne on a break at the Goodspeed.

In the bakery scene, as Cyrano sings the song “Your Name” about his love for Roxanne (it’s the letter he is writing to her and becomes the first letter that Christian gives to Roxanne), the bakers, upstage behind a glass window pane, dance a flour ballet.

(Photo by Diane Sobolewski, courtesy of Goodspeed Musicals.)

Joe Wright came to the show. Afterwards, he called me and said, “I want to make a film of your Cyrano. I will direct it and you will write the screenplay and Peter and Haley will be in it.” Joe said, “This is the right actor, in the right role, at the right moment. I didn’t know what to say. My first thought was something like, “But this is just a workshop; I’m not done yet. I just started. There is so much I still want to explore.” Which, of course, is a director’s protective impulse. I said something stupid like, “But we’re doing it in New York in a year,” and he said, “You don’t have to say yes now, just let me send producers. Do I have your blessing to send producers?” I said yes. Working Title saw it and wanted to make the film.

The National went back on tour. Joe and I first met in November 2018 to discuss the screenplay.

I asked him which period he wanted it to be set in. He said Baroque but invented – just as I had invented a period for the stage version, but Joe wanted to go more period than modern. We talked at length about how to film the war and he was clear he wanted to establish the echelon of society in Act One in the theater. He wanted to keep the intimacy of my Act Five, but start in a big, grand theatrical place.

I wasn’t nervous, but also I was super nervous. I’d never written a screenplay before.

Meanwhile, Matt and I worked on new songs for the New York production. I met him in L.A. in February of 2019 and we discussed adding a song for De Guiche (the duke who wants to marry Roxanne) and a new song for Roxanne. He and Carin wrote a beautiful song called “Defenseless.” I thought it could work for Roxanne and the nuns at the top of Act Five.

For the New Group New York production, the design, choreography, music teams and I tried to figure out how to stage Cyrano in a converted bank. The Daryl Roth is a theater, but you have to construct the seating as part of your budget. It was a challenge. If I could go back in time, I’d do it traverse, with the band on stage and almost no set. Hindsight. I was too in love with the potential visual elements of the show.

In June, the National played Prospect Park and the set evolved.

This is Act Four: the war in snow.

Bryce, Aaron and I met in Brooklyn to work with Peter on songs.

Rehearsal began in September 2019 for the New Group production. Amy and Christine made new mood, image, inspiration and theme collage boards. I love these so much:

Matt and Carin wrote a new song for Roxanne.

Rehearsal, tech, previews flew by. There were many new songs written – some stayed in the show, some were cut. There were crazy last-minute changes. We cut “When I Was Born,” the song Cyrano sings while fighting a duel that explains how he sees himself with wit and anger – this was a mistake. The Kuperman brothers, the show’s choreographers, staged a beautiful new flour ballet. Eventually, it opened. Which I hate. I would love to rehearse forever.

(Photo by Monique Carboni, via New Group website.)

Suddenly, the show was out there in the world. It was a little different than I had imagined.

At the end of every performance, the stage was covered in flour, leaves, snow, letters and blood.

I turned in a first draft of the screenplay to Joe.

We met for about 10 hours and worked through every page.

The show closed in December. And then the pandemic happened and all the theaters closed.

I was home with two kids on home school. We adopted a puppy. I tried to work in the chaos. I adapted Hamlet. I baked cookies.


Joe called in June and asked for the second draft of the screenplay. He said that he thought he could make the movie during the pandemic. He said it was his birthday and this was the present he wanted. So I took 10 days to work on the rewrite and then I sent it to him. He said, “It’s ready.” He said he wanted to send it to Working Title. I was really surprised – I had expected and anticipated epic notes – but I agreed. He sent it. MGM bought it. Joe started location scouting in Noto, Sicily. And we began the epic screenplay notes on Zoom.

(Photo by Joe Wright.)

At the start of September 2020, we left for London to quarantine before shooting started in Noto, Sicily.

Puppies don’t understand two weeks’ quarantine.

Noto is so beautiful. The sky feels so big, it’s very hot, the sea is warm. The sunsets are amazing.

There was a read-through in the theater. (There was so much I wanted to change.). Deemed too modern for the film, this became a rehearsal and recording space. And then filming started. The first day, they shot the Act Three scene where Roxanne quotes Cyrano’s letters back to him, thinking they are Christian’s words.

I was a ghost on set. Observing, quiet and staying out of the way.

The aftermath of the flour ballet.

The garrison of the guards.

And Mount Etna.

I was so glad that there was snow for the war.

The brilliant Kelvin Harrison Jr. dressed as Christian.

And finally the last act of Cyrano, Act Five – the convent – was the final act filmed.

Haley and Peter, on set and off.

The stage play of Cyrano is the stuff of memory. What does it mean if work is only memories? The final cut of the film is so … final. I don’t like when things end. I would rehearse forever if I could and work on a project again and again until I finally get it right. I’m grateful for the time I got with Rostand’s Cyrano. I’m looking forward to the next story and the new memories.

All images by Erica Schmidt, unless otherwise stated.

Erica Schmidt is a playwright, screenwriter, and theatre director. Cyrano, for which she wrote the screenplay (her first), is in theaters through United Artists on February 25, starring Peter Dinklage, Haley Bennet, Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Ben Mendelsohn. In 2001 she was honored with the Princess Grace Award, given by the foundation of the same name. She directed her adaptation Cyrano, collaborating with members of the band The National, at the Goodspeed Opera House and off-Broadway at The New Group. She directed her adaptation Mac Beth at Seattle Rep and off-Broadway at the Lucille Lortel Theatre and HTP, receiving Drama Desk Award nominations for Outstanding Direction and Outstanding Revival as well as a Lucille Lortel Award nomination. Among her other stage directorial credits are Richard 2, starring Robert Sean Leonard, at The Old Globe; A Month in the Country, starring Taylor Schilling and Peter Dinklage, at the Classic Stage Company; Trust, with The Play Company, for which she received a Callaway Award nomination; and chashama, at the New York International Fringe Festival, where she received the Best Direction award. She co-created, co-wrote, and directed the play Humor Abuse, which won her a Lucille Lortel Award for its production at the Manhattan Theatre Club.