I’ve been a little obsessed with the soundtrack of Cyrano since I saw the movie on a plane last week. All of the reviews I’ve read and have been “love it” or “hate it” – isn’t there a middle ground? I thought the movie was a lovely fantasy of a faraway past, with excellent acting and a profoundly felt theme.
The Cyrano story has a special magic in all its incarnations, because it allows us to revel in the heightened emotions of romantic, unrequited love, while also commenting on the excess through the tragic ending and the degree of self-delusion Roxanne must be experiencing to fall for the Cyrano-Christian con. We are definitely supposed to wonder how she could sweep aside all the warning signs in her quest to find someone perfectly intelligent, perfectly eloquent and, as Steve Martin says in his comic adaptation, Roxanne, all wrapped up in “a cute little butt.”
I think if you like musicals, you’ll like this one. I know that’s a middle of the road recommendation, but I’m a writer and I’m much more interested in what I think the songwriters could’ve done differently to make this musical an even bigger success.
One Observation on Successful Tragic Endings
A tragic ending to a musical is always a tough sell for an American audience, and the musicals which have succeeded with it have usually included a post-tragedy ending song to soften the blow. For example, Les Misérables softens the death of Valjean by literally having the dead welcome him to heaven and then lead the whole cast in a rousing reprise of “Do You Hear The People Sing,” reminding the audience that the theme of fighting for equality is uplifting even though the story is tragic. Hamilton doesn’t end on “Hurricane,” Alexander’s brilliant soliloquy in the frozen moment before he is killed too soon; it ends with “Who Lives Who Dies Who Tells Your Story” – a meditation on history and legacy, and a reminder that Eliza “puts herself back in the narrative” and accomplishes amazing things. All of this lessens the audience’s sorrow, so that when they stand up and walk away, they feel inspired rather than in pain.
And this goes for musicals that don’t end in death but just in loneliness, too—according to Writing Musical Theater authors Cohen and Rosenhaus, Sondheim was pressured into writing “Being Alive” for the end of Company, in which the central character does not find love, by the audience’s initial reaction to the play and his fellow collaborators,. With that final song, we now see that at least Bobby has learned what real love is like and is ready for it; the heartfelt lyrics are enough to make the ending hopeful.
“Cyrano” has no comparable ending song; Cyrano dies, admitting that he loved his pride. It’s appropriate to the theme, but a bleak experience for the audience. There are several possibly ways to fix this; for example, why couldn’t Roxanne leave the audience on a more uplifting note, learning something about herself, choosing a new direction for her life?
One Picky Lyrics Point
Many of the Cyrano lyrics are brilliant; take: “Nothing seems real anymore when you’re not around me / Even the sky looks like it’s behind glass.” I love that! But the modern idioms in some of the songs drive me up the wall. “It’s OK” completely kicks me out of the moment in the last tragic song, “No Cyrano,” and “When I Was Born” seems to completely confuse sounding clever with sounding modern. This is the soliloquy that is meant to establish Cyrano’s wit, as well as his pride, but the song strings together too many modern references (“Halloween”) and clichés (“what was God smoking”) to sound anything other than out of place.
I understand that these modernisms were a deliberate choice, and my reaction is one of personal preference; however, there is a principal in musical theater writing that the tone of the lyrics should not be too different than the tone of the spoken dialogue. Although I only saw the movie once, I was definitely thinking about this as I watched, and I couldn’t catch any overly modern phrases in the dialogue. This disparity heightens the sense of mismatch when the lyrics suddenly plunge me into the 21st-century.