We begin in a theater packed tight as a sardine can. Our ballgowned main characters have escaped the dirty crust of 1600s France to see a play. An actor in cakey white face paint takes to the stage … and freezes when a gritty voice heckles him from deep in the audience. That voice belongs to New Jersey-bred actor Peter Dinklage (of “Game of Thrones” fame), who swings onto the stage on a rope, brandishes a sword, and starts improvising a poem, which becomes an accompanied rap number a la “Hamilton.” At the end, Dinklage slays a man on stage in front of the woman he has feelings for.
The message is as clear as a blade through the gut: this ain’t your grandma’s “Cyrano de Bergerac.”
“Cyrano,” a movie musical adaptation of the classic French play by Edmond Rostand, hit Philly theaters last month. While the film may appear derivative of its source at first glance, the story is faithful: poet-soldier Cyrano (Peter Dinklage), described as a freak by others (in the Rostand play, it’s because of his massive nose; in this new adaptation, it’s because of Dinklage’s dwarfism), is in love with his childhood friend, the beautiful Roxanne (Haley Bennett). Roxanne, meanwhile, has feelings for a handsome soldier named Christian (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). There’s one problem: Roxanne wants love letters, and Christian isn’t poetically inclined. He and Cyrano make a deal: Cyrano will write love letters to Roxanne under Christian’s name — she’ll fall for both Cyrano’s words and Christian’s appearance.
“I will make you wise,” Cyrano says. “Will you make me handsome?”
Set in classically charming France on the eve of the Siege of Arras, “Cyrano” sees a loveable trio of heroes facing deception, war, and heartbreak — all through song.
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Oscar-nominated Joe Wright joins Stephen Spielberg in the club of acclaimed directors who released their first movie musical this winter (Spielberg’s “West Side Story” was released in December). The reigning king of intimate period pieces (see “Atonement” and “Pride and Prejudice”), Wright seems to be the perfect director to bring this story to the big screen. Backed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and coupled with Dinklage’s Emmy-winning talent, what could go wrong?
Well, a couple things.
Before “Cyrano” was a movie musical, it was a stage musical written and directed by Erica Schmidt, also starring Dinklage (Schmidt’s husband of sixteen years). “Cyrano” enjoyed a limited engagement at the Daryl Roth Theater in New York City, a tiny black box of 300 seats — not a proper home for a giant, flashy production. But that isn’t what this “Cyrano” intended to be. The musical was written to be performed intimately. The ensemble was small, the choreography was simple, and the musical numbers were as folksy as a dying campfire, reminiscent of The Lumineers, definitely sans rapping.
In importing this story to the big screen, Wright widens its scope to a “Les Miserables” level — hulking sets, lavish costumes, hordes of dancing ensemble members — but keeps the script and the music unchanged, despite being written to be performed at a small scale. If it feels strange to see a giant company of soldiers doing over-the-top choreography to a slow folk song, that’s because it is.
A more specific example: act one of the stage musical features a scene in which a local baker implores Cyrano for advice on writing love letters, complete with a cozy ensemble number. The scene gives the audience insight into Cyrano’s role in his Parisian suburb — mocked as a freak by some, admired as a poet by others. In the film adaptation, Wright nixes the song but, for some reason, keeps the choreography in an abridged version of the scene. Without the musical number, the scene does not convey its intended message and feels rushed and pointless, with an uncomfortable “breadmaking as sex” metaphor that made me squirm in my seat.
But I digress.
Where the film fails in its execution (and, boy, does it fail), it triumphs in its performances. Dinklage, Bennett and Harrison are perfectly cast. Their emotions are as palpable as a smashed kneecap. They sustain the film’s heartbeat, which is its message — that, actually, “Cyrano” isn’t about an outcast finding love. It’s about an everyman struggling with imposter syndrome.
Imposter syndrome is the often irrational belief that one is undeserving of his achievements. According to Psychology Today, people who suffer from imposter syndrome “believe they aren’t as competent or intelligent as others might think.” It’s a belief I’ve experienced myself — despite my hard work, I often can’t shake the feeling that I was wrongly chosen for admission to my college, or wrongly hired for my internship. And unless you’ve been living under a rock (a side effect of the pandemic, don’t worry), you, too, know what it’s like to doubt yourself despite the clear evidence that you deserve what you have.
The character of Cyrano is a near-perfect case study in imposter syndrome. It is Cyrano’s own self-judgment standing between him and the woman of his dreams, not society. He is only ever called a freak by one snobby stranger. In reality, he has hordes of confidants who respect him, admire him, and believe he is capable of receiving requited romantic love.
Cyrano insists, time and time again, that “the world will never accept a midget like [him] and a tall, beautiful woman like [Roxanne],” despite the fact-based assertions from those around him, even Christian, that Roxanne loves him. Cyrano’s denial, which spans years, ultimately proves deadly for more than one of our heroes.
In changing Cyrano’s deformity from an abnormally large nose to dwarfism, Schmidt and Wright prove that Cyrano is representative of all flawed human beings, and argue that succumbing to our own self-doubt will only harm our loved ones. In a world in which 70 percent of adults will experience feelings of imposterism, we can all do well to heed Cyrano’s warning and give ourselves more credit.
“Cyrano” is not a masterclass in creating a movie musical. It is a case study in the damaging effects of self doubt. It is far from the only adaptation of Rostand’s classic play — romcom buffs may be familiar with “Roxanne,” starring Martin Short, and my fellow Gen Zers recently enjoyed the Netflix film “Sierra Burgess is a Loser” — but, in my humble opinion, it is the adaptation that comes at the best time.
Leslie Sattler is Broad + Liberty’s editorial intern. Previously, she proofread for October Hill Magazine and worked as Managing Editor of Our National Conversation, a startup specializing in nonpartisan news. She earns her bachelor’s from NYU this coming May.