A version of this story about The National, Bryce and Aaron Dessner, and their original songs for “Cyrano,” appeared in The Race Begins issue of TheWrap magazine.
The National, best known for their self-described “ugly duckling” rock songs that are emotional and introspective yet idiosyncratic, on the surface sound like the perfect people to write a musical about one of literature’s most iconic ugly ducklings, Cyrano de Bergerac, in Joe Wright’s movie musical “Cyrano.”
But even though Bryce and Aaron Dessner, the band’s guitarists and multi-instrumentalists, have dabbled in everything from classical and experimental arrangements to their own moody, electronic scores (“The Revenant,” “The Two Popes,” this year’s “C’mon, C’mon”) writing songs in the service of a narrative — first for the stage and then the screen — was a new challenge.
“Who would’ve thought that a song like ‘Fake Empire’ was an anthem that thousands of people would sing? There’s no sort of massive banging chorus. We’ve done that our whole lives,” Bryce Dessner told TheWrap. “But in ‘Cyrano’ it’s something else entirely. The songs weave in and out of the dialogue, they’re not the big needle drop moments.”
Most of them were written for a 2019 off-Broadway production adapted and directed by Erica Schmidt, who is married to the film’s star, Peter Dinklage. Schmidt wanted to update the traditional play’s long, poetic monologues with music that could blend with the dialogue. The lyrics themselves were even written directly into Schmidt’s screenplay, flowing between verse and song.
The National, hardly the type to pen a Broadway anthem or pop song, she felt might be just the group to capture that internal poetry of the words. And the band considers one of the film and play’s standout tracks “Wherever I Fall,” to be one of “the strongest songs we’ve written in our career” and a “timeless” song that they would’ve never written if not for “Cyrano.”
But a new song, “Every Letter,” uses pulse-quickening strings and feather-light piano to deliver a key narrative moment. The three main voices in the cast—Dinklage, Haley Bennett and Kelvin Harrison Jr.—sing live vocals despite not sharing the screen, which forced the Dessners to tinker with pitches and keys in a makeshift, baroque theater near the film’s set in Sicily.
“What would take a lot of pages in the play is done in this dramatic trio, which is unlike anything we’ve ever written really, to have this trio of voices communicating to each other through this sensual song about poetry and words,” Aaron Dessner explained.
The good news was that Dinklage’s baritone register sounds awfully like The National’s lead singer, Matt Berninger, who also wrote the “Cyrano” lyrics along with Carin Besser.
“What works for Matt doesn’t really work for anyone else because he can read the phone book and it sounds meaningful,” Bryce Dessner said. “But Peter, once he let go of trying to sing like Matt, found his own beautiful way of expressing these songs, and we were able to tailor them around him. He’s such a virtuosic actor and really showed himself to have an incredible voice as well.”
Berninger did, however, get to sing on the other new track, “Somebody Desperate,” a song that Bryce said is about the “impossibility and beauty of human longing and communication.” It didn’t fit in the flow of the narrative but was a “great thesis” for the play and perfect for the end credits.
The Dessners agreed that Berninger and Besser “poured their soul” into their lyrics, and they added that to have their music be so “elemental to the piece” from the very beginning was a dream come true.
“Our songwriting is all woven together. It’s the inverse of what we do in the band, usually,” Aaron Dessner said. “This is something we always dreamed about, and then to have it happen is really special.”