When the lavish new film musical Cyrano starring Game of Thrones’ Peter Dinklage opens in late December, few moviegoers will realize that it all began in a small theater in Connecticut.
In 2018, a musical version of Edmund Rostand’s 1897 epic play of swordsmanship, poetry, and unrequited love received a workshop production at Goodspeed Musical’s’ second, smaller venue — the 200-seat Norma Terris Theatre in Chester.
Also in that Connecticut audience for many performances of that run was film director Joe Wright — best known for romantic period films such as Pride and Prejudice, Anna Karenina, and Atonement. His partner was Haley Bennett, who was playing the role of Roxanne, the musical’s female lead— and who would also star in Wright’s film.
The idea of a stripped-down version of the show actually began quite a few years earlier, after director-writer Erica Schmidt staged a 2006 production of Carnival at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse, where Michael Gennaro was president and chief executive. Gennaro was impressed by Schmidt’s artistic vision and planned to work with her again, discussing other ideas she had, including her re-imaging of Cyrano. But later that year, Gennaro moved on to become executive director of Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, R.I.
Flash forward to 2015 when Gennaro was named executive director at Goodspeed Musicals. “One of the first calls I made was to Erica,” says Gennaro.
Foremost in their minds was the Cyrano project, which at that time was at its earliest stages of script development. Gennaro commissioned the work and invited Schmidt to Goodspeed’s Mercer Grove, the winter retreat where musical theatre artists work on new projects.
Schmidt left the Mercer with a substantial body of work — but there was still no music.
“I remember we were sitting at a restaurant,” says Gennaro, “and we were talking about various [musical theatre] composers for the show. Then for whatever reason I said to her, ‘Have you ever thought of using a [rock or pop] band?’ She thought that was an interesting idea, and a few weeks later, she called me tremendously excited after having just seen The National in concert, and she said, ‘I’ve got the band.’”
Says Donna Lynn Hilton, Goodspeed’s producing director at the time and now its new artistic director: “She had us with Cyrano starring Peter Dinklage, written by her, with music by The National, who were very hot at the time.”
After a New York reading and three weeks of rehearsals there, a full production was set for Goodspeed’s second theater in Chester for August 2018. It coincided with the height of Game of Thrones frenzy, as the wildly popular series was concluding its record-breaking HBO run.
“Peter wrapped up filming Game of Thrones, they packed their things in Europe, and came directly here,” says Hilton. “I can’t imagine what it was like for either of them to have been through that whole process together, but they came here and lived in company housing with their children.”
Though Goodspeed had security plans in place to deal with the possibility of over-enthusiastic fans, Gennaro says there was never a problem, and that people were respectful to the show, his performance, and to his privacy.
Says Hilton: “He was very private and focused — and there were no connections with fans.” Nor with journalists who wanted to write about the production.
In the cast besides Bennett — who was relatively new to performing on stage — were Blake Jenner (TV’s Glee), whose exit from the show for a television series cut the run’s extension short.
The Only Connecticut Review
Critics were asked not to review the show, but because of the high interest in Dinklage — Goodspeed never had a star actor at that level of popularity — and the significant boost in ticket prices, I saw that chronicling and assessing the show was a service to Connecticut theatergoers. I also saw it as a variation of an out-of-town tryout prior to a New York run — which took place in the following year.
So, I bought a ticket and wrote an overall highly favorable review of the musical when the run concluded. My purpose was to give – to those who didn’t see the show with this amazing actor – a sense of what it was like, and for those who did, so they could compare their impressions with mine.
I became the only critic to publish a newspaper review of the show (for the Shore Newspapers) — as well as for my blog.
And what did I think of the show?
I was stunned by the brilliant performance of Dinklage, impressed by the haunting music and movement, and its lean adaptation. I thought the show had a terrific future. I had some reservations and offered suggestions to what I thought would help the show as it moved forward. (The full review can be found in the review archives at ShowRiz.com.)
Then on to New York
Following the Goodspeed run, the show moved off-Broadway to a production by The New Group, which also had a personal relationship with Schmidt and Dinklage.
“We have a relationship with Erica and Peter, and they were looking for a New York home for a show,” says Scott Elliott, artistic director of The New Group. “When I saw it at Goodspeed and I heard the first song, I started to cry, which is very much not me, but there was something about the emotion in the music.”
Bennett did not perform in the New York production — she gave birth that previous December. Taking over the part was Jasmine Cephas Jones (“Hamilton”,) who had a stronger singing voice but played the role “with unsettling and unsubtle fierceness,” as I wrote in my Variety review.
While there were some improvements, there were other changes that were not all for the better, including some cut songs that previously had deepened the character and motivations of the characters. If I had to choose, I preferred the Goodspeed version.
By the time the show opened in New York, Wright was talking about making it into a film.
“Then, last year, all of a sudden they got a green light to go,” says Elliott, adding that the movie was filmed under pandemic protocol in Sicily in the fall of 2020, not far from the active volcano Mt. Etna.
Elliott hopes the film will stir new interest in other theaters producing Schmidt’s stage version.
Because of the casting of Dinklage, Elliott says “it will open the door for a lot of different, cool actors to step up and show their stuff.”
Photography by DIANE SOBOLEWSKI