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Goodspeed's 'Cyrano': Modern Songs, Swordfights And ... No Big Nose?

Editor’s note: The departure of ormer "Glee" star Blake Jenner, who plays Christian in "Cyrano" at Goodspeed, is forcing the theater to cancel some performances of the show. More information here.

The swashbuckling musical “Cyrano” has arrived for its first full-fledged workshop at Goodspeed’s Norma Terris Theatre with a few readings under its sword-belt, many revisions and fresh ideas, plus a killer cast.

The new musical, based on the classic stage play “Cyrano de Bergerac,” stars Peter Dinklage of “Game of Thrones” in the title role, and Haley Bennett (“The Girl on the Train,” “The Magnificent Seven”) as the much-sought-after Roxanne, and Blake Jenner as Christian.

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“Cyrano” is the brainchild of Erica Schmidt, who wrote its book and is also directing the Goodspeed production. She enlisted members of the internationally revered rock band The National to provide the songs. Schmidt and Dinklage are married, and “Cyrano” marks one of the few opportunities they’ve had to work together professionally.

When Damon J. Gillespie, who plays Cyrano’s confidante LeBret, is asked whether there’s a lot of fencing in the show, he answers, “Oh, lord, yes! We keep adding more movement and more physical activity. It’s very story-driven, but with intense movement, especially during the war scenes. There are a lot of really cool effects.”

Gillespie comes particularly well prepared for the action-packed “Cyrano,” having mixed athletics with singing and dancing in his last major role, as Robbie Thorne in this year’s NBC-TV series “Rise.”

“Cyrano” is the third in-development musical he’s been a part of.

Gillespie describes his character LeBret as “Cyrano’s best friend, who keeps him in check. Cyrano raised him, and now they have each other.”

It’s a departure from other versions of the Cyrano de Bergerac story. “I’m not in my 40s, or my 30s, and that’s how LeBret is usually played. I have a duet with Cyrano that I really enjoy. I have an interaction with Roxanne, which is so crucial, and also with some of the other characters. We’re still playing with it, developing it.”

“Cyrano” is considered a workshop; critics are not welcome to review it, and the script and score are being revised constantly.

“Erica is such an amazing director,” Gillespie says. “She allows the work in the room to be open and collaborative.”

That includes Gillespie’s scenes with Dinklage.

“I’ve been a Peter Dinklage fan for years. I remember seeing “Death at a Funeral,” and he had that great part in it at the funeral, and then when Chris Rock remade it Peter Dinklage was in it again, and that was the funniest thing. I had just binge-watched the entire ‘Game of Thrones’ over the past three months, and was on the last season, when I got cast in this and heard he was starring in it. That blew my mind. Then when I met him, he immediately cracked a joke, to put us at ease and let us know how funny he was. He’s so dedicated and smart.

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“It’s funny because when you play friends onstage, it doesn’t mean you’re friends offstage. But we really have become friends. He told me he’s an incredible Childish Gambino fan. I never would’ve expected that. It was our bonding moment.”

“Cyrano” has developed its own singular style, Gillespie says: “There are no jazz-hands moments in this show at all. It’s very naturalistic.”

The score sounds contemporary, he says, but the costumes evoke the distant past, a vague period that “alludes to the early 1800s or the late 1500s. We use our swords and our guns.” The original Edmond Rostand play was written in 1897 but set in the 1640s and ’50s.

Oh, and as of just a couple of weeks ago, the creative team apparently made the audacious choice to dispense with Cyrano de Bergerac most famous characteristic: his large nose.

As Gillespie explains it, “we don’t mention the nose very often in this adaptation. We all have our own insecurities and demons that keep us from falling in love or whatever. It’s more about Cyrano’s pride than anything.”

The songs clarify these teeming inner emotions.

“If you’ve ever listened to The National,” Gillespie says, “they have not changed their sound at all. There’s just a story in front of it.”

The National’s Aaron Dessner notes that “these aren’t really rock songs, and aren’t produced that way. … They’re like old friends in different clothes. They might feel familiar, like one big Nationals song. But we really wrote it with other people’s voices in mind.”

The key songwriters for The National are all involved: Dessner and his twin brother Bryce composed and arranged the music, while Matt Berninger (the band’s deep-voiced vocalist) and Carin Besser wrote the lyrics.

“It’s been a deeply collaborative process with Erica Schmidt,” Dessner says. “She adapted the original book. We had given her a couple of hours of music to listen to while she was working. Since then, we’ve written and rewritten a lot of different songs. It’s a different process for us, but that’s how theater works. We’ve hired an old friend, Olivier Manchon, to be the music director, and some of the musicians are friends of ours as well.”

“Music theater is not something I’d call myself a student of, or an avid fan of,” Dessner says. “But Erica’s approach to this show is similar to how we make music. There are themes in the play that appear in our songs. It’s more complex than just romance. Some of those themes seem especially resonant today: wartime conflict, loss, missing loves ones. It feels poignant right now.”

“Cyrano” will have a six-piece band featuring guitar, violin, cello, clarinets and piano.

“We’ve written this for a small ensemble, but it can be expanded for a larger production. It’s the way we usually work — we create something raw, then start to orchestrate.”

Dessner and the other songwriters were at the Goodspeed in July and will return in a few weeks, but their visits to the show (which began performances Aug. 3) have had to be carefully scheduled.

“There’s this reality that The National is on tour, playing concerts around the world. We’ve made time for this over the last two years, but it hasn’t always been easy.”

As for “Cyrano”’s future after the Goodspeed, Dessner says, “there have already been a lot of offers, even based on the readings. We all want to see where this goes. Already, you can tell it’s a special thing. But there’s no master plan yet. Besides everything else, it’s been a fun and interesting exercise for us.”

CYRANO runs through Sept. 9 at Goodspeed Musicals’ Norma Terris Theatre, 33 N. Main St., Chester. Performances are Wednesday at 2 and 7:30 p.m.; Thursday at 7:30 p.m.; Friday at 8 p.m.; Saturday at 3 and 8 p.m.; and Sunday at 2 and 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $70. 860-873-8668; goodspeed.org.

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