There have been a surprising number of Cyrano musicals, given the concept’s consistent track record of failure and widespread reputation as a quintessential bad idea, but most of them have little importance even within the field of Broadway flops. Of all of them, this is the only one that qualifies as a major cult item, and that alone constitutes a certain achievement within its field.
Granted, part of its importance can be chalked up to Christopher Plummer’s brilliant performance in the lead. Already famous as a nonmusical Cyrano, Plummer gave an acting performance on a level with the all-time greats of the legitimate stage, and while he did not possess much of a singing voice (he was dubbed in The Sound of Music), he managed to incorporate his unique vocal sound into his performance very effectively.
But it’s also an undeniable fact that this show has significantly better music than any of the other Cyrano adaptations. Michael J. Lewis, a film composer best known for his score for the underrated film version of The Madwoman of Chaillot, proved to be as talented at theater composing as he was at film scoring, providing an always tuneful and often ravishingly romantic score. Anthony Burgess, famed author of A Clockwork Orange, who had provided the translation of the play that the the musical was based on, also contributed the lyrics, and the quality of his poetry was often astounding: “Now she knows that I exist/Life’s a rose that she has kissed”, for example.
Approximately half of the score is absolutely glorious. Cyrano has two anthems, the exultant “From Now Till Forever” and the defiant “No Thank You”, that may echo Don Quixote’s numbers from Man of La Mancha, but have a sufficiently distinctive style (especially in their far more ornate lyrics) to stand on their own. He also gets a heartrending ballad near the end of the show called “I Never Loved You”, one of those hopeless-denial-of-love plaints that could honestly rival “If I Loved You” for lyricism and heartbreak. Roxanne, played in the original cast by a fabulously gifted soprano named Leigh Beery, has three exquisite solos, the ecstatic “You Have Made Me Love”, the painfully honest “Love Is Not Love” and the fatalistic yet optimistic “Autumn Carol”, and a tender, rippling duet with Cyrano about their shared childhood called “Bergerac”.
The other half, of the score, however, particularly the comedy numbers and the music for the supporting characters, does leave something to be desired. “The Nose Song” is simply the famous monologue from the play rewritten into rhyming couplets and set to a kind of sprechstimme, and it does not gain advantage from the adaptation. “Thither Thother Thide of the Moon”, a nonsensical hamfest that borders on the Floppo, is far less interesting than the genuinely creative monologue about travelling to the moon it replaced. “Roxana” is pretty, but it is also a blatant ripoff of “Dulcinea” from Man of La Mancha, even respelling the heroine’s name to support its derivative construction. Christian’s “It’s She and It’s Me” fails to find the poignancy in its inarticulate character, coming off as banal and uninteresting. And “Paris Cuisine” emphasizes the wrong moment from the scene it emerges from—we could have had a plaintive piper’s tune about homesickness (which, as Cyrano observes in the scene, is a nobler pain than hunger), but instead we just get a generic chorus number in which the soldiers grouse about being hungry.
The real problem with the show is that even the wonderful numbers do tend to come off as a little underwhelming when surrounded by Rostand’s poetry, which has a musicality and lyricism that only a Mozart or a Schubert, or at the very least a Sondheim, could possibly hope to live up to. Even if the show had consistently kept up the level of its best numbers, it still would have inevitably come up short in the end. This is the fatal flaw that has sunk several other Cyrano stage musicals as well as at least one opera version. But as I said, this one does have a special status among those failed adaptations, and if that makes it only the best among failures, its virtues still make its sumptuously recorded cast album well worth the trouble of seeking out.