The National Discuss Their ‘Cyrano’ Score, Writing in Baggage Claim
The National’s Matt Berninger and his wife and co-songwriter Carin Besser recently wrote a love song while lingering by baggage claim at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City. That might not seem like the most romantic setting, but the impromptu writing session led to “Write Me a Love Song,” a track from Cyrano, a new off-Broadway production set to open at New York’s Daryl Roth Theatre on November 7th, courtesy of The New Group.
“The characters in this play cannot just tell each other ‘I love you’ because one of them literally says that’s not good enough,” Berninger told Rolling Stone of the inspiration for “Write Me a Love Song.” “We have to write stuff that stands up to that. We can’t write a bunch of songs about people complaining about bad songs and bad poetry if we don’t deliver really good ones.”
The National had already composed the soundtrack for Cyrano, but because the show is currently in previews, Berninger and Besser were still able to slot in “Write Me a Love Song.” “It’s very much like half-songwriting and half-skydiving,” Besser said of the process.
Both the couple and The National have been a dervish of creativity over the last few years, writing new music and lyrics as the story of lovelorn Cyrano unfolds onstage. Peter Dinklage stars in the titular role, while his wife, director-playwright Erica Schmidt, adapted and directed the play. Schmidt reached out to the band to score the production, which she envisioned as not quite a musical, but a play featuring constant music — almost like a film score. The National had an archive of music stretching back almost 10 years, according to the band’s Aaron Dessner, so Schmidt dug in as she worked on her adaptation of Edmond Rostand’s 1897 play. The show tells the story of Cyrano, a man with a big nose who is hopelessly in love with a woman, Roxanne, who loves another man, Christian. Despite his feelings for Roxanne, Cyrano helps Christian write poems and letters to Roxanne, helping his beloved fall for another.
“The heartbeat of the music underscores the dialogue,” Dessner told Rolling Stone. “It incorporates two hours of our music.” While the music is decidedly by the National, Bryce Dessner stresses that it brings in baroque elements as befitting the original play’s mood and style.
The actors also dictated how the music was written. Jasmine Cephas Jones, who plays Roxanne, has more of a “pop star” voice, according to Besser, which lent itself to more radio-friendly tracks. Peter Dinklage’s vocal register is very similar to Berninger’s, the Dessners said, which makes his songs the most like The National. (“I don’t think of myself as a great singer, but I do think I’m a good deliverer of songs,” Berninger said of his own skills.) Aaron Dessner also revealed that Dinklage used to be a rapper, which factors into one of his songs in which he details just how hideous he thinks he is. He spits the song like bars.
For Berninger, it was important that he was able to relate to each and every character in the play in order to write music that he felt rang true. “I think they are all lost in themselves,” he said. “They’re all lost in their own images of themselves, and they’re unable to see anyone else as honestly as who they really are because they’re not being honest with themselves. I think that, for me, was what I was always writing about.”
Berninger says The National may end up releasing two albums tied to Cyrano, a cast recording and fleshed-out version of the soundtrack that the band would perform. “We’ve been talking a lot about that, but we’re trying to get the play to work first because the record would be a whole different kind of thing,” he said. “It would be fun if Aaron and Bryce would produce the cast recording, too. So, there might be two versions of it.”
Berninger also recently revealed that he’s planning to drop a solo album, Serpentine Prison, produced by Booker T. Jones. No release date has been set.