In ‘Cyrano’ song ‘Every Letter,’ three voices swirl, dance and finally unite in harmony
The musical drama “Cyrano” morphed into something new from stage to screen; most significantly, director Joe Wright wanted a song performed by all three members of the central love triangle.
“We’ve never written anything close to it,” said Bryce Dessner, who along with brother Aaron Dessner and Matt Berninger form three-fifths of the band the National. “We’ve done duets, but to write a trio is really tricky.”
In the upcoming film of the classic French story, Roxanne (Haley Bennett) is in love with the handsome soldier Christian (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), who loves her back but doesn’t have much of a way with words. Cyrano (Peter Dinklage) is madly in love with Roxanne, but he loves her so much — and himself so little — that he agrees to ghostwrite poetic, romantic letters to her as if from Christian. In facilitating a relationship that breaks his heart, he also gets to express, in a strange way, his own feelings for Roxanne.
The song “Every Letter” moves like a quickened heartbeat, caffeinated by a driving cello line and syncopated, pounding drums. Cyrano’s words (the lyrics are by Berninger and his wife, Carin Besser) are sensual — “Will we be ravaged? Will you be true / To somebody perfect, somebody like you?” — driving Roxanne wild with passion. “Every letter makes me lose my reason,” she sings, “every word is like your kindest touch.”
In the musical, “Cyrano’s poetry really lives in his letters and in the songs,” said Aaron Dessner. “That song is where it really plays out.”
Christian, in his own words, moans less eloquently: “I’m tired of yearning / I’m tired of learning / I need to drink you / My heart is burning.”
The three voices swirl around each other like a dance, then unite in harmony during the chorus — electric guitars chiming against the swelling string orchestra.
“That was maybe the hardest song for us to write and to pull off,” said Aaron Dessner. “Because we were dealing with three different voices, and we had to really find a way to make it natural in the dynamic, so it almost feels like the sensuality of Cyrano’s words plays out through these three voices in that song.”
Like the rest of the score, the music is a deft blend of the Dessners performing rock instruments and electronic production with a full orchestra recorded at Abbey Road Studios in London. Bryce was on set in Sicily to oversee everything musical and remembers staying up until 4 a.m. working on the orchestration for this song. Wright knew each instrumental choice would affect the way he shot the sequence.
Also at Wright’s insistence, all the vocals were performed live by the actors.
“These are actors who sing, as opposed to singers who act,” said Bryce, “so we were thinking: ‘Oh, we should really do it ahead of time.’ But he really wanted to capture the kind of raw emotion of those scenes — and we’re really happy that he pushed us on that, because that was part of what makes it special.”
“Cyrano” doesn’t act like a traditional movie musical, and that was very much by design.
“Every time I make a film,” said Wright, “I kind of pretend it’s the first film I’ve ever made. And I like others to do that too, to try and unlearn what we’ve learned and try to come at it completely fresh. It was exciting to try completely new things.”
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