The Nose Nobody Knows

Young Cyrano: A program from the Guthrie's 1973 production

THIS WEEK THEATRE de la Jeune Lune will open its second production of Edmond Rostand's classic Cyrano de Bergerac. Jeune Lune's 1988 rendition, directed by John Clark Donahue, is still talked about as one of the best theatrical productions of the decade. A color-blind Cyrano in 1984 made headlines for Mixed Blood. Buzz seems to follow Cyrano wherever it goes, and each local incarnation has been treated as an Event. Nowhere is this more true than at the Guthrie Theatre, which staged Cyrano three times in 15 years, to packed houses, and ultimately produced a musical version that would reveal the dangers of the big-budget blockbuster.

In 1971 a young Guthrie Theater produced a new adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac by noted novelist and essayist Anthony Burgess (A Clockwork Orange). The play, directed by then-artistic director Michael Langham, was one of the biggest successes of the Guthrie's early years, selling to 98-percent capacity during its run. A year later, associates of Apjac International--the folks who brought us the Planet of the Apes films--picked the Guthrie to develop a new musical version of Cyrano de Bergerac, using much of the same crew as the 1971 production (including Langham). The concept was to put an attractive new face on an eloquent script--an ironic scheme, given Cyrano's plot. The play would premiere at the Guthrie and eventually go to Broadway; from there, it might hop to London.

Cyrano (thankfully, no exclamation point) would be the first musical for the Guthrie Theater, an uneasy prospect for a still-young institution. Big-budget musicals have a potential to make or destroy a theater. In 1984 the Guthrie's production of Anything Goes (directed by Garland Wright ) saved the theater from a dismal year, while a decade later, the multimillion-dollar debacle of Babes in Arms (also directed by Garland Wright) showed the Guthrie finance department a new kind of pain. Just this past week, the New York Times Magazine chronicled the travails of George C. Wolfe, who is now throwing $5 million of New York Shakespeare Festival money at a dubious revival of On the Town.

The Guthrie couldn't have anticipated the boom-and-bust dynamic of the musical back in 1972 as they cast Christopher Plummer to don the proboscis, and prepared for the prestige a successful Broadway run would bring. The Twin Cities press, then as now, was ready to do the cheerleading: Both the Star and the Tribune frequently ran updates on Cyrano news--casting, scheduling, ticket sales, financial figures. Early reports had the producers spending $500,000 on the show, with the Minneapolis run accounting for about $200,000 of the cost.

After much ink had been spilled, Cyrano, a new musical with book and lyrics by Burgess and music by Michael J. Lewis, opened at the Guthrie on January 23, 1973. The sellout audience was treated to 18 songs with titles that could have come from AM-radio ballad: "From Now Till Forever," "A Man Without Words," "You Have Made Me Love," "Love is Not Love," and "I Never Loved You."

The critics were not so affectionate. "Michael J. Lewis' sweetly sentimental music seldom is up to either the stature of Burgess' script or Christopher Plummer's extraordinary rendition of the title character." wrote Mike Steele of the Minneapolis Tribune (20-plus years later, he'd put the kibosh on Babes in Arms). "The music is bland overall and very timid," he wrote in the same review. While Plummer's acting prowess was never in doubt, his musicality was less assured: "Plummer is not a talented singer," wrote Roy Close of the Star, "and despite Lewis' efforts to write within his range there were a few embarrassing moments when Plummer's best was clearly not good enough." Amazingly, the four-week run of the show did eventually sell out, although these reviews would provide a more apt foretelling of this Cyrano's fate.

Director Michael Langham didn't last through the Minneapolis run, and by the time the show got to Broadway, it had seen about 15 cast changes. While Plummer eventually won a Tony for the play, and Minneapolis actress Leigh Beery was nominated for best supporting actress for her role as Roxana, the play flopped. Early estimates predicted the musical would have to run on Broadway for 30 weeks to break even, although they hoped to play it for at least a year. Cyrano, however, would run for just six weeks, with only 48 performances. (Two decades later, a Dutch musical version would suffer a similar fate.)

While the whims of the musical gods are always unpredictable, it seems likely that this shipwreck could have been avoided by a little soul searching on everybody's part. UPI drama editor Jack Gaver hit that nail on the head: "Without a truly magnificent score," he wrote, "which this show does not have, any long time admirer of this play is apt to feel that this work... simply doesn't need songs."

At last check, Jeune Lune wisely was not planning on making a song-and-dance out of their newest Cyrano staging--though, as Roxane, opera singer Norah Long may break out a melody. They've been warned.

Cyrano opens at Theatre de la Jeune Lune on November 19 (preview on November 18); 333-6200.

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