Sam Norman is the playwright and Aaron King the Composer and Music Director of Oxford’s new musical, Cyrano de Bergerac.
What kind of involvement have you had with theatre in Oxford?
SAM: My theatrical experience at Oxford has mainly been as a writer and spectator: Cyrano de Bergerac is the second musical I’ve written since arriving here. The first, also done with Aaron King, told the treacherous true story of the 1972 Chess World Championship Final, a contest replete with cheating and skulduggery and mischief concerning blueberry yoghurts. It was called Pawn, which meant that we spent a week at the Edinburgh Fringe asking passers-by if they liked watching pawn.
I’ve also dipped my toe in the acting side of things, playing an American Agamemnon in the New College Garden Play, Ajax, last term – but I won’t be quitting my proverbial day job anytime soon.
AARON: My first role was as Assistant Music Director for Spring Awakening at the Keble O’Reilly in 2015. That included a wide range of things from vocal coaching to playing (including playing on keys for the show itself). The next project I was involved in was completely different, partly because I was the lead role in it rather than being on the production team – it was a new musical, This World Lousy, which was written by Peter Sheperd (who was studying music at Merton at the time). The term after I was Assistant Music Director for Richard II at the O’Reilly which was another completely different experience because music took a very different role, and because we tried to emulate the music of Shakespeare’s time.
What can you tell us about your upcoming production? Why should people see it?
SAM: Cyrano is a year in the making, and currently looking really exciting. Aaron’s music is genuinely exceptional, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he becomes one of our generation’s most successful film composers. He had the chance to show the score to Claude-Michel Schönberg, a Visiting Prof of last year and also the composer of Les Mis, in a series of masterclasses – and this was an extraordinarily insightful experience.
Apart from that, it’s a belter of a story, a kind of French national tale. It’s set in 17th century France, and has all the best things of that era: swordfights, unspoken love, the fear of rejection, braggadocio, passion and wit. It’s a time when everything was painted in bright colours. And I couldn’t have hoped for a more talented cast and crew to bring it to life: our director, Rosie Richards, has done an incredible job, and working on it has been a joy for everyone.
On top of that, it’s been a pleasure to write! The original play, by Edmond Rostand, has some of the best writing in the French canon – so how do you follow that? In a sense, that’s why we’re doing it as a musical: Rostand conveys Cyrano’s intensity of feeling through having him speak in poetry; we try to convey it through music. But that doesn’t let me off the hook, of course; the book and lyrics have to be good if the project is going to work. The last lyricist to attempt Cyrano de Bergerac was Anthony Burgess. That’s the bar.
AARON: The story of Cyrano has been a real challenge to set to music, and that’s because the story is so moving and emotional, with a lot to say about human nature. This comes across phenomenally well in the original by Rostand, so I hope that the adaptation to a musical will feature the same emotions, but heightened and enhanced by music. I also think that the cast, crew and orchestra are all set to do a really good job of the show.
What can we expect/ look forward to from Oxford theatre in Michaelmas Term?
SAM: I’m a huge Martin McDonagh fan, so I’m enormously looking forward to The Lieutenant of Inishmore at the O’Reilly in Week 5. And Candide will obviously be phenomenal, at the Playhouse and in Week 5. Who would have thought that two musicals telling old French stories beginning with ‘C’ would hit the stage at the same time?
AARON: There are some really fantastic plays on this term (far too many to list them all). As music is my trade, I’m particularly excited for the upcoming production of Bernstein’s Candide in 5th week at the Oxford Playhouse (which I have also been involved in as a rehearsal accompanist).
How did you get involved in Oxford theatre?
SAM: I arrived wanting to write musicals! So I asked the person running the OUDS stall at the Freshers’ Fair what I should do, and he told me just to start. I wrote the script for Pawn over Christmas, got back, found a fabulous director, sent out a whole lot of emails looking for a composer, and Aaron replied almost instantly! We’ve been working together ever since.
AARON: I was involved in theatre at school as an actor, and was keen once in Oxford to get involved in other ways, especially as a Music Director and as a composer. Mostly I heard about opportunities either through friends, newsletters (particularly the OUMS and OUDS ones) or through social media.
Why should others get involved?
SAM: Because it’s fun. Writing is fun, theatre is fun, meeting people is fun, working together towards a common goal is fun. If it stops being fun, there’s no point.
AARON: There’s so much variety in the Oxford drama scene – there really is something for everyone, even in ways you might not initially think of, and all of that experience will be really useful outside the context of University too! It’s also a really great social scene, and being involved in a good production is a really rewarding experience when you get to see things come together.
What will you take away from your experiences with Oxford theatre?
SAM: Does everyone say great friends and happy memories? I’ll have some of those, I think, but I’ll hold tight to a particular experience that I’ve rarely found elsewhere. It’s the experience you get when you’re in a rehearsal, and the actors are singing your songs and reading your lines, and suddenly everything clicks and seems to work better than you’d ever imagined, and you get goosebumps and can’t stop smiling and just hope that everyone else will feel the same on the opening night.
AARON: A lot of very happy memories, and loads of experience that will be directly applicable to a career in drama! I’ve learned a lot about how to write and put on shows and doing that has been a really rewarding experience. I’ve made a lot of long lasting friendships and connections too.
Anything to add?
AARON: I hope people enjoy the show and the music – I’m really excited to see it come to life, both from the perspective of staging it at a theatre and also working with the orchestra! Sam and I have another rather different project planned for out next show, so watch this space!
Cyrano de Bergerac will run at Keble O’Reilly Theatre from 25th – 28th of October.