One of the most famous speeches in the original “Cyrano de Bergerac” is 32 lines of Cyrano deriding his ugly nose, which is traditionally a prosthetic worn by the actors who play him. Schmidt’s adaptation is distinctive for getting rid of the nose and casting Dinklage, a man with dwarfism, as the lead. This specific choice makes Cyrano’s height, not his nose, the barrier that (supposedly) keeps him from winning Roxanne’s affection.
During “When I Was Born,” swordplay and wordplay clash as Cyrano dukes it out with a powdered-up French aristocrat. In the midst of this duel, Cyrano lashes out with his tongue at his rival. Capping the exchange off with “God has a sick sense of humor,” this sequence reveals how Cyrano feels about himself, and shows how his self-image is shaped by the way that society perceives him. By transforming his self-loathing into elegant poetry, the film sharpens Cyrano’s introduction immensely.
What really makes “When I Was Born” thrilling, however, is that it immerses you in Cyrano’s confidence in both his combat abilities and his wit, only to surprise you when it turns out that he’s shy when it comes to matters of romance. This contrast returns when Cyrano bests 10 men in the dark. But “When I Was Born” is far from a perfect sequence. It has a hurried pace, and it’s so busy with the parries and thrusts of its participants’ swords that Cyrano’s words risk getting lost amid the rapid editing.
Interestingly, this number was present in the original Connecticut production of “Cyrano,” but was cut from the New York one. Perhaps it was decided that the chorus distracted the audience from Cyrano, who, along with his self-deprecating pain, should be the one commanding the spotlight.