Monday, May 19, 2014

The Last Five Years

You will recall that a few weeks ago, I was listening to a new musical called Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.  (What?  You don't recall that?  Maybe you should be reading the HP more diligently.)  Anyway, I'm still listening to Broadway musicals, and today I'm reporting on a show called The Last Five Years.

Jason Robert Brown is a musical theater composer who was born in 1970.  In the early 2000's, he wrote a musical that was roughly based on the break-up of his first marriage -- in fact, he re-did one of the songs in response to a complaint from his ex-wife.  The Last Five Years features only two actors.  One plays the part of Jamie Wellerstein, a 20-something novelist.  The other plays Cathy Hyatt, a 20-something actress.  Over the course of the show, they meet in New York, fall in love, get married, drift apart, and finally separate for good.

Brown wisely recognized that if the story is presented in chronological order, it will open with a barrage of happy songs and close in a wave of anger.  So in the show, Jamie and Cathy each have a separate chronology.  Jamie's first song is at the beginning of the relationship, and his songs move forward in time.  But Cathy's first song describes her reaction to the break-up, and then her songs move backward in time.  They meet in the middle of the show, with a song for their marriage -- the only time the two actors sing together.  The result is to create a mystery for the audience -- after hearing the first two songs, we know that Jamie had been in love with Cathy, but is no more.  What happened?  Where did things go wrong?  The rest of the show fills in the details.

The show can be enjoyed on several levels.  The songs (not surprisingly) cover a vast range of emotions -- over the course of the show Jamie and Cathy are funny, angry, passionate, lonely, on top of the world, and deeply miserable.  Anyone who has been in a serious relationship will recognize much of what they go through, and you can spend hours trying to figure out exactly where things went wrong.  Was their break-up inevitable?  What if Jamie hadn't become so famous?  What if Cathy had been more successful?  Was Cathy too needy?  Was Jamie too selfish?  (In my opinion, there are correct answers to each of these questions, but not everyone sees the play the same way.)

On the other hand, you may find Jamie and Cathy to be a pair of annoying yuppies, and the whole show may feel like a really long episode of Thirtysomthing.  (Full disclosure:  I was a big Thirtysomething fan.)  But even in that case, you can still have fun just listening to the songs, which are all good, and some of which are brilliant.  (If you're interested, here's a song that Cathy sings after their first date.  Here's one that Jamie does when he gives Cathy a Christmas present.)  I should note that Jamie and Cathy use some bad language, but their language is very much in character.

The Last Five Years came to New York in 2002, and the original off-Broadway cast featured Norbert Leo Butz and Sherie Rene Scott.  Butz -- a native of St. Louis -- went on to win two Tony Awards for other shows, while Scott's later career led to two Tony nominations.  So this was a very strong cast.  Nevertheless, the show closed after only about two months.  And that would have been the end of it -- but the songs found an audience among actors and actresses (who love doing the songs) and in regional theaters (who love putting on a show with such a small cast).  Plus the original cast had created an excellent soundtrack, which remains in print.  By 2013, the show had returned to New York with a new cast -- and now a movie version is in production.

I've been impressed by a lot of the new music being done on Broadway -- I regret not paying more attention to this part of the culture over the last 20 years.  But I think The Last Five Years is particularly good.  Recommended to anyone who likes show tunes, Thirtysomething, or talking about relationships.

1 comment:

  1. This is outstanding. And I did remember that you had written about the Andrew Jackson deal. And I think the following sentence is my favorite sentence at the HP in some time: "In my opinion, there are correct answers to each of these questions, but not everyone sees the play the same way."