I love musicals - especially those small gems that have cult followings, but that few people see. (I spent years searching those out for 4th Wall Theatre when I served as their artistic director.) So I realize my card should be revoked that I did not see “The Last Five Years” by Jason Robert Brown when it ran off-Broadway ten years ago. I love his work from “Songs for a New World” to “Parade”. The man is a genius as a composer/songwriter. In this piece, he has mixed his contemporary sound with a semi-autobiographical account of his first marriage and placed it on the stage for all to see: and all told through song.
The musical running at Second Stage Theatre has been extended several times and if you are in New York…you must go and see it. We witness the lives of two twenty-somethings as they meet, fall in love, marry and dissolve: all within five years. Jamie Wellerstein is an up and coming novelist who takes the literary world by storm (much as Jason Robert Brown did as a composer in his twenties) while Cathy Hiatt is one of the thousands of people in New York trying to make it as an actress, but doesn’t quite get there. I give nothing away by saying the marriage dissolves, because the story is told through two perspectives: Jamie moves forward and Cathy starts at the end and moves backwards. It may sound confusing, but it is cleverly done in this song cycle – with the two never really connecting except in the middle when it is at their wedding.
Brown has directed this version himself and I can’t help but wonder what that must be like for him. As a writer myself, I realize I put some of my own life into my writing – but his former wife actually tried to get this show stopped when it first came out. Distance and time must place a new perspective on it for this writer/director. But he has done a great job at directing and the clever sets and lighting all add to a wonderful production.
The two actors are incredible. I think I’m in love with Betsy Wolfe and now I must see everything she does. She is completely adorable with her comedic numbers, heartbreaking when she starts the show with a bang, and a belt that shakes the cavernous room at Second Stage while also drifting up into angelic soprano areas. I found myself grinning ear-to-ear when she was on stage. Adam Kantor makes the role his own, even while being directed by the man who ‘semi’ lived it. The man has a vocal range from bottom to top that does not quit. Watching him progress in his career with exuberance is delightful and he carefully maneuvers some pitfalls written into his role.
I’m twenty years beyond my twenties, but I still recall those years in NYC when I was striving to balance career and relationship. It’s never easy. As a novelist, I watched carefully as Jamie’s world takes over the marriage because even at 44 I want to make sure that never happens in my own life. So the show has themes that many couples can relate to – no matter our age.
The one issue I would have with it is that we don’t get a sense of where the love came from. We see devotion from Cathy and we see a lot of ego from Jamie. We wonder why Jamie would ever leave her (especially with such a vibrant actress playing the role). But if you look closely at the lyrics – I think Brown has put it in there. Jamie sings the word “I” over and over. Even when he has an amazing song called “If I Didn’t Believe in You” (which when I heard Norbert Leo Butz sing from the original recording it broke my heart) – the arrogance of Jamie shines through in Kantor’s performance. Maybe we would have felt more for this man climbing the literary ladder and leaving his wife behind had he only said “If you didn’t believe in me…” But Jamie makes it all about himself – all the time. Perhaps this was Brown’s way of apologizing to a past love. I guess we’ll never know.
The musical is being made into a film starring Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan. (I have a huge crush on Kendrick too in every movie she makes.) I’ll be very curious to see what director Richard LaGravenese does with a stage show that has two characters singing monologues and never connecting to each other on stage. Can't wait to see!