The Last Five Years Takes Hold

By on 3 June, 2013 in Art, Fun, Greg Thornton with 2 Comments

Jamie: Will you share your life with me
For the next ten lifetimes?
For a million summers
Jamie and Cathy: ‘Til the world explodes
‘Til there’s no one left who has ever known us apart?

 The Last Five Years, Jason Robert Brown

It is the ultimate truism that you should write from what you know. The life experienced is considered to be the best teacher and the place from which most honest inspiration flows. That and having the gift to put thoughts together, create solid characters living a story that drives forward, illuminates moments, and creates a world the reader, the listener, and the audience connects with on an emotional and visceral level. No easy task all of that. Annie Dillard writes: “Why are we reading if not in hope that the writer will magnify and dramatize our days, will illuminate and inspire us with wisdom, courage, and the possibility of meaningfulness, and will press upon our minds the deepest mysteries, so that we may feel again their majesty and power?” (1)

Ms. Dillard throws the gauntlet down at the writer’s feet. I believe that Jason Robert Brown, the composer/lyricist of The Last Five Years, firmly picks it up with this emotionally charged, musically intricate and very honest work.

It has been reported that Jason Robert Brown based the story for the musical on his own relationship and subsequent failed marriage to an actress. The actress, it turns out, sued him because she felt the story was too close to her own. In the settlement, Brown agreed to lose any specific references to his ex-wife, who then signed off on the script. So, Brown changed a few things and the rest as they say is…

The Last Five Years premiered in 2001 at the Northlight Theatre in Skokie, Illinois. From there, it opened Off-Broadway in 2002, at the Minetta Lane Theater lasting two months, though its stars, Norbert Leo Butz, (who many remember from his time in the acting company at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival) and Sherie René Scott, have since had great success on Broadway.

There was a cast album, which has sold over 85,000 copies to date and has helped the show’s fan base spread. “L5Y,” as the Twitter hashtag reads, has been produced more than 1,000 times in the United States and around the world.

I have taken the lead from a New York Times article that gathered messages from a large number of folks who were particularly affected by this show, even to the point of using some of the show’s lyrics in their marriage proposals! Here are some other thoughts being shared, including some from that article article, but we’ll start with:

In rehearsal for The Last Five Years, l to r: Jonathan Conner, Jesse Alston, with director Randy Foster.

Randy Foster, director of The Last Five Years at the Playhouse:

Eleven-plus years after seeing the NY premiere of TL5Y, I have the extreme pleasure of getting to work on it. I am most often drawn to material that is challenging to performers, to audiences, and especially to me. This music is difficult because of its many styles and its vocal and emotional ranges; the acting challenges are myriad; these characters are, like most people you know, somewhat flawed. Yet I am fascinated by all of the contradictions and complexities of their lives. Anyone who has ever been in a long-term, serious relationship can relate to the hurts, the joys, the damages, and the permanent impacts that these two have on each other. To watch their stories unfold in opposite, but parallel, tracks is to experience the roller coaster ride that is contemporary love. To be given the gift of this show (at this time and in this space) is wonderful–to share it with such a remarkable collection of talent (actor/singers, designers, staff) is difficult to adequately describe in words. After 11-plus years, there are still moments that are so dead-on emotionally that they make me cry every time I hear them. Bring a handkerchief!

From Jesse Alston, who plays Catherine Hiatt in the Playhouse production:

This show has been amazing. I have loved it ever since I first heard it years and years ago, and I’ve always wanted to play Cathy since. So obviously I was extremely excited when I heard the Cloverdale Playhouse was doing this production. The show itself seems as though it would be so simple, but it is so complex musically and emotionally. It really allows people to connect to each of the characters and their songs on so many levels. There are always moments in this show where you connect something a character does at the end to something back in the beginning, whether it’s in the music or lyrics, and you’ll have a moment of “Oh! I recognize that!” and then everything comes crashing down because you realize the emotion is the opposite. And yet everyone can relate to their situations in some way. It’s just a really, really well written show, and I’m so lucky to have this opportunity to perform it. And Randy is just so amazing to work under. He has really taken the time to make sure Jonathan and I fully understand everything about these characters and their lives and relationship together. He wants everything to be so real and vulnerable on stage so that the audience will be able to really connect with us, which can be a little scary, but I’m so excited for it.

From Jonathan Conner, who plays Jamie Wellerstein in the Playhouse production:

I actually knew almost nothing about this show aside from the basic premise so I truly came in blind. It has been a remarkably (and deceptively) difficult show to work on, but the other side of that coin is that it has been amazingly rewarding already. I knew none of the music initially so it has been a real joy to discover the complexities and nuances buried in these characters through their songs… and it’s just fun to sing!

From an interview at Playbill.com with Jason Robert Brown, creator/composer/lyricist of The Last Five Years, prior to the opening of the revival this winter at Second Stage in New York, NY (2)

Is the show still set around the beginning of the millennium, or has it been updated?

JRB: So much about the motor of the show is about these two people not being able to communicate. You can still not communicate with people even if you have stuff like texting and Facebook, but those weren’t part of the vocabulary back then, so they’re not in the show. I felt that if you said it was 2013 and yet they don’t spend time on Facebook, Twitter, texting, then they’re not really being young, contemporary New Yorkers, so I decided to leave it be. I’m not having them wear period fashions that suggest 1998, but I didn’t want to do anything that felt aggressively au courant.

What is it about the show that’s resonated with so many people?

JRB: I love that these characters have very full, honest emotional lives. A lot of musical theatre has to stint on those things, but I didn’t write this for anybody but me. I had something I needed to say, which gave me freedom to write these characters as deeply as I could, so they’re flawed but very recognizable. People see themselves very much in these characters.

Is it accurate to describe the show as autobiographical?

JRB: It’s not not autobiographical. On an emotional level, it’s very autobiographical. I had a really tragic first marriage, so that part is true. Knowing anything about my own biography, you can’t watch the show and not see a lot of parallels, but the specifics aren’t autobiographical.

From Greg Tankersley of McAlpine,Tankersley Architecture, Montgomery, AL

I was lucky enough to attend the final performance of the original Off-Broadway performance of The Last 5 Years. I went, blindly into the production, mainly to enjoy another performance of Nobert Leo Butz. I’d been enjoying hearing him sing since the days of the original MAO benefits when they took place in the Vintage Year on a Monday night (the restaurant and ASF’s off-night). Back then, he was just Norbert Butz (the “Leo” was not earned yet, I suppose). Sitting on a stool, armed only with an old guitar and bathed in a lone spotlight, I knew then this guy had some sort of folksy “it factor”.

Years later, sitting in a small West Village theatre, I knew little of the show’s theme or the composer, Jason Robert Brown. I was just there to see what an old acquaintance was doing these days. Sherie Rene Scott’s haunting opening song, “Still Hurting” immediately grabbed my heart and I proceeded to climb aboard an emotional 90 minute ride. Each lovely song was almost a one-act play (an old Sondheim trick performed by a new magician) and every one built upon the last, orchestrated in an odd, about-face timeline. The creation and destruction of a relationship played out jubilant and tragic before my eyes and ears. I was in tears at the end.

Over the last ten years, I’ve revisited the cast recording many times, always to be swept away in the simple (yet complex) boy-meets-girl-loses-boy story. In my theatre-going history, The Last Five Years remains one of my favorite journeys.

From a New York Times article by Erik Piepenburg May 13, 2013 (3)

When I finally saw the show for the first time in 2011, it turned out to be one of the most intense theater experiences of my life. There were no over-the-top sets, no special effects, just a couple of chairs, two tables, a few props and two incredible actors: Christian Alexander Müller and Joana Fee Würz. The production was held in a tiny basement theater in Germany, the Chemnitzer Kabarett, with less than 150 seats. It felt wonderfully intimate, almost a bit voyeuristic, as if I was sitting in Cathy and Jamie’s living room watching their relationship unfold right in front of me. Annegret Hintze, 26, Dresden, Germany

I’m obsessed with the show. I’ve collected anything I could find, including a bootleg DVD of a performance they did in Skokie before the Off Broadway run. Jason Robert Brown was so honest with his portrayal of these two characters. It’s got two characters who are both likeable and unlikeable. Anybody who has been in love has been in this position. You’re right and wrong for each other, and neither one can say that. I know I’ve gone through that. — Jimmy Straley, Springfield, Ohio

Listening to rehearsals from the back of the house, or in the lobby of the theater, or downstairs in the hallway, and in the scene shop, has been a great pleasure. Jesse and Jonathan, led so wonderfully by Randy, are exploring the intricacies of the music, fed by a story that digs deep into what makes a relationship work and the many triumphs and trials that two people can face along the way. Sometimes the notes can soar and at other times they resonate profoundly. Our audience is in for a truly special experience.

1 Annie Dillard, The Writing Life (Harper, 1990), 72-3

2 Brandon Voss, PLAYBILL BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Jason Robert Brown, “Now Directing His Beloved Musical, The Last Five Years.” Playbill.com http://jasonrobertbrown.com/2013/03/09/on-directing-the-last-five-years-playbill-com/ (accessed May 26, 2013)

3 Erik Piepenburg , The Strange Pull of a Simple Love Story, The New York Times, April 25, 2013, http://theater.nytimes.com/2013/04/28/theater/the-last-five-years-by-jason-robert-brown-heading-to-film.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1& ( accessed May 25, 2013)

Coming Up at the Playhouse

  • The Last Five Years by Jason Robert Brown. Directed by Randy Foster. June 20-24 and June 27-30. Thursday-Saturday 7:30 p.m., Sunday 2 p.m.
  • Joe Thomas, Jr. 3rd Tuesday Guitar Pull (Date Changed to June 25th 7PM)
  • Playhouse School Summer Workshops July 15- August 3
  • The Brothers Size by Tarell Alvin McRaney. Directed by Anthony Stockard. A Cloverdale Playhouse Special Performance. July 25-27 7:30 PM, July 28 2:30 p.m. Proceeds to Benefit the ASU Alpha Psi Omega National Theatre Honor Society

For Tickets and Further Information, call: 334.262.1530

Online: www.cloverdsaleplayhouse.org

Greg Thornton is the Artistic Director of the Cloverdale Playhouse.

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  1. Sandra Nickel says:

    I can hardly wait! Save me a seat on the front row as I want to really be able to see the pain on the performers’ faces.
    And does anyone know if the cast album is still available anywhere for download?

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