Direct And To The Point: The Last Five Years

This post stems from the most recent revival produced by Second Stage of Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years. (What can I say? Sometimes, life gets a little backed up.) Given the rather cult-like following that this album has, it’s striking that the last time this show was produced in New York was in 2002. Which is to say that Norbert and Sherie Rene are the definitive voices of this show for my generation.

This was the first time I had ever see a staged version of this show. I was delighted by the personalized choices that both Adam Kantor and Betsy Wolfe made through out the show. They did an outstanding job with the material. What also interested me with this production was the fact that it was directed by Jason Robert Brown himself. Given that this piece is known to be fairly autobiographical in nature, having the writer/composer direct it presumably gives you the opportunity to see the work the way the writer intended it.The Last Five Years

– Working It.

Overall, I was struck by how hard both of the actors were working to act with their imaginary scene partners. This show uses three types of address:

– Jamie and Cathy sing to each other (The only number we see this in is “The Next Ten Minutes”)
– Jamie and Cathy sing to themselves/the audience (Much like an aside or a direct address where the character is trying to process what’s happening in their life and kind of using the audience as a sounding board. We see this in “Still Hurting” and “Moving Too Fast”)
– Jamie and Cathy sing to imaginary versions of each other (Jamie sings to imaginary Cathy, Cathy sings to imaginary Jamie. We see this in “The Schmuel Song” and “I Can Do Better Than That”).

Conceptually, there’s a lot to like with regard to this format. “The Next Ten Minutes” becomes incredibly powerful and poignant by being the only real interaction the characters have. On top of that, I think the point of this musical is to show the separate versions of how this relationship crumbled. And in the interest of telling that story, I think it’s helpful to have the rest of the songs be one-sided. However, I think what we lose in the moments where they’re singing to imaginary versions of each other outweighs what we gain. I think really great actors are great because they are present and responding to what their scene partner gives them in the moment. And while there’s a certain amount of technique that can be called on when one has to act with an imaginary partner, it’s just richer when there’s another body. Additionally, I think we, as audience, miss out on too much of their relationship. I think we would feel more for them if we could see what their relationship really was at it’s best and at it’s worst. I would be interested in trying to stage this in such a way that the actors were on stage and present for all of the scenes where it’s implied that they are. I’m not sure if that’s logistically possible. In the event that it’s not, I would even be curious about what would happen if a “chorus” (another man and woman who didn’t speak but stood-in for imaginary Cathy and Jamie) were added. I realize this could get weird fast, but I feel like those images of how Cathy and Jamie interact are so important.

– Good Guys and Bad Guys.

I don’t find Cathy a very likeable character and I think that’s largely to do with the structure of the piece. When I say “likeable”, I don’t mean “nice”. I mean a character that we want to watch for a couple of hours. Someone who has some kind of redeemable quality. We meet Cathy when she’s “Still Hurting”. (Comparatively, we meet Jamie when he’s just fallen head-over-heels in love.) In this configuration, I think it’s really important to give Cathy something to fight for in that first song in order to keep that number from turning into a pity party, which is valid but perhaps not so useful. I think it’s important for the audience to be able to like her at the top of the show, especially since they can’t root for her. While I think most audience members, if not all, will know (or figure out) where the show is going (ie – that there’s not a happy ending for these two people), the audience can root for Jamie in a way that I don’t think they can’t do for Cathy. By meeting Jamie at the beginning of his journey we can hope for a positive outcome for him (even when we know that’s not what we’re going to get) by virtue of the fact that we’re moving forward in time. With Cathy, because we start at the end of her journey, it’s significantly harder to root for her. We know how her story ends. There’s nothing to root for. I think the best we can do is make her as likeable as we can. I think it’s important that at any given point these are two good people who happen to not be good for each other. I’m curious what the effect would be if the show were played backward, starting with Cathy falling in love and Jamie having an affair. (Although, I admit that there’s something very satisfying dramatically satisfying about the reveal that Jamie is having an affair after he’s been such a likeable character up to that point.) I also wonder what the effect would be if the story was played chronologically, with both Jamie and Cathy both beginning with falling in love and ending with the end of the relationship. It’s possible that playing it chronologically saps all the life out of the piece, since the opposing time progressions do create some interest, but I would definitely love to try a run like that in rehearsal.

– Overhead.

This production made use of video projections as part of the scenic back drop. I feel like projections are generally something that we in the theater are still trying to figure out how to incorporate in a successful and effective manner. With this production, sometimes I thought these projections helped and sometimes I thought they didn’t. Going back to my initial quip about wanting to see more of their relationship, I wonder if projections could be used to goose that up a bit. Perhaps they could be used kind of like home movies.

Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Post them below.The more the merrier!

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