Earlier this year, Jason Robert Brown directed an off-Broadway production of his partly autobiographical The Last Five Years. An essentially modern musical, it tells of a doomed love between an increasingly successful young writer Jamie and his actress girlfriend Cathy. They fall in love, marry and separate, with the show’s gimmick being to tell Jamie’s tale chronologically, whilst Cathy’s tale plays out in reverse. An unconventional show, we meet Cathy post- separation, “Still Weeping”, whilst in the sharpest of paradoxes Brown introduces us to Jamie in Shiksa Goddess a comic tale of his characters back-story, acknowledging the guilt of his Jewish identity as he finds himself irresistibly drawn to Cathy.
The songs are perceptive and honest. Brown lays the moral responsibility for the marriage break-up squarely at the feet of Jamie who finds himself tempted by other women as soon as he is married. Though as Jamie’s writing star ascends Cathy struggles as an actor, cleverly sketched in When You Come Home To Me and the disparate nature of their experiences of success and Cathy’s inability to support her husband, is hinted at as her failing by her errant spouse.
Adam Kantor brings a youthfully loving but ultimately profoundly selfish style to Jamie. His hollow words of desire to a young lover as his marriage to Cathy is ending in Nobody Needs To Know, are as tender as they are cruelly ironic. We have heard his lies before and they make the song even more poignant. Kantor is flawess in his delivery and one senses that Brown has carefully polished every word that is sung in the show.
Much like Kantor, Betsy Wolfe simply brings excellence to Cathy. Her carefully weighted words in See I’m Smiling, a song beautifully crafted but painful to consider as we hear her try to retrieve their marriage from the ashes of Jamie’s infidelity, are heartbreaking and through her performance and Brown’s direction, her character’s grief is tangible.
It was an unexpected treat that a recent visit to New York City should coincide with a live bookstore promo of the CD, performed by Kantor and Wolfe with Brown on piano. Having missed the show’s run, the three songs performed at the launch gave a tantalising peek at just how fine the staging must have been and whetted the appetite for a more leisurely appreciation of the recording. The Last 5 Years is a frequently performed piece of musical theatre. It's minimal cast (of two) ensures that a production budget can often be minimised, however with the show being so affordable to stage, it can often be the case that mediocrity creeps in however well-intentioned a production’s actors and creative folk may be. To thus glimpse (albeit literally) the show in a form that is entirely of its writer's creation is a rare moment of privilege.
We catch a hint of Cathy’s back-story in I Can Do Better Than That, a mini-biopic of a song that hints at Billy Joel’s Scenes From An Italian Restaurant in its tale of young folk growing up. Brown has updated his lyrics from the original and a fleeting reference to Tom Cruise has now been airbrushed from the page, replaced by the far more tacky, though nonetheless rhyming, “tattoos”. (Though quite why the nod to Duran Duran has been retained is a wonder.) And when it comes to a song’s middle eight, even prosciutto wrapped, no one writes them better than Brown.
The CD has an air of "this is how the show should be". First produced some twelve years ago, it is clear that the writer has allowed the complex components of The Last Five Years to settle over time, before returning to personally define how his story should be told. It’s a classy move by Brown and those writers and emerging writers who still possess the faculties and abilities to direct, may do well to follow his example. This recording makes for inspirational musical theatre.
The album can be purchased and downloaded here