Cathy and Jamie are married. She acts at a community theater in Ohio. He is a best-selling author. Cathy arrives home and finds a letter with her name on it. Jamie has just left home and Cathy.
Jamie and Cathy just went on their first date. She dreams of starring in a Broadway show. He wants to conquer the writing world. Jamie is Jewish. Cathy is not. He’s cool with it.
And so begins the classic tale of “Boy meets Girl and then, five years later, divorces Girl in the most passive aggressive way possible”. Only not in that order.
The first scene of Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years is actually the last, chronologically speaking. This tuneful two-hander sets its lovers on parallel paths through the half-decade of their courtship. The hands of time turn counterclockwise for Cathy but clockwise for Jamie in alternating scenes. It is a clever device that tragically juxtaposes their points of view on emotionally contrasting points in their relationship. Only at the end of Act I do their timelines intersect at their wedding. This harmony is literally short lived as most every other song in the show is a solo.
Just in time for Valentine’s Day, Stage Right is presenting The Last Five Years for your viewing pleasure, if chocolates and flowers aren’t your thing. Although we know at the top of the show that things don’t work out for the romantic leads, the team behind this production believe that the show is important for sweethearts at all levels of engagement to experience.
“I think it can put a mirror in front of someone who may need it and reaffirm in people that there are some things you just can’t change,” said co-director Jamie McDonald.
By virtue of being primarily sung-through and featuring characters who very rarely occupy the same space or time, The Last Five Years presents some unique production challenges. McDonald’s co-director Jim Froehlich explained that they plan to face these obstacles head on with “careful blocking that allow[s] the characters to explore the space but have very defined boundaries” and a six-piece orchestra to give the Brown’s score “maximum emotional impact.”
Since its original production at the Northlight Theater in Skokie, Illinois, The Last Five Years has spoken to millions through its dissection of this ill-fated union. For one person, though, the story hit a little too close to home. At the time of its inception, many in the media and Brown’s ex-wife Theresa O’Neill, felt that the show was Brown’s version of a salacious tell-all chronicling the dissolution of their marriage.
Like Cathy, O’Neill was an actress.
Like Jamie, Brown was a writer of rapidly increasing fame. Before The Last Five Years, came huge cult hit Songs For a New World and his first Best Original Score win for Parade. He has since written scores for the musicals 13 and Honeymoon in Vegas and won a slew of awards (including two more Tonys) for his adaptation of The Bridges of Madison County.
Jamie and Cathy start to drift apart as his career flourishes and hers flounders. He first encourages her not to give up with a strange fable in “The Schmuel Song” before harshly asserting later that he “will not fail so [she] can be comfortable.” After multiple failed auditions in New York, Cathy tries in vain to convince herself that Jamie’s benign neglect is a symptom of his dedication to writing not of his lack of dedication to her (“A Part of That”).
O’Neill pursued legal action against Brown for a version of the show she felt too closely resembled their lives. Brown denied that the show was “strictly autobiographical,” but revised the script so that the show could go on.
Based on his success and O’Neill’s place in the minds of most musical theatre fans as a footnote in this story, Brown clearly triumphed in the court of public opinion. When it comes to his avatar in the show, the same cannot be said. McDonald, Froehlich, and their stars Jenna Hayes and Will Docimo unanimously declared themselves “Team Cathy.” Both Hayes and Docimo understand the parts of their characters’ personalities that brought them together, but cite Jamie as the one who “seal[ed] the fate of their troubled relationship.” It is a hotly contested debate that can stick in your head as much as Brown’s catchy piano-powered songs.
The Last Five Years may have never made it to the Great White Way, but that has not stopped it from attracting Broadway caliber talent to headline it. The 2002 Off-Broadway production and original cast recording featured Norbert Leo Butz (Wicked) and Sherie Renee Scott (Aida). Their album is the favorite among the Stage Right team, especially Hayes who listened to it “non-stop” after seeing the show at the Eastman School of Music, the alma mater of her older sister and Jason Robert Brown.
Other productions of the show have seen Betsy Wolfe, Cynthia Erivo, Adam Kantor, and Joshua Henry portray the doomed lovers, but the show’s biggest mainstream exposure came when Pitch Perfect’s Anna Kendrick and Supergirl’s Jeremy Jordan starred in Richard LaGravenese’s 2014 film adaptation. Kendrick and Jordan’s performances were both praised while the movie as a whole received mixed reviews after premiering at the Toronto Film Festival.
Perhaps the most shocking thing about the big screen version is that it features more people than just Cathy and Jamie. In a wonderful full circle moment, most of these minor roles are cameos by Brown, Wolfe, and Scott. In the last 18 years, this show’s enduring emotional resonance is proof that it can be just as beautiful for art to imitate life as it is when life imitates art.
For tickets and more information about Stage Right’s production of The Last Five Years, click here.
Brian Pope is a playwright and pop culture obsessive who has been writing for Pittsburgh in the Round since February of 2016. His plays have been produced by his own theatre company, Non-State Actors, as well as Yinz Like Plays?!, Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, and Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company. He’s also served as dramaturg for City Theatre’s 2018 Young Playwrights Festival and as both stage manager and actor for Alarum Theatre. When he’s not making or reviewing theatre, he’s actively pursuing his other passions, listening to showtunes and watching television.