The Last Five Years originally ran off-Broadway in 2002. Cited as one of Time magazine's "Ten Best of 2001," it won Drama Desk awards for Best Music and Best Lyrics.
There are only two characters in the musical, Jamie and Cathy. Jamie is a young novelist and Cathy is a struggling actress. Told in reverse chronological order, the drama shows what happens when an artistic couple's romance fizzles out.
"Structurally, the piece works so that Cathy is always moving backwards through time, whereas Jamie is always moving forward and then they do meet in the middle at their wedding," says Jason Robert Brown, the show's composer and lyricist.
Brown spoke with Jacki Lyden, host of weekends on All Things Considered, about the current off-Broadway revival of his cult-hit musical, and what has changed in his life in the almost 11 years since The Last Five Years first came to the stage.
On what "The Last Five Years" is about
"It's really an exploration of two people who meet in New York City and fall in love, and get married and then fall out of love, so it just examines their relationship over the course of five years."
On why he decided to tell the story in an unorthodox way
"Once I came up with the idea that it should be a love story just between two people, I thought that if it went in chronological order — if she sings a song and he sings a song — I thought that we would always sort of be ahead of them. You know, I didn't know quite where that was going to end up. And then it came to me on a subway platform that if she were going backwards and he were going forwards, that we'd know what the end of the story was, but we would always be a little bit struggling with them. You know, we would just be in the middle of their struggle to get together and to figure out what went wrong. And I thought that psychologically made sense to me, that felt like what it was to be at the end of a marriage, is you just sort of, everyone was in a different time."
On why he became a musical theater composer instead of a rock star
"I felt at home in the theater in that way that you know, you're supposed to if that's the kind of person you are. I just, you know, I showed up in one of those places where you could smell the sawdust, and, you know, there's the ghost-lights, all the dancers auditioning and I just thought, 'Oh right, this is home, I get this.' And I've never lost that."
On why the show has yet to go to Broadway
"I think that the economics of doing a show on Broadway are, they're daunting, first of all. And I didn't want the pressure of this show to be dictated by the size of the house. And I think that you do write differently for every venue. You know, if you're writing Wicked, you're writing for a very large theater. But if you're writing a piece that's got two people in it and six musicians, you're actually writing for a very intimate space. And I think that you have to be careful to preserve that original intention."
JACKI LYDEN, HOST:
If you're just joining us, it's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. And it's time now for music.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOVING TOO FAST")
NORBERT LEO BUTZ: (as Jamie) (Singing) Did I just hear an alarm start ringing?
LYDEN: That's actor Norbert Leo Butz, from the 2002 cast recording of the musical "The Last Five Years." "The Last Five Years" won Drama Desk Awards - for Best Music and Best Lyrics - and became a cult hit, with stagings of the musical showing up all over the country. It's even being made into a film. Now, 11 years later, the show's composer, Jason Robert Brown, is bringing his musical back to where it all began - New York City.
JASON ROBERT BROWN: When I was 32, when the piece originally opened, it was a very personal piece to me; and I felt like it was sort of my life at that moment. And this point later, I have a much more - what I would call avuncular interest in the characters. I sort of - I kind of want to tell them that it's OK; that it's going to work out, and that this happens to everybody; and we all understand.
LYDEN: The story at the center of "The Last Five Years" is simple.
BROWN: It's really an exploration of two people who meet in New York City and fall in love and get married, and then fall out of love. So it just examines their relationship over the course of five years.
LYDEN: Now, it's not your standard musical because the storyline shifts a lot. It moves forwards, and it moves backwards. And the last five years, the narrator is Cathy Story, primarily; we see it through her eyes. Jamie's is the next five years. They have duets just in the middle, when they get married.
BROWN: Structurally, the piece works so that Cathy is always moving backwards through time, whereas Jamie is always moving forwards. And then they do meet in the middle, at their wedding.
LYDEN: Let's hear a little bit from that.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE NEXT TEN MINUTES")
ADAM KANTOR: (As Jamie) (Singing) Will you share your life with me for the next 10 minutes? For the next 10 minutes, we can handle that. We could watch the waves, we could watch the sky, or just sit and wait as the time ticks by. And if we make it till then, can I ask you again for another 10?
LYDEN: It's so sweet. That's actor Adam Kantor, singing "The Next Ten Minutes," from the revival of your show "The Last Five Years." You know, I think one of the things that's such a hook here is that this idea of telling Jamie and Cathy's story, imploding the traditional love story where they ride off into the sunset, is unorthodox and perhaps a lot more like life. How did it come to you? I know it's partly autobiographical.
BROWN: Well, what I always say is it's not autobiographical. But you know, I had a tumultuous first marriage and certainly, a lot of that went into the writing of this show. I think that really, though, the show started more as a structural conceit to me. The idea was to write a two-character piece. I wanted to do something small. And I wanted to tell a simple story so that I could have fairly expansive songs.
I feel like when you have a lot of story that has to get told, the songs have to be very short - or they have to always be doing plot. And I don't think songs do plot very well. And once I came up with the idea that it should be a love story just between two people, I thought that if it went in chronological order - if it was, she sings a song; and he sings a song - I felt we would always sort of be ahead of them. You know, I didn't know quite where that was going to end up.
And then it came to me on a subway platform that if she were going backwards, and he were going forwards, that we'd know what the end of the story was, but we would always be a little bit struggling with them, you know? We would just be in the middle of their struggle to get together, and to figure out what went wrong. And I thought that psychologically, actually, it made sense to me; that that felt like what it was to be at the end of a marriage, is you just sort of - everyone was in a different time.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE NEXT TEN MINUTES")
KANTOR: (as Jamie) (Singing) Will you share your life with me?
BETSY WOLFE: (as Cathy) (Singing) Forever.
KANTOR: (as Jamie) (Singing) For the next 10 lifetimes?
WOLFE: (as Cathy) (Singing) Forever, Jamie.
KANTOR: (as Jamie) (Singing) For a million summers...
KANTOR, WOLFE: (as Jamie and Cathy) (Singing) Till the world explodes, till there's no one left who has ever known us apart...
BROWN: It's a show about trying to be an artist in New York City, and trying to be in love at the same time; and how those are sometimes in conflict.
LYDEN: One of the standout things about this musical is its wit. Let's listen to Adam Kantor sing another song, and this one's called "Shiksa Goddess.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHIKSA GODDESS")
KANTOR: (as Jamie) (Singing) If you had a tattoo, that wouldn't matter. If you had a shaved head, that would be cool. If you came from Spain or Japan or the back of a van, just as long as you're not from Hebrew school; I'd say, now I'm getting somewhere. I'm finally breaking through. I'd say, hey, hey, shiksa goddess, I've been waiting for someone like you...
LYDEN: A tiny - sort of Woody Allen touch there, I think. You know, as a writer, how do you balance comedy and drama?
BROWN: Comedy is drama. I think that if your characters are feeling something that is very real, then they have to respond in a way that feels real to them and some situations, the only response you could possibly have is to respond in a way that's so extreme that people are going to laugh. You know, these characters are in crisis, for much of the show. And that sense of crisis, you know, either propels great angst and great upset; or sometimes the release is just to start cracking jokes about it.
LYDEN: Jason, I know you grew up just outside New York City. Did you always know you wanted to compose music?
BROWN: What I always wanted to do was to be a rock star. I thought I was going to be Billy Joel - which, I think, for all Jewish boys who played piano in the suburbs back then, that was kind of the goal. And, you know, I went down that path for awhile. And at the same time, you know, I love theater music. And I listened to "West Side Story" religiously. And I sort of, you know, grew up just outside of the city and so went to Broadway shows once or twice a year. And so it sort of seemed logical to me that I could write musicals as well as being a rock star. But then the rock star thing, I never really pursued.
LYDEN: At a really young age, you were doing this kind of thing and thinking this way, yeah?
BROWN: Yeah. Well, you know, I did musicals in high school, certainly. And then I just kept wanting to do them. I felt at home in the theater, in that way that, you know, you're supposed to if that's the kind of person you are. I just, you know, I showed up in one of those places where you could smell the sawdust and - you know, there was the ghost lights, and then all the dancers auditioning. And I just thought, oh, right; no, this is home; I get this. And I've never lost that.
LYDEN: I'm speaking with composer Jason Robert Brown. He's directing a revival of his musical "The Last Five Years," at the Second Stage Theatre in New York, for a limited run.
This show has been internationally successful, just made so many headlines; performed by high school students everywhere - all you have to do is go to YouTube, to see how much this piece has been done. And it launched some really great careers, like that of Norbert Leo Butz, who went on to star in "Wicked" and "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels." Not a Broadway show, though. Is it a question of scale, or why do you think it hasn't been done on Broadway?
BROWN: You know, it may yet, but I think that the economics of doing a show on Broadway are - they're daunting, first of all. And I didn't want the pressure of this show to be dictated by the size of the house. And I think you do write differently for every venue, you know? If you're writing "Wicked," you're writing for a very large theater. But if you're writing a piece that's got two people in it and six musicians, you're actually writing for a very intimate space. And I think you have to be careful to preserve that original intention.
Broadway is very important. I mean, Broadway, to me, is such a imprimatur on, you know, on a piece of theater when - you know, "Thirteen," which is another show I wrote, I think has so much of its life now because we were fortunate enough to be on Broadway. But...
LYDEN: Yes, so you've had the experience of both.
BROWN: I have. But "The Last Five Years" never - it never needed that. And I've always been very happy with the way that it ran, when it was in New York, because I felt like it was in the right space.
LYDEN: Came home.
BROWN: And now it has come home, yes.
LYDEN: And you were telling those young people in the first blush - the first iteration, if you will - of "Last Five Years" that life would work out, and it sounds like it has.
BROWN: Well - I mean, what I always say is that, you know, my current wife, Georgia, is the only person who thinks that "The Last Five Years" has a really happy ending.
LYDEN: You had your big opening night this past week. How'd it go?
BROWN: I think it went pretty well, actually. I was very, very happy with it. I mean, to be a first-time director in New York is a little bit terrifying. And I have two extraordinary young actors. And they just stood up there, and they made my work sing. And I couldn't be happier than seeing that.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOODBYE UNTIL TOMORROW")
WOLFE: (as Cathy) (Singing) And goodbye until tomorrow, goodbye until the next time you call. And I will be waiting, I will be waiting...
LYDEN: That's Jason Robert Brown. He's the writer, composer and director of "The Last Five Years," which is currently playing at the Second Stage Theatre in New York. Jason Robert Brown, it has been a real delight talking to you. Thanks for being with us.
BROWN: Such a pleasure, Jacki. Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOODBYE UNTIL TOMORROW")
WOLFE: (as Cathy) (Singing) I have been waiting for you.
LYDEN: And for Sunday, that's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. Check out our weekly podcast. Search for WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on iTunes, or on the NPR app. Click on programs and scroll down. Or follow us on Twitter @nprwatc or nprjackilyden. We're back on the radio next weekend. Until then, thanks for listening, and have a great week.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOODBYE UNTIL TOMORROW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.