Date: August 31 2002
By John Shand
Two halves of a story glued cunningly back to front.
The Last Five Years (Sh-K-Boom)
Musicals are washing back into Sydney's theatres like an unexpectedly high
tide. Almost as expensive to make as films (but with a much shorter shelf-life),
these strange fish attract an audience that is often perceived to be more
interested in star names and the theatrical wow factor than the show itself.
High production costs have inevitably bred conservative choices and approaches
in a medium that already tends to stand a few safe paces back from the cutting
edge. But innovations are still possible (as Stephen Sondheim has repeatedly
proved), as is artistic and commercial success not driven by the scale of
Jason Robert Brown's The Last Five Years opened in New York in March, directed
by Hal Prince's daughter, Daisy. Although this two-hander will never rattle
the box-office cash drawers like The Sound of Music, it is a fascinating
creation and one that prospers, proving that audiences need not be patronised.
Brown's words and music trace the rise and fall of an apparently autobiographical
relationship, from first date to marriage break-up, entirely in song. Nothing
startling so far, but the ingenious innovation is that while Catherine (Sherie
Rene Scott) tells her side of the story backwards from the break-up, Jamie
(Norbert Leo Butz) simultaneously tells his side in more conventional chronology.
They alternate songs, merging for the first time around the middle of the
show, appropriately enough at their wedding.
It is a method that requires concentration from the audience, and repays
that concentration with an emotional depth charge, as echoes of each character's
past words bounce like waves off the sentiments being sung. Reminiscent of
a listing boat with a panicked crew, the relationship (which was always unbalanced,
anyway) tips more and more until it sinks in the sheets of Jamie's affair.
The music (realised by a low-budget, high-class ensemble of five) can be
a little ungainly in its montage of styles, although it generally serves
the words and illuminates the subtext admirably. Butz and Scott give moving,
finely shaded performances, upstaged only by Brown's rending and perceptive
This import is available from The CD Collector, Bondi Junction.
songs for a new world