December 28, 2003
He sings, she sings
From hope to hurt, the Laguna-bound 'The Last Five Years' charts the rise
and fall of a marriage along two conflicting timelines. Tony-winning composer
Jason Robert Brown speaks from personal experience
By Robin Rauzi, Times Staff Writer
Kim HUBER sings the last goodbye of the final bittersweet song of "The Last
Five Years" and then tells the director, "This is the loneliest play I've
ever been in."
It's a joke. Sort of.
The sung-through musical by Tony winner Jason Robert Brown traces a five-year
relationship from courtship to court filings. The characters traverse time
headed in opposite directions: He begins after their first date while she
begins at their separation. So while the characters are meeting and marrying,
fighting and fooling around, they sing only one duet.
"I thought I was writing a song cycle, a concert piece for two singers,"
says the 33-year-old Brown. It would be something inexpensive; maybe he could
even perform it himself. "Or, it would be like 'Love Letters,' and you could
put anybody in it."
"The Last Five Years," which gets its California premiere at the Laguna Playhouse
on Saturday, evolved into more. With each song Brown added, his characters
got increasingly detailed: Jamie, the brash Jewish novelist enjoying youthful
success; Cathy, an aspiring actress whose confidence is shredded by the competitive
Brown was writing at a tumultuous time: He'd recently won the Tony for best
musical score for "Parade," and his first marriage had disintegrated.
"As I was writing that story," he says at some years' remove, "it got in
some ways closer to my own life than I had intended.
"I guess there is something cathartic about putting out and articulating
something, but I was very scrupulous to being fair to both parties in the
play," he says. "That's maybe good for your soul. But empathy was not the
first thing in my head when dealing with my own marriage. There were plenty
of times I wished I wasn't working on it."
There's no plot, per se, beyond boy meets girl, marries her, then leaves
her. The arc of the show is entirely emotional, and in fact, the audience
knows more than the characters in nearly every song. The tension builds through
the juxtaposition of past and future.
In an early rehearsal, director Drew Scott Harris had the cast rehearse the
scenes in their chronological order.
"It's much too sad to do that way," Harris says. "It was four times as sad."
The actors have to stay on their own trajectories. As Huber rehearses the
bubbly song "I Can Do Better Than That" — "And it feels like my life led
right to your side and will keep me there from now on" — co-star Rick Cornette
has his head buried in a pillow offstage, preparing for his next scene, in
which he wakes up in bed with another woman.
"When I'm not on stage, I like to watch what she's doing," Cornette says,
"but you have to find a way to turn it completely around in your head to
Fame without fortune
Brown exploded out of the blocks in his mid-20s with the potent song cycle
"Songs for a New World," produced off-Broadway in 1995. Director Daisy Prince
introduced him to her father, Broadway director Hal Prince, who enlisted
him to write the score for the musical "Parade."
"Parade," with a book by Alfred Uhry, is about a Jewish factory supervisor
wrongly accused of murder in the South in 1913. It proved too dark for audiences
at Lincoln Center. By the time Brown and Uhry picked up Tony Awards, the
show had been closed for three months.
Given fame without corresponding fortune, the New York-based Brown continues
to work on others' projects. He's a sought-after music director and led the
national tour of "Parade." More recently, he composed four songs and conducted
the short-lived "Urban Cowboy" on Broadway.
He also writes incidental music for plays, including "Kimberly Akimbo," seen
at South Coast Repertory in 2001.
"The Last Five Years" shows off the sly humor and style that have earned
Brown awards and frequent comparison to Stephen Sondheim. He dips into klezmer,
jazz or gospel, but the music stays accessible as pop.
"I'm always torn between being a musical theater writer and a pop song writer,"
"Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan — these people didn't write pop songs.
They wrote poetic and wonderful expressions of emotional life…. I've been
trying to marry that singer-songwriter ideal with the musical theater."
"The Last Five Years" has weathered ups and downs that rival those of its
characters. With help from Daisy Prince, Brown's song cycle coalesced into
a play. Lincoln Center let the two of them take it for a world-premiere test
run in 2001 at the Northlight Theatre in Skokie, Ill., outside Chicago.
There, Brown led the six-piece orchestra and played the piano himself. The
production got the kind of reviews that souls are sold for. "Brown's lyrics
— alternately cutting and boldly romantic — sweep the stage like a summer
storm," wrote Hedy Weiss of the Chicago Sun-Times. The Tribune's Richard
Christiansen opened his review: "Exhilaration, so intense that it brings
tears of joy, is at hand." Time magazine named it one of the top 10 theater
productions of 2001.
One person who didn't like it? Brown's ex-wife.
In a letter to Lincoln Center, which had announced its own production for
early 2002, her lawyers claimed the show violated a specific part of their
divorce settlement, in which he agreed not to create a character identifiable
as her. As Lincoln Center bowed out and two off-Broadway producers stepped
in, Brown and his ex-wife filed his-and-hers lawsuits.
He ended up changing parts of the play. She recouped her lawyers fees. And
the whole thing was settled just before previews started at the Minetta Lane
Theater in Greenwich Village.
"The Last Five Years" picked up two Drama Desk Awards for best music and
lyrics, but the New York Times and Village Voice gave it tepid reviews. The
production lost money, and closed after a month of previews and a two-month
It rebounded a year later with a successful production in Philadelphia and
a cast album. Since then, it's taken off on the regional theater circuit
with 31 productions this year around the U.S. and 25 additional companies
scheduled to stage it in 2004.
Broadway, though, was never really in the cards.
"It would have gotten strangled," Brown says. "At the risk of sounding more
controversial than I want to be, the work I do does not belong in Broadway
musicals as what they're perceived to be these days. I don't have the gift
to write something as superficially entertaining to succeed on Broadway in
Brown, who recently married composer Georgia Stitt, has two projects in the
works: first, a piece he's creating out of workshops with 13-year-olds around
the country, and second, a musical about Betty Boop, written with "Kimberly
Akimbo" playwright David Lindsay-Abaire. He also travels frequently to college
campuses, where "Songs for a New World" is a popular production. He leads
a master class for aspiring composers and watches the show.
He doesn't, however, seek out productions of "The Last Five Years." It depresses
"It's clearly a show about two people who make a decision they don't understand
— and they then have to deal with it. I try to articulate that they probably
didn't belong together in the first place, but their youth and the romance
of that pushes them through with it.
"If there's anything uplifting about the show…." Brown peters out. Then he
The Last Five Years