When the Metropolitan Opera star Ezio Pinza agreed to play Emile de Becque in South Pacific, he stipulated in his contract with Rodgers and Hammerstein that he would sing “an aggregate of not more than fifteen minutes during the entire play.”
Piker. He wouldn’t get through even a third of The Last Five Years, which runs about 90 minutes and has almost no dialogue but fourteen killer songs. Since the two actors split the chores fairly evenly, that means they each sing for about 45 minutes — often at the extremes of their ranges, at full throttle, and in highly emotional circumstances. Who would put performers, or anyone, through such a trial?
Have you met Jason Robert Brown?
If not, you may feel like you have after seeing this relentlessly revealing gem of a show, which he wrote thirteen years ago and is now directing in its first major New York revival. Little secret is made of its autobiographical origins. The “mahvelous novelist” Jamie is one of those self-involved and prodigal talents to whom everything comes easily and early. (Brown made it to Broadway with his score for Parade when he was 28.) Cathy, the “shiksa goddess” he’s in love with, is one of those smart but insecure actresses whose drive does not seem quite capable of powering her past the indignities of her profession. The minute the two marry, the dominance polarities flip (Cathy, who at first seemed unattainable, now has to beg for Jamie’s attention) and the relationship becomes a Chinese finger trap from which the only escape is rupture.
It should be irrelevant, but it isn’t quite, that Brown’s first marriage crashed in a similar enough way that his then-wife sued him over the show. (As a result, one song was replaced between its Chicago premiere in May 2001 and its Off Broadway opening in March 2002.) That personal history speaks directly to Brown’s surprising achievement here. It’s not just that he has made the sympathetic character sympathetic, despite any personal temptation not to; Cathy’s anger is amply justified, her flaws and confusions articulated with great tenderness:
I am not always on time.
Please don’t expect that from me.
I will be late,
But if you can just wait,
I will make it eventually.
Not like it’s in my control,
Not like I’m proud of the fact,
But anything other than being exact-
Ly on time, I can do.
I don’t know why people run.
I don’t know why things fall through.
I don’t know how anybody survives in this life
Without someone like you.
What’s more unexpected is that Brown has let the unsympathetic character be unsympathetic. After an exceedingly brief phase of modesty, Jamie demands full deference to his talent, and doesn’t face any real obstacles except his own emotional restlessness:
And I have to say that what exacerbates the problem
Is I’m at these parties, I’m the center of attention, I’m the grand fromage,
And here she comes:
“Let’s get a cup of coffee.
Will you look at my manuscript?”
And I’m showing her my left hand,
I’m gesticulating with my left hand,
And then WHOOMP! There’s Cathy!
’Cause she knows—They always know—
And there’s that really awkward moment
Where I try to show I wasn’t encouraging this,
(Which of course I sort of was),
And I don’t want to look whipped in front of this woman,
Which is dumb, I shouldn’t care what she thinks
Since I can’t fuck her anyway!
But if Jamie is unavoidably a prick, he’s the kind that people fall for anyway. The Cathys of this world let themselves be seduced by such talent even while suspecting that it will not rescue them. And whose fault, ultimately, will that be? (“I will not fail so you can be comfortable, Cathy,” Jamie sings near the end. “I will not lose because you can’t win.”) The Last Five Years asks you to consider how the very things that attract people most powerfully to one another also invite the aptest exploitations.
It’s a sad idea, and Brown’s unusual narrative strategy intensifies the emotion. Jamie’s version of the story is told chronologically, in the normal way, from his first date with Cathy to the day he leaves a goodbye note on the table of their empty apartment. Meanwhile, Cathy’s version is told backward, beginning with her heartbreak upon reading that note and ending with the radiant first glimmer of love — itself now heartbreaking. The two time frames (and thus the two actors) meet only once, in the middle, in the exquisite scene of their engagement and marriage, when their outlooks are fleetingly aligned. But during the rest of the action, the structure enforces a cruel balance of joy and despair; someone is always high, someone hurting, and the seeds of happiness no less than pain are scattered wherever you look.
This might have been too much to bear—like Pinter’s Betrayal superimposed backward on itself — were it not for the jaw-dropping songs. Difficult as they are to sing (Brown modestly calls the task Olympian), they are, in the nature of good songs generally, expressions of the living soul, and thus uplifting even in torment. These also happen to be relentlessly enjoyable as theater music and among the great recent achievements of character delineation through lyrics. It doesn’t hurt that they are beautifully performed by Betsy Wolfe and Adam Kantor, who fill every daredevil leap and riff with torrents of feeling. Wolfe is particularly gifted at detailing the songs with discrete and often hilarious micro-beats, while never losing the musical through-line. Kantor, whose role gives him less variety of tone to play with, nevertheless makes you believe that the end of the marriage, even if it is largely his fault, is his loss, too.
Which brings us back to Brown. The question about his directing The Last Five Years had been whether he was too close to the material to balance it well. Turns out, he did fine on that point. He’s put together a beautiful emotional and aural experience of his work. (The six-piece orchestra, led by Andrew Resnick under the musical direction of Tom Murray, is exemplary.) But the visual production — perhaps in response to Daisy Prince’s original staging, which had a baroque mise en scène — is oddly sterile, dominated as it is by a series of portentous floating windows. That and some sloppy little mistakes suggest that, for all his self-admitted talents, Brown might have done better to follow the conventional wisdom about directing one’s own work. How many hats can even the grand fromage wear?
The Last Five Years is at Second Stage Theater through May 12.