Few musicals are as fanatically adored as Jason Robert Brown's The Last Five Years. Using opposing chronology to retrace the ill-fated relationship of a New York couple — purportedly inspired by the Tony Award-winning composer's own marriage woes and later divorce — the two-hander is getting another chance this spring at Off-Broadway's Second Stage Theatre. The Mystery of Edwin Drood's Betsy Wolfe and Rent's Adam Kantor star as Cathy and Jamie, the roles immortalized by Sherie Rene Scott and Norbert Leo Butz on the popular 2002 original Off-Broadway cast recording. (It was recently reported that Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan will star in a forthcoming film adaptation.) Brown, who also directs the revival, looks at the last 11 years of his show's cult success.
By Brandon Voss
Playbill: Are you as excited as your fans are about this revival of The Last Five Years?
Jason Robert Brown: I'm probably more excited, because I know how awesome it's going to be.
Why did you want to direct it yourself?
It wasn't my idea, initially. A producer wanted to produce a revival on Broadway if I directed it, because he knew I had a very specific take on the show. After years trying to pull together a Broadway production with the casting nonsense required, I finally decided I didn't want to wait for an Anne Hathaway and a Jake Gyllenhaal, so I came to Second Stage. This is a show that many people love, but almost none have actually seen — at least not with my vision and the kind of amazing cast you can find in New York. It was time.
You conducted the orchestra of the original Off-Broadway production. Did you consider that for the revival?
Oh, God, no. I had to draw the line someplace. I've got an incredible piano player, Andrew Resnick, and Tom Murray, who was the music director 10 years ago, is music-directing again now. I've been very relieved not to have to touch the piano.
Being in the orchestra every night, you were obviously very close to that original production, which was directed by Daisy Prince. Have you found yourself borrowing any of her directorial choices?
Well, the design that Derek McLane has come up with is very different than Beowulf Boritt's design from the original production, so already there's a lot that's different visually. And these two actors, Adam Kantor and Betsy Wolfe, are so different and bring so much of their own lives to it, so there isn't a whole lot for me to borrow from what Daisy did. Everything Daisy did was great, but she got to do it, and now this will be mine.
Are you making any changes to the material, or are you treating the show as though someone else wrote it?
I'm definitely not treating it like someone else's piece. But the show very tightly constructed, so there's not a whole lot I could do. Anything you pull out and change is going to affect something else down the line.
No tweaking the occasional lyric that's always bugged you?
There may be little stuff like that. I've performed in the show a few times in concerts with Lauren Kennedy andJulia Murney, so there are things that have crept in over the years, little things I've added, little fixes I've made, and those will all be in this version.
Is the show still set around the beginning of the millennium, or has it been updated?
So much about the motor of the show is about these two people not being able to communicate. You can still not communicate with people even if you have stuff like texting and Facebook, but those weren't part of the vocabulary back then, so they're not in the show. I felt that if you said it was 2013 and yet they don't spend time on Facebook, Twitter, texting, then they're not really being young, contemporary New Yorkers, so I decided to leave it be. I'm not having them wear period fashions that suggest 1998, but I didn't want to do anything that felt aggressively au courant.
The original Off-Broadway production closed about two months after opening. What happened?
First of all, it didn't get very good reviews. It was also the first commercial piece to open Off-Broadway after Sept. 11. We were downtown at the Minetta Lane, and people were barely coming to the city much less that far south, so I think we definitely suffered for a lack of traffic.
With such a brief run, you couldn't have foreseen the rich life that the musical would have after that.
I actually did sort of foresee it. It's a show with two characters, so I knew that people would want to do it. There was no guarantee, but I hoped it would have the life that it in fact has had — that it would go out into the world, be shared, and become part of contemporary musical theatre vocabulary. We took a lot of care with the cast album, because we knew a lot of people would be listening to it.
Did that hope for the musical's future make the premature closing less devastating?
No, it was still devastating. I mean, "devastating" makes it sound like — well, no, maybe "devastating" is exactly the right word. I didn't want to be in the business anymore after that. I really didn't. I thought that if this town didn't know how to support that kind of work, I didn't need to be here. I didn't have another show in New York until 2008 with 13, and that was because I left town and moved to L.A.
At what point did you realize that The Last Five Years had become a cult classic?
It's been a slow dawning over a number of years. It's great. I lived in Italy in 2005. When I came back, I found that I was very much in demand on college campuses. Everyone wanted to book me to come talk to their students and theatre groups. The show was also being done a lot. I was paying my mortgage with The Last Five Years. So sometime around there, I must've figured it was doing OK.
What is it about the show that's resonated with so many people?
I love that these characters have very full, honest emotional lives. A lot of musical theatre has to stint on those things, but I didn't write this for anybody but me. I had something I needed to say, which gave me freedom to write these characters as deeply as I could, so they're flawed but very recognizable. People see themselves very much in these characters.
Is it accurate to describe the show as autobiographical?
It's not not autobiographical. On an emotional level, it's very autobiographical. I had a really tragic first marriage, so that part is true. Knowing anything about my own biography, you can't watch the show and not see a lot of parallels, but the specifics aren't autobiographical.
Have audiences missed the point if they leave the show picking sides?
You can take from the show whatever you want. For me, the fun thing about the last 11 years is seeing how the reviews that do place blame are evenly split. Either Cathy's horrible and unsupportive or Jamie's a rotten philanderer. I've been able to rest comfortably knowing that I managed to write something balanced.
Do you like seeing as many college and regional productions as you can?
No, I really don't. Emotionally, it's very hard for me to watch. I've probably seen about 50 of them, but it takes a lot to get me there.
Can you still be surprised by fresh interpretations of the material?
I'm always open to being surprised, but I've always had a very specific thing in my mind about what this show is. I'm open to seeing what other people do with it, but it makes it a variation on what I wanted it to be — as opposed to the actual thing I wanted it to be. That was probably even true with Daisy's interpretation; as gorgeous as it was and as superbly cast as it was, I don't think it was ever exactly what I saw in my mind. So it's been really exciting trying to nail down exactly what that thing is in my mind and put it up on stage.
That sounds like something a control freak would say.
You're supposed to be a control freak when you're an artist. That's the whole point of having a vision: Why have one if you're not going to protect it?
What's it like to revisit the characters through older, wiser eyes?
The feelings of both characters were very, very close to me. I have a more avuncular interest in the characters now, as opposed to the more direct personal interest I had the first time. I look at them like, "Oh, these kids, they don't know what's coming!" I feel for them as someone older.
It's no secret that the musical's road from Chicago to Off-Broadway between 2001 and 2002 was a rocky one. It was originally announced for and then pulled from Lincoln Center Theater's schedule amidst much mystery, rumors regarding your ex-wife's alleged objections to the material, and vague statements made by lawyers and other representatives. Is there anything you'd like to say about the matter that you couldn't say back then, or is there any misinformation that you'd like to clear up?
Nothing especially relevant. Although some have said that the show changed so much between Chicago and New York, and actually, compared to most musicals, the show barely changed at all. Look at what Sweet Smell of Success did between Chicago and New York that same year: They changed casts, threw out the finale, and wrote five different songs. I changed one song and maybe eight lines of lyric. I just saw it on my computer the other day, and the entire list of changes is less than a page. I don't think that's so bad. The circumstances under which I made those changes were a little batty, but it's fine. The show survived it, and I'm as proud of the show as I would've been had I not changed a note.
You mentioned the downside of opening at the Minetta Lane. Do you wish the show had gone to Lincoln Center Theater's Mitzi E. Newhouse as originally intended?
I don't spend any of my time — anymore — doing that sort of wishful thinking. That's why I don't live in New York. I could spend all my time wondering, "What if…?," but the fact of the matter is that I had an extraordinary production with two dynamos who were about to become massive stars, which I think is the same situation I'm in now with Adam and Betsy. They're right on the verge of amazing careers.
Did you audition a lot of actors for this revival?
What was it about Adam Kantor and Betsy Wolfe that appealed to you?
They selected themselves. It wasn't even hard. When Betsy left after her first audition, I said, "We're done. That's it." Betsy, being a typical neurotic actress, wanted to come back in, felt that she didn't get this one thing, and I was like, "No, we're good. It's done." It was the same with Adam. He walked in, he opened that mouth, he had that voice, and he looks like he looks. He so embodied what this character is.
You'd never worked with them before?
I hadn't. That's the other thing about not living in New York: I didn't even know who they were. If I showed you the list of people who auditioned, you'd say, "Oh, my God, these are the greatest young actors in New York." I didn't know who any of them were. I got to experience them all freshly.
I thought you might've caught Betsy in Sherie Rene Scott's Everyday Rapture.
No, by the time I came back in town, it was closed. But I did just get to see Betsy in Drood.
Have you seen any other shows since you've been in town?
I saw Golden Boy when I first got here, and I was thrilled I got the chance to see that, because it was just sensational. Other than that, I haven't had a whole lot of nights free to go see things.
Adam and Betsy certainly have big shoes to fill. It must be daunting to take on two beloved roles previously played by two powerhouses, Norbert Leo Butz and Sherie Rene Scott, whose performances were captured on the terrific cast recording that many fans know by heart.
I suspect that these two are confident enough that they don't get daunted by that. It's exciting to put your own stamp on these things, and it's thrilling watching them take ownership of it.
Is your direction of them ever shaded by memories of Sherie's and Norbert's performances?
No, it's impossible, because they really are so different. Neither of them would make any of the same choices that Sherie and Norbert made. I didn't choose them because they were such different performances, but it was evident the minute I started working with them.
The Last Five Years and your 1995 musical Songs for a New World are proof that a show doesn't need to open on Broadway to have a very successful life.
They may be the exceptions that prove the rule. I'm not sure that they're proof that anybody else can do it.
Fair enough, but they're your exceptions. With those unconventional successes under your belt, must Broadway still be the goal as you work on your musical adaptations of Honeymoon in Vegas and Bridges of Madison County?
Certain shows demand certain venues. When I'm writing for Broadway theatres, which I am for Bridges of Madison County and for Honeymoon in Vegas, they're Broadway shows that wouldn't feel right in an Off-Broadway house or in a small regional theatre. The Last Five Years and Songs for a New World were deliberate chamber pieces meant to play in small houses.
The Last Five Years has become a very recognizable commodity. Even without Hollywood actors, do you still have hopes for a Broadway transfer?
I really don't give a shit one way or the other. I don't think The Last Five Years needs to be on Broadway to be a success. If it does end up on Broadway at some point in the rest of my life, it has to be handled very carefully so that it fills that room the way it's supposed to. The show means so much to me, and I hope it's received in the spirit it's given. New York is really a character in the piece in such a specific way, so I'm just happy to have it back here. And whoever comes, I hope they like it.
Playbill, March 2013 issue; extended online version.