Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The Last Five Years (musical)

Photo: Kathy Sandham
“No one will understand.”

My friend Tim is a member of a quartet featuring strings and piano performing the music for the Lakeland Civic Theatre production of The Last Five Years by Jason Robert Brown, and last Saturday I attended a performance. So glad I did.

The piece is a very popular one to produce and one of the most basic reasons is because it is a brief show, only 80 minutes, and has a small cast, only two people.

Tim and his fellow musicians were situated onstage, directly upstage, in full view, only partially obscured by large memory boxes. I had brought my son to see the show, specifically to watch Tim, who plays the bass, as the boy has recently picked up the bass. He was delighted to be able to watch Tim play during the entire performance, and so was I.

The show describes the five-year relationship between one man and one woman in the their twenties. What makes the show unique is that her songs describes the relationship in reverse chronological order, while his move forward in time. Their only duet is their Central Park wedding in the middle of the show.

Several years ago one of my colleagues gave me a copy of the original cast recording, they were sure I would entirely love it. This was after my workshop production of Centennial, which also runs in reverse chronological order. Or perhaps it was because they know I am a melancholy romantic. The sense of emotional doom that pervades this piece begins with the very first song, "I’m Still Hurting" where she discovers the note the man has written announcing he has gone, and I have to admit I really responded to that on Saturday night.

However, I had never actually listened to any of the score until I got obsessed with Hamilton and began researching all the many references Miranda makes to other songs throughout the work. The L.L. Cool J inspired slow jam of adultery in Act II, "Say No To This," quotes the penultimate song of The Last Five Years, "Nobody Needs To Know." Desperate to hear that, I was happy to discover the song was already on my iTunes.

Taking place the morning after the man first (presumably) cheats on his wife, this song is a devastatingly honest and accurate expression of guilt, shame, recrimination and self-justification.

To wit; Our relationship is falling apart … that is why I slept with someone else. My wife won’t let me exist as an individual … that is why I slept with someone else. I have very big feelings … that is why I slept with someone else.

This is familiar terrain. My own early-to-mid twenties are defined by a five-year relationship, and there was plenty of guilt, shame, recrimination and self-justification. And sadness. Listening "Nobody Needs To Know" for the first time last winter I felt great empathy for the character.

Unfortunately, witnessing the production as a whole, I was left with the impression that the rest of the work was an attempt to live up to or justify that one song. I would go so far as to suggest that Brown wrote that one song to justify his infidelity, and then an entire play to further justify his justification.

Brown has claimed that The Last Five Years is not autobiographical. After all, his male protagonist, named Jamie, is not a playwright. He is an author. An author whose very first novel becomes an acclaimed, national bestseller at the age of 25 in much the same way Brown won the Tony Award for Best Score for his musical Parade when he was 25.

Jamie’s female opposite, Kathy is an actor. Brown’s ex-wife is an actor. So there are similarities. But who cares, really? The best playwrights in America, in human history, have incorporated elements of their personal life into their creative work.

Having said that, I was stunned to learn that part of their divorce agreement states that he is not permitted to incorporate elements of their relationship into his creative work.

What, I mean what? Boy howdy, I want her legal team. Either she had some major dirt on him or he was desperate to get out of that relationship because what writer could possibly agree to that?

In any event, what was the very first thing he produced next? The Last Five Years. When the production debuted in a workshop production Brown’s ex-wife filed suit, the result of which was in changing only one song. Instead of pining specifically for any girl who is Irish (his ex-wife is Irish) Jamie now expresses a general interest in any girl who is not Jewish.

The ironic punchline of the song "Nobody Needs To Know" is that the plea inherent in the title is blatantly violated by its very existence. This most intimate moment, these most private thoughts ... had the sweat even cooled before his mind turned from shame, fear and guilt, to that pathological, artistic desire that absolutely everybody needs to know?

It is an impulse with which I am very familiar. Indeed, perhaps this is why I find the song so affecting, the lyrics are so specific, so particular, the reflection of a real relationship, honest feelings, and it is that honesty which is universal.
"Put on my armor, I'm off to Ohio
Back into battle till I don't know when."
I could have written that, exactly that, he could have said Nevada, it would have been the same. A desperate weekend in New York, twenty-two years ago, joy, helplessness and sorrow doled in equal amounts. When autumn falls, every year, that hook in my heart. Those moments which stand out most vividly against the backdrop of constantly accumulated days, which you return to without thinking and rest there a moment, savoring the pain if only to remind you why you are grateful that today things are merely wonderfully okay.

The rest of the The Last Five Years lacks that punch, however, as though the playwright who felt the need to tell the the story of this relationship so soon after it reached its conclusion really was afraid to write anything too specific about anything else so he could have deniability. Most of the songs include the kind of generic lament you are accustomed to hearing from actors and writers. They could be about anybody, and so they feel like they are about nobody.

What is the balance, then, between impersonal and way, way too personal?

No, really. Someone tell me. Because I haven't figured that out yet.

Ensemble Theatre presents the World Premiere of "The Way I Danced With You," opening March 21, 2019.