Jason Robert Brown is one of the most unique and recognizable composers of modern musical theatre. Best known for his composition of Songs for a New World, The Last 5 Years, Parade, and 13, Brown is especially appreciated by musical theatre fans for his intricate musical arrangements and the psychological depth of his songs. One of his most popular works and one of our favorite shows ever, The Last 5 Years, is playing a limited engagement this weekend only, which inspired us to reach out and see what Brown had to say about the show for himself.
The Last 5 Years tells the story of a couple – Jamie, an up-and-coming writer, and Kathy, an aspiring actress – during their 5-year relationship, which covers their meeting, courtship, marriage, and divorce. In some ways it’s a simple boy-meets-girl tale, seen in countless other shows, but Kathy and Jamie seem deeper and more multi-faceted than most musical theatre characters, which is likely because they were originally inspired by real people.
Because it is known that the musical was first conceived to be based on Brown’s first marriage to Teresa O’Neill, he sometimes is pushed on whether he wrote it with an idea that one of them was “right” and the other was “wrong.” “Honestly, I wasn’t trying to settle any scores, I was just working through the very painful wreckage of a relationship that meant a lot to me,” says Brown. One of the most compelling features of the piece is that audience members can find themselves changing alliances – at times they side with Jamie, at times with Kathy, and at times they’re torn. “I felt very sure, and still do, that there are no victims and no bad guys,” says Brown. “Both of these people are equally responsible for the good things and the bad things in their relationship. It is of course my hope that the audience perceives it that way as well. I really just wanted to be honest about who these people were and how they acted.”
The infamous device of the show is that the plot moves simultaneously backward and forward, as Kathy tells her story from the end to the beginning, and Jamie tells his story from the beginning to end. According to Brown, his goal was, “to tell a simple story about a relationship falling apart, and I wanted to tell it by alternating songs by the two characters. I was immediately aware that there was a danger in that the audience would get ahead of the characters, because I didn’t want the story to have lots of artificially imposed ‘surprises.’ Once I hit on the idea of the alternating chronologies, it seemed like the perfect way to tell the story, both because it solved the problem of the audience getting ahead, and because on a metaphorical level, it said exactly what I wanted the show to say: these are two people who were never really in the same place at the same time.”
This artistic inspiration came at a small cost to Brown – his first wife took legal action that prompted Brown to make some changes so that the character of Kathy did not closely resemble her. “There’s a general assumption that the show is strictly autobiographical, but it’s not – Jamie and Kathy started out being fairly close to their real-life counterparts, but as the writing went on, they both became much different; they followed their own paths, and I just chased after them and wrote down what they said.” But ultimately, Brown recognizes that telling the characters’ stories is more important than using the musical as an outlet to tell his own. “I’m not really in any control of what anyone says or perceives about the show,” he admits. “I’m just grateful that so many people have had an opportunity to see it and share it.”
In December of 2010, Mr. Brown announced that a movie version of The Last Five Years was in pre-production. The cast has not been announced. For more information about Gravity Defied’s upcoming production, see our preview piece.