There are some musicals that achieve cult status, despite - or perhaps because of - relatively short runs in their initial incarnations. Often these musicals live on through their cast recordings, as well as the occasional production by ambitious regional and college theater productions.
Anyone Can Whistle comes to mind, as do Mack and Mabel and Merrily We Roll Along. Upon closer inspection, these particular shows do indeed have fascinating scores, while the shows themselves simply don't work in performance, despite numerous attempts at revision.
A particular sub-category of this cult-musical niche is the Off-Broadway succès d'estime, such as Floyd Collins, Violet, and The Wild Party (Lippa). For some reason, this sub-genre has a significantly higher quality-to-dreck ratio, although I'm not really much a fan of The Wild Party (either version). I think the reason there are more artistically solid Off-Broadway cult shows is that some strong musicals never make it to Broadway, and probably shouldn't even try. But that kind of leaves them with one foot in obscurity, almost from the start.
Which brings us to The Last Five Years, by Jason Robert Brown, a show that I had previously only been acquainted with through its excellent cast recording, which features Norbert Leo Butz and Sherie Rene Scott. The show played a two-month run at the Minetta Lane Theater in 2002, and then went on to become beloved by musical-theater mavens the world over, mostly because of Brown's rich and characterful songs, and the emotional pull of the story itself.
Well, for once, I find myself siding with the faithful on this one, because The Last Five Years in performance is simply stunning, at least as evidenced by the fine revival currently enjoying an acclaimed at extended run at the Second Stage Theatre in New York. Jason Robert Brown is also the director for this production, and based on this show I'm hoping he does more directing. His staging work here is simple but very effective. Brown creates a wonderful sense of connection and loss between the characters, and crafts transitions between scenes that enhance that larger story arc without distracting at all from the meaning of the songs themselves.
The Last Five Years is sort of a direct descendant of Merrily We Roll Along, which famously has a plot that travels backwards in time. The Last Five Years goes both forward and backward: the story for the male character, Jamie, goes in chronological order, while the story for the female, Cathy, goes in reverse. The story is essentially about how the characters meet, marry, and separate over a five-year period, and having Cathy's story run in reverse creates a touching sense of dramatic irony: we start the show by witnessing the painful end of the relationship, then we switch to Jamie's point of view at the beginning and see the sense of adventure and promise.
What's marvelous about The Last Five Years is that we never feel lost as to where we are in time because Brown has done such an effective job of showing us where and when we are, every step of the way. Also marvelous is the sense of balance we experience as to who is responsible for the difficulties that the characters experience along the way. The show's plot is apparently based on based Brown's first marriage, and to his credit, Brown paints a complex picture of the relationship. Cathy and Jamie are multifaceted as characters: sympathetic, flawed, idealistic, deluded, appealing, unnerving, and most of all real.
It's remarkable how real the characters are, and how clear the temporal progressions are, since the show is almost entirely sung-through. So Brown is conveying all of this through songs, and mostly solo songs at that. Cathy and Jamie only appear in a song together when the chronologies meet in the middle of the show. (Perhaps all of these pop dilettantes who think that writing hit songs automatically qualifies them to write the show to a Broadway show should be forced to listen to The Last Five Years as an object lesson on how to convey character and story through song.) Even more remarkable, the songs themselves work extremely well out of context, as many a cabaret artist and auditioning actor has demonstrated over the last 11 years.
Brown's score reveals a songwriter equally comfortable with both searing ballads ("Still Hurting") and comic character numbers ("A Summer in Ohio"). The score is rife with appealing melodies, such as the haunting waltz leitmotif that recurs throughout the show. Brown also shows a knack for crafting lyrics with deceptively simple turns of phrase, from "Jamie is over and where can I turn? Covered in scars I did nothing to earn" to "I will not fail to keep you comfortable. I will not lose because you can't win." And yet, at least in this score, Brown never calls conscious attention to the craft of the lyricist, allowing the erudition to appear to emerge from the characters themselves.
The Second Stage production of The Last Five Years is blessed with two wonderfully animated yet subtle performances from Adam Kantor and Betsy Wolfe. Kantor has a slight tendency to channel Norbert Leo Butz (although in truth that may be written into the fabric of the show), but he finds many ways to make the part his own, particularly during "Moving Too Fast," one of the many highlights of the show. And Wolfe reinforces what she demonstrated earlier this season in The Mystery of Edwin Drood: that she's a lot more that just a pretty young woman with a lovely voice. She's also a hell of an actress, both in the somber moments of the show and in Cathy's neurotic character numbers.
If you can't make it to the Second Stage between now and May 18th to see The Last Five Years in person, have no fear. A film adaptation of the show, scheduled to star Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan, is apparently in the works. And the new cast recording for the show is scheduled to come out later this year. I know I'm eagerly anticipating both.