THE LAST FIVE YEARS | A Musical About Love, at Once Universal and Elusive

By George Hatza

When composer, lyricist and playwright Jason Robert Brown first entered the New York theater scene in 1995 with Songs for a New World, it was apparent that something significant had occurred. The piece was not a musical in the traditional sense, nor even a revue. It was just plain new—rich with ideas yet embracing something closer to abstraction. Musical theatre, as with all the arts, once again was evolving. 

For Jason King Jones, artistic director of the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, Brown (a Tony Award-winner for Parade and The Bridges of Madison County) may just be “the best musical-theatre composer alive at this moment.” It was one of the reasons he was drawn to Brown’s 2001 musical, The Last Five Years, and decided to include it in the 2024 PSF season. 

He also chose to direct it, mounting it in the Festival’s intimate Schubert Theatre. It is an example of the kind of musical the Festival hopes to present in that space, as with last season’s Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill. 

“This show makes a lot of sense there,” Jones added. “The musicians are all visible in the room with the actors. They’re part of the architecture. It’s the perfect scale. The Festival is fortunate to have two theaters that offer so many possibilities.”

The Last Five Years, a two-hander first staged in Chicago in 2001 and then produced in 2002 Off-Broadway in a production starring Norbert Leo Butz and Sherie Rene Scott, has become a staple of regional theaters not only in the United States, but across the globe. 

That has a lot to say about its universality, a 90-minute love story, set in New York City, that essentially begins and ends immediately after the curtain rises. Jamie, a writer, has just fallen in love. Cathy, an aspiring actress, is mourning the end of their relationship five years in the future. Jamie’s arc is in chronological order, but Cathy’s moves in reverse. They meet in the middle, when they decide to marry, then proceed to opposite corners by the end of the piece. 

The book deftly avoids what could be misconstrued as a gratuitous structure: The Last Five Years is anything but gimmicky. As Jones explained: “The story is beautifully written and intricately constructed, playing with form as it plays with time. 

“In Songs for a New World, Brown was interrogating what it means to be alive right now,” Jones elaborated. “The same is true for many of his works, certainly The Last Five Years

“He looks at storytelling in different ways,” Jones said. “There’s an intuitiveness to his musical structure. He’s not afraid to experiment with form. And he is a master of style. Even quite early in his career, his genius was obvious.” 

Indeed, what Brown’s unique approach does is to persuade us that it is in the darkest, hidden corners of the minutes, weeks, months and years that compose a specific human connection where burgeoning love, or an unraveling romance, suddenly can be detected. Each reflects upon the other, bequeathing to the musical a depth that is at once joyful and shattering. 

Jones has chosen to set the musical in the present but without all the bells and whistles. 

“There’s no necessity to update the show in any sort of overt way,” said Jones, a native of Nixa, Mo. “A few touches to clothing and props. But no one is on Zoom or texting. Jamie writes using a notebook and pen, not a computer. He might just be that kind of person. And Cathy is a bit bohemian. It’s not about technology. The musical is about their inability to communicate. 

“It’s like the issues one confronts when updating a play by Shakespeare. Are we dealing with cell-phones? If so, then what do we do about the messengers?” 

Equity actors Benjamin Lurye and Chani Wereley, cast as Jamie and Cathy, both were known to Jones from his stint as senior associate artistic director at the Olney Theatre Center in Olney, Md., where he also was artistic director of the National Players, the country’s longest-running touring theater company. 

“The music director and I have a prior relationship with the actors,” Jones shared. “That mutual trust comes in handy, especially with a two-person show.” 

Lurye most recently performed the role of Fabrizio in a production of The Light in the Piazza at Houston’s Opera in the Heights. He holds a  Bachelor of Music degree in vocal performance from the University of Maryland. Wereley earlier this year starred as Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. She earned a Bachelor of Music degree in musical theatre from Catholic University.

One of the challenges for Jones in directing The Last Five Years was finding a way to match the play’s remorseful tone, which captures the atmosphere of 2001, with that of the world of 2024. 

“You can sense the echoes of loss and mourning, a kind of existential confusion and grief, which obviously the people of New York were feeling after the attacks,” Jones said of the script. “What happened shook our identity as a nation. It was more unbearable than we realized. This piece is looking both forward and backward in time, and that dynamic accentuates its inherent mood of soul-searching. 

“From the beginning, the question for the audience is ‘How did it happen?’ ‘How did the relationship get to that point?’ Eventually the audience will see how they came together and how they fell apart. And all of it is inextricably bound by the forward movement of time.”

The collective trauma that rattled Americans in 2001 began to fade. However, over the last several years the country has experienced how it all could come crashing down again. A pandemic and the threat of political catastrophe are reminders that nothing, not even love, is permanent. That universal connection drags The Last Five Years kicking and screaming into the present. 

“Both characters suffer a major loss of innocence in terms of what the future can be,” Jones said. “Jamie and Cathy need to grow up. And when they do, they see they can’t have all the things they thought they could have. ‘Love’ is an active verb. It takes a daily commitment. Falling in love is the easiest thing. Sustaining it requires persistence. “… We’ve all had some growing up to do,” Jones mused. 

“We all have to deal with what the world is now. This is the right time to revisit this story.”