Posted on October 26, 2012 at 12:26 am

There is a notation in my work diary for June 15, 1999:

“Duet Project (Untitled) – first song ‘Goodbye Until Tomorrow/I Could Never Rescue You’

which marked the beginning of my work on what would become The Last Five Years. “Still Hurting” was written on July 7 of that year, according to my notes, and it must have been somewhere around there when I called Jessica Molaskey and asked her to come over and sing through some stuff with me.

Jessica Molaskey sings “Surabaya-Santa” in Songs for a New World (1995)

Jessica had appeared in the original cast of Songs for a New World and then joined Parade, becoming both one of my closest friends and one of the very few actors I really trusted to interpret my material. She understood both the technical and the stylistic musical language of my songs, and just as importantly, she brought a deep, rich and always unexpected vocabulary of emotional nuances to the work. It is rare indeed to find a singing actress who is equally strong at both elements; Jessica was and is a very special creature. Once I started working on the show, I had Jessica come by every week or so to try out the new material.

Asking Jessica to sing through new songs of mine wasn’t something I did lightly – any actor who’s as intelligent as she is will look deep into the text and question anything that doesn’t ring true. I couldn’t get away with writing anything superficial or flashy or false.
But there is a relief as well – if Jessica feels a song, understands it, breathes life into it, then I know there must be something in it. We know each other too well for her to fake it on my behalf. I think the reason that Cathy’s material is so clear, so full and so honest is that I wrote more than half of it on Molaskey’s voice and soul.

I had been asked to do a concert of my own work for a series called “Works & Process” at the Guggenheim Museum on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and it seemed like the perfect opportunity to unveil some of the new songs. The audiences on September 26 and 27, 1999, were the first people in the world to hear pieces from my new show, and because of Molaskey’s magnificent performance and the audience’s ecstatic response, I was encouraged to keep writing and get this show on its feet.

Jessica Molaskey as Mrs. Phagan in Parade (1999)

What I did not know is that the Guggenheim routinely films the “Works & Process” concerts. For thirteen years, I have wondered what the show actually looked like. Last week, to my amazement, the Guggenheim folks gave me a DVD of this footage that I didn’t know existed; I ran back to my hotel immediately to watch.

Not thirty seconds into Molaskey’s performance of “Still Hurting,” I knew I was watching something amazing. I’ve seen the song performed hundreds of times now, by some of the best singing actors on Earth, but Jessica – premiering the song in front of four hundred very opinionated New Yorkers – brought something, some connection, some magic to the song that I have never experienced since. I was mesmerized; watching it right now, I’m still mesmerized.

I wrote to Jessica and asked if I could post it here. Ever the artist, ever self-critical, she wrote, “Of course all I can see is the stuff I would change… but I guess it’s okay to put up for history.”

History it was, and happily, that history isn’t lost to us. I go into rehearsal for the revival of The Last Five Years in less than four months; it’s exhilarating knowing that the bar has been set this high.

Those of you searching for further examples of Jessica’s astounding artistry are well advised to start here, and if you are fortunate enough to have her performing in your town, you will be able to see someone at the very pinnacle of her craft.

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