The Los Angeles Times
Robin Rauzi

From hope to hurt, the Laguna-bound ‘The Last Five Years’ charts the rise and fall of a marriage along two conflicting timelines. Tony-winning composer Jason Robert Brown speaks from personal experience

Kim HUBER sings the last goodbye of the final bittersweet song of "The Last Five Years" and then tells the director, "This is the loneliest play I’ve ever been in."

It’s a joke. Sort of.

The sung-through musical by Tony winner Jason Robert Brown traces a five-year relationship from courtship to court filings. The characters traverse time headed in opposite directions: He begins after their first date while she begins at their separation. So while the characters are meeting and marrying, fighting and fooling around, they sing only one duet.

"I thought I was writing a song cycle, a concert piece for two singers," says the 33-year-old Brown. It would be something inexpensive; maybe he could even perform it himself. "Or, it would be like ‘Love Letters,’ and you could put anybody in it."

"The Last Five Years," which gets its California premiere at the Laguna Playhouse on Saturday, evolved into more. With each song Brown added, his characters got increasingly detailed: Jamie, the brash Jewish novelist enjoying youthful success; Cathy, an aspiring actress whose confidence is shredded by the competitive business.

Brown was writing at a tumultuous time: He’d recently won the Tony for best musical score for "Parade," and his first marriage had disintegrated.

"As I was writing that story," he says at some years’ remove, "it got in some ways closer to my own life than I had intended.

"I guess there is something cathartic about putting out and articulating something, but I was very scrupulous to being fair to both parties in the play," he says. "That’s maybe good for your soul. But empathy was not the first thing in my head when dealing with my own marriage. There were plenty of times I wished I wasn’t working on it."

There’s no plot, per se, beyond boy meets girl, marries her, then leaves her. The arc of the show is entirely emotional, and in fact, the audience knows more than the characters in nearly every song. The tension builds through the juxtaposition of past and future.

In an early rehearsal, director Drew Scott Harris had the cast rehearse the scenes in their chronological order.

"It’s much too sad to do that way," Harris says. "It was four times as sad."

The actors have to stay on their own trajectories. As Huber rehearses the bubbly song "I Can Do Better Than That" — "And it feels like my life led right to your side and will keep me there from now on" — co-star Rick Cornette has his head buried in a pillow offstage, preparing for his next scene, in which he wakes up in bed with another woman.

"When I’m not on stage, I like to watch what she’s doing," Cornette says, "but you have to find a way to turn it completely around in your head to use it."

Fame without fortune

Brown exploded out of the blocks in his mid-20s with the potent song cycle "Songs for a New World," produced off-Broadway in 1995. Director Daisy Prince introduced him to her father, Broadway director Hal Prince, who enlisted him to write the score for the musical "Parade."

"Parade," with a book by Alfred Uhry, is about a Jewish factory supervisor wrongly accused of murder in the South in 1913. It proved too dark for audiences at Lincoln Center. By the time Brown and Uhry picked up Tony Awards, the show had been closed for three months.

Given fame without corresponding fortune, the New York-based Brown continues to work on others’ projects. He’s a sought-after music director and led the national tour of "Parade." More recently, he composed four songs and conducted the short-lived "Urban Cowboy" on Broadway.

He also writes incidental music for plays, including "Kimberly Akimbo," seen at South Coast Repertory in 2001.

"The Last Five Years" shows off the sly humor and style that have earned Brown awards and frequent comparison to Stephen Sondheim. He dips into klezmer, jazz or gospel, but the music stays accessible as pop.

"I’m always torn between being a musical theater writer and a pop song writer," Brown says.

"Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan — these people didn’t write pop songs. They wrote poetic and wonderful expressions of emotional life…. I’ve been trying to marry that singer-songwriter ideal with the musical theater."

"The Last Five Years" has weathered ups and downs that rival those of its characters. With help from Daisy Prince, Brown’s song cycle coalesced into a play. Lincoln Center let the two of them take it for a world-premiere test run in 2001 at the Northlight Theatre in Skokie, Ill., outside Chicago.

There, Brown led the six-piece orchestra and played the piano himself. The production got the kind of reviews that souls are sold for. "Brown’s lyrics — alternately cutting and boldly romantic — sweep the stage like a summer storm," wrote Hedy Weiss of the Chicago Sun-Times. The Tribune’s Richard Christiansen opened his review: "Exhilaration, so intense that it brings tears of joy, is at hand." Time magazine named it one of the top 10 theater productions of 2001.

One person who didn’t like it? Brown’s ex-wife.

In a letter to Lincoln Center, which had announced its own production for early 2002, her lawyers claimed the show violated a specific part of their divorce settlement, in which he agreed not to create a character identifiable as her. As Lincoln Center bowed out and two off-Broadway producers stepped in, Brown and his ex-wife filed his-and-hers lawsuits.

He ended up changing parts of the play. She recouped her lawyers fees. And the whole thing was settled just before previews started at the Minetta Lane Theater in Greenwich Village.

"The Last Five Years" picked up two Drama Desk Awards for best music and lyrics, but the New York Times and Village Voice gave it tepid reviews. The production lost money, and closed after a month of previews and a two-month run.

It rebounded a year later with a successful production in Philadelphia and a cast album. Since then, it’s taken off on the regional theater circuit with 31 productions this year around the U.S. and 25 additional companies scheduled to stage it in 2004.

Broadway, though, was never really in the cards.

"It would have gotten strangled," Brown says. "At the risk of sounding more controversial than I want to be, the work I do does not belong in Broadway musicals as what they’re perceived to be these days. I don’t have the gift to write something as superficially entertaining to succeed on Broadway in this climate."

Brown, who recently married composer Georgia Stitt, has two projects in the works: first, a piece he’s creating out of workshops with 13-year-olds around the country, and second, a musical about Betty Boop, written with "Kimberly Akimbo" playwright David Lindsay-Abaire. He also travels frequently to college campuses, where "Songs for a New World" is a popular production. He leads a master class for aspiring composers and watches the show.

He doesn’t, however, seek out productions of "The Last Five Years." It depresses him.

"It’s clearly a show about two people who make a decision they don’t understand — and they then have to deal with it. I try to articulate that they probably didn’t belong together in the first place, but their youth and the romance of that pushes them through with it.

"If there’s anything uplifting about the show…." Brown peters out. Then he laughs.

"There isn’t."