Trust Jason Robert Brown not to do things the easy way. His first book musical, Parade, was about a lynching in the Deep South, after all, and his songs are well-known for challenging listener and performer alike with their intricate lyrics and melodies. Thus, it should come as no surprise that even when Brown tackles the most traditional of subject matters, a love story, he does so in the most unusual of ways.
While The Last 5 Years, for which Brown wrote lyrics, music, book and orchestrations, covers the usual (and some have argued autobiographical) territory of a couple’s relationship from first meeting through divorce, it does so with a twist. Life according to Jewish composer Jamie Wellerstein (Norbert Leo Butz) proceeds as normal but that of his Shiksa Goddess, Cathy Hyatt (Sherie Rene Scott), progresses backwards a la Merrily We Roll Along.
Musically, The Last 5 Years builds upon the musical promise displayed in Parade and his earlier revue, Songs For A New World. The Last 5 Years also displays a return of the wit and humor that was abundant in Songs but woefully lacking in Parade. Indeed, The Last 5 Years consists of equal parts high-comedy numbers (such as "Climbing Uphill" for Scott, a hysterical tour-de-force detailing horrid audition experiences/anxieties, and "Shiksa Goddess" for Butz, which comically laments the hell he will catch for falling for someone outside the Jewish faith) and heartrending introspective numbers (the break-up numbers, "Nobody Needs To Know" and "Still Hurting"). In a masterful touch, the musical style of the songs evolves (or disintegrates) in accordance with the relationship. Songs depicting the exuberant ‘falling in love’ portion of the couple’s relationship are in a driving pop/rock vein with a strong piano accompaniment. As the relationship builds, the piano part fades out and strings take a greater prominence, as displayed in "A Part Of That," which contains exuberant Stephane Grappelli inspired violin licks. As the relationship disintegrates, however, the strings develop further into haunting string quartet arrangements.
The songs are all incredible stand-alone numbers, which is the show’s greatest strength and weakness. On one hand, the numbers are all accessible and are likely to have a life outside of the show as they tell self-contained stories. However, the songs’ self-sufficiency and the time warping conceit of the show make for a non-integrated show. On disc at least, it is hard to get a sense of the show’s through-line as the alternating ‘he said/she said’ solos make it difficult to view the characters as a couple, given that they have virtually no performance time together. This nullifies the emotional impact of the story and makes it hard to identify with or feel for either character.