David Finkle

One of those three-named guys who’ve frequently been touted as the New Musical Messiahs has finally come into his own. Jason Robert Brown is the fellow, and his The Last 5 Years is a solid click.

Brown has been around a few years, slowly gathering a nice reputation. The pieces with which he filled his earlier Songs for a New World are stunning, but they are also unrelated and so add up to nothing more or less than a wow of a revue–which is nothing to sneeze at. Brown’s Parade score is intermittently effective but at virtually no point did it have the heft of a work that held much personal meaning for him. It felt like the dutiful work of a hired hand.

But The Last 5 Years? Now he’s talking–and writing irresistible music and lyrics that break your heart while they satisfy your mind and move your body in its seat. He’s provided plangent arrangements of the show’s songs, he conducts the small orchestra with drive and sensitivity. And he has written what dialogue he needs to supplement the story of an unwise marriage in which the two participants don’t so much grow apart after five years as eventually admit that they were never really suited to begin with.

Given that I Do! I Do! was a two-handed tuner about a couple that sticks it out, Brown’s piece might have been titled I Don’t, I Don’t. Since They’re Playing Our Song was a two-handed tuner (with back-up singers) about a couple of artist types who bicker but honestly love each other, Brown’s piece might have been titled They’re Playing Our Song in the Wrong Key. For he has written a singularly mature examination of an affair that has more in common with a novelist’s attack–Philip Roth comes to mind–than a librettist’s. Musicals usually take love stories as their domain, but this isn’t a love story: It’s the complex chronicle of an affair based on the false premise that it was a love match. Since the show is clearly autobiographical (Brown’s former wife has apparently been threatening to sue over the way she’s depicted), the composer-lyricist-arranger-conductor knows whereof he and his damaged heart are speaking. Had this musical been written from the other side, it might be entirely different. But it wasn’t, and what is presented is a persuasive, sincere, and unflinching post-mortem of a romantic mistake.

Jamie Wellerstein (Norbert Leo Butz), a Jewish novelist whose star is on the rise, has run through too many Julie Silbers and Ellen Kaplans in his search for a bride. So he’s infatuated when he meets Catherine Hiatt (Sherie René Scott), an aspiring actress-who-sings. He regards her as a “shiksa goddess,” but there are distances between them that go beyond their religions. She’s often on the road and with a show; he’s zipping up the ladder of success as she’s trying to get a toehold on the bottom rung. They attempt to fool themselves into believing they can make a go of it but, as time slips by with him going places in his career and her going no place, he tires of failing to reassure her and she becomes sick of his self-absorption. Resentments eventually overwhelm them.

In the first few minutes of Brown piece, when Cathy is introduced looking back at the doomed relationship and Jamie is seen looking forward to its possibilities, there is the wrong kind of foreboding. In applying the first broad strokes, Brown gives the impression that what’s about to unfold is the entanglement of another of literature’s brash Jewish geniuses and another of its well-meaning but dim, WASP blondes. But Brown uses his songs as spades to dig way beneath stereotypes and unearth specifics. The numbers, interrupted by brief lines of dialogue, are about Jamie and Cathy questioning each other’s motives and their own, assessing how they stand with each other, what they can expect and what disappoints them. Cumulatively, they become the foundations for a no-fault divorce; the couple tries their best but cannot make a sour situation sweet.

If Brown gives the upper hand to Jamie–as might be expected, since we’re basically getting his side of the he said/she said story–it seems an unconscious choice: Jamie sings the songs that deal in the grittiest particulars. Exhilarated by but suspicious of his sudden fame, he pounds through something called “Moving Too Fast.” Trying to instill self-confidence in Cathy, he croons a delightful parable called “The Schmuel Song” and, later, hits her with the powerful “If I Didn’t Believe in You.” Giving himself over to an extra-marital fling, he argues with himself in “Nobody Needs to Know.” In contrast, Cathy’s songs are best when providing whatever comic relief there is in the 80-minute-plus show: There’s “A Summer in Ohio,” about doing stock at second-rate circuit locations, and “When You Come Home to Me,” which gives her the chance to reveal the thoughts actors have when auditioning.

Brown has taken another risk in his risky piece of theater for adults of all ages: The program lists 16 songs and 14 of them are sung as solos. During an engagement-into-wedding scene, Jamie and Cathy sing together (edgily) and then again at the end, when they part with a palpable lack of closure. Brown has set up a situation where the audience wants these not-quite-lovers to sing together; then he withholds the opportunities, thereby emphasizing the characters’ isolation. They don’t sing in counterpoint–no “Old-Fashioned Wedding” here!–but they live in counterpoint.

According to Brown’s ingenious plan, Norbert Leo Butz and Sherie René Scott give virtual in-one recitals even as they play two people who weren’t made for each other. Butz, slight but energetic, fearlessly plays Jamie as an egotist with a modicum of regard for others. His Jamie is nervous and ambitious but has the radar necessary to register Cathy’s labile moods. Singing “The Schmuel Song,” Butz is cute; singing “If I Didn’t Believe in You,” he’s acute. Nor is Scott afraid to go where beautiful women can often get away with not going when they perform: Her Catherine is a walking, talking Barbie doll, but a barbed Barbie. While clarion notes are coming out of her mouth, she knows how to show nothing behind her eyes–or, rather, nothing but hurt. (An odd feature of The Last 5 Years is that it contains amusing references to both Butz’s and Scott’s most recent performances. In Aida, Scott was Amneris, another shiksa goddess; and in Thou Shalt Not Butz also spent stage time in a boat. Then, he was on his way to a watery death; now, he’s about to propose marriage and consign himself to another fate entirely.)

Daisy Prince has directed The Last 5 Years, and she also comes into her own here. Heretofore known primarily as Hal Prince’s daughter, she’s inherited her father’s eye for striking visuals and may have outstripped him in her understanding of human emotions. Dad has dealt with lousy on-stage marriages, too–the two drippy Follies couples, the upper-class goons of A Little Night Music–but his kid sees to it that, by the time the lights fade on the separated Jamie and Catherine, they’re three-dimensional people who’ve survived profoundly tempering events.

And, guess what? They do it almost without changing Beowulf Boritt’s basic costumes, which consist of unprepossessing daytime togs. Nor is there much change in the eye-popping unit set that Boritt has designed. Standing on its side upstage and looking as if it’s about to topple is a circular white patio with 26 white folding chairs arranged for wedding guests, viewed as if from the air. It’s a brilliant metaphor for a marr
iage fated to collapse. As the show progresses, Boritt employs a turntable to send out a few pieces of furniture–a bed, a chair made of Jamie’s best-selling books, a series of small, papier mâché automobiles. The designer’s spare work is a marvelous example of how the less-is-more theory can enhance a musical good enough not to need artificial enhancement.

Jamie and Catherine may not make it but, with The Last 5 Years, Jason Robert Brown, Daisy Prince, Norbert Leo Butz, Sherie René Scott, Beowulf Boritt, lighting designer Christine Binder, and sound designer Duncan Edwards jubilantly have done so.