In that most melancholy of Stanley Donen movies, Two for the Road, we look in on Albert Finney and Audrey Hepburn at five different stages of marital disarray; the wistful and the wrenching bump together like natural bedfellows, producing such a sweet ache.
Jason Robert Brown achieves much the same sort of romantic pain in his musical at the Minetta Lane Theatre. The Last Five Years is actually the first five years — the only five years — in the doomed marriage of a hot-shot novelist on the rise (Norbert Leo Butz) and a striving actress looking for that elusive lucky break (Sherie Rene Scott). She chronicles their union from the end to the beginning, he from the beginning to the end — simultaneously.
At any given point in the show, you see where love has gone and where it came from. A turntable onstage keeps the two twirling in their own universes, reacting minimally to one another (save for a duet when they meet in the middle to marry and another at journeys’ ends when the show concludes with the same word: good-bye).
“It’s not about duets, this show,” insists its 31-year-old author. “It’s about getting inside these people separately and then seeing how they come together and come apart. I think of it as 14 one-act plays. Each play is a song, each scene is a song in, and of, itself.
“I feel structurally this was its own thing, although I’m sure there have been other shows like this — Merrily We Roll Along and A Star Is Born, for instance. Somebody called it ‘I Do! I Do! Meets Betrayal.’ There’s no message to the show. I don’t have a statement to make. It’s just a story about two people who want desperately to be together and can’t be.
“That’s all I wanted to write and all that I wanted it to be. It’s just a tiny bird that flies beautifully. I don’t want people to think there are going to be fireworks. It’s just two wonderful actors and a couple of fabulous musicians, and we’re just telling a little story.”
But that “little story” was enough to have the critical community dancing in the aisles. “I guess this sounds bizarre,” Brown prefaces a tad sheepishly, “but, to be honest, if the reviews had been bad, I can tell you that the show we did was the show we wanted to do.
“The lovely thing about this show is: It was my idea, I wrote it, I didn’t have to fight with myself about what I wanted to say or how long I wanted something to be or who should say what. It was something I was able to do in that real sense of a labor of love. I didn’t care if anybody saw it or if anybody liked it. I didn’t care if it was going to be a hit. It just mattered to me that I wrote it the way I felt it in my heart. And I did.”
Although he has worked for shows helmed by other directors (among them Scott Ellis and Graciela Daniele), Brown’s three full-length musicals have all been brought to the marketplace by a theatrical Prince — namely, Daisy or her dad, Hal Prince. She introduced Brown to New York audiences via the well-named Songs for a New World at the WPA and seconded that motion with The Last Five Years. In between, her father directed him to the Tony podium for the songs he wrote for Alfred Uhry’s Parade.
“When it’s my baby, I want to put it in the hands of someone I really trust, and Daisy is that person,” says Brown. “She’s sorta the opposite of her father as a director. I can say that because I love them both. The thing about Daisy is that there is such compassion, such sensitivity, in the way she works and thinks. She loves metaphor, she loves visual excitement, but at the same time she’s focused on as direct and emotional a response as she can get from the material. That’s why I’m always drawn to working with her, because she’s so committed to the honesty and emotional life of the piece that I can’t go on without her.”
Brown wrote The Last Five Years during the two years he trouped across America, conducting his Tony-winning Parade score for the national road company. He sees nothing unusual about The Composer As Conductor and, indeed, is doing it again at the Minetta Lane.
“I love the feeling of re-creating the songs every night, being able to invest in them every night. I love performing, being a part of it, so I don’t know why I wouldn’t do that. Hopefully, I’m good enough at it that people won’t tell me to go back to my day job. I think it’s clear to the musicians and actors I work with — and hopefully to the audience — that my passion for this is why I’m really up there. It’s not some gratification of my ego. It’s that I can’t imagine not being a part of it. When we did the Parade tour, and I got to stand in front of it every night and conduct, it was wonderful to feel I was helping to communicate this to the audience. I was a conduit — more than the person who sat in a dark room and wrote songs. I was now participating every night in bringing them to life.”