The Sydney Morning Herald
John Shand

Musicals are washing back into Sydney’s theatres like an unexpectedly high tide. Almost as expensive to make as films (but with a much shorter shelf-life), these strange fish attract an audience that is often perceived to be more interested in star names and the theatrical wow factor than the show itself.

High production costs have inevitably bred conservative choices and approaches in a medium that already tends to stand a few safe paces back from the cutting edge. But innovations are still possible (as Stephen Sondheim has repeatedly proved), as is artistic and commercial success not driven by the scale of the scenery.

Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years opened in New York in March, directed by Hal Prince’s daughter, Daisy. Although this two-hander will never rattle the box-office cash drawers like The Sound of Music, it is a fascinating creation and one that prospers, proving that audiences need not be patronised.

Brown’s words and music trace the rise and fall of an apparently autobiographical relationship, from first date to marriage break-up, entirely in song. Nothing startling so far, but the ingenious innovation is that while Catherine (Sherie Rene Scott) tells her side of the story backwards from the break-up, Jamie (Norbert Leo Butz) simultaneously tells his side in more conventional chronology. They alternate songs, merging for the first time around the middle of the show, appropriately enough at their wedding.

It is a method that requires concentration from the audience, and repays that concentration with an emotional depth charge, as echoes of each character’s past words bounce like waves off the sentiments being sung. Reminiscent of a listing boat with a panicked crew, the relationship (which was always unbalanced, anyway) tips more and more until it sinks in the sheets of Jamie’s affair.

The music (realised by a low-budget, high-class ensemble of five) can be a little ungainly in its montage of styles, although it generally serves the words and illuminates the subtext admirably. Butz and Scott give moving, finely shaded performances, upstaged only by Brown’s rending and perceptive lyrics.

This import is available from The CD Collector, Bondi Junction.