Jason Robert Brown's new two-character musical, The Last Five Years, which was praised in a summer run at the Northlight Theatre in Skokie, IL, will not make its New York premiere at the Mitzi Newhouse Theatre at Lincoln Center Theatre in 2002, as previously announced.
Both a spokesman for LCT and Brown's lawyer, Mark Sendroff, would only say that the theatre and Brown were not able not come to an agreement. But word in the theatre community said that the threat of a lawsuit, possibly brought by his ex-wife, Theresa O'Neill, is standing in the way of future stagings of the intimate show.
LCT commissioned the piece but allowed Northlight to test it in a world premiere. The musical charts the rise and fall of a marriage of a "nice Jewish boy" and an Irish Catholic girl in New York City, over five years and from different points of view. The conceit of The Last Five Years has the woman, Kathleen, an actress, beginning her story at the end of the relationship and working her way back, and Jamie, a novelist, starting from the first date and working forward. They sing together only once, in the middle of the play, at their wedding.
It was widely thought that the show was inspired by Brown's own broken marriage. However, Brown, in an interview with Playbill On-Line earlier this year, said the work is not autobiographical. "Everything I write comes from my life," he told PBOL. "But I'm not narcissistic or sadistic enough to make the contents of my marriage a matter of public record, you know what I mean? That wasn't the aim of the piece. I think in writing a show about a couple that fall apart, I was hoping that I'd maybe be able to come to terms with that in my own life. But I wasn't going to come to terms with it by writing something about me."
Asked pointedly if the work was a roman a clef, he said it was not. According to the New York Post, the divorce settlement between Brown and O'Neill "bars Brown from writing about certain aspects of their marriage."
If a lawsuit has indeed been brought against Brown, it is not clear if money is being sought or if the goal is to kill the project. Lawsuits generally keep potential producers away from new works. Because of its intimate scale and economical two-person cast, The Last Five Years was thought to be highly producible, with a rosy future in the regional theatre circuit.
The Post noted that the show may still be staged in New York, reporting that producers Marty Bell and Arielle Tepper are interested in optioning it for a Broadway or off- Broadway production next year.
The Last Five Years became one of the top sellers in the 26-year history of the Northlight, a Chicago-area LORT house. Following raves (and a Variety review that was mixed), the show extended one week to July 1.
Daisy Prince was again set to stage the tuner when it opened at the Newhouse in mid-March 2002, following February previews. Reports had Norbert Leo Butz (currently in Thou Shalt Not) and Aida's Sherie Renee Scott co-starring; there was never official word on casting from LCT. Butz and Lauren Kennedy starred in the Skokie mounting.
Director Prince, daughter of Harold Prince, directed Brown's Songs for a New World Off Broadway. Tony Award-winning composer-lyricist Brown is best known for the Harold Prince-directed Parade (which earned the writer a Best Score Tony).
—By Robert Simonson
and Kenneth Jones