The Last Five Years, the Jason Robert Brown musical that had an acclaimed run in Illinois last year, will begin in a commercial production Off-Broadway on Feb. 12. Norbert Leo Butz, who originated the male role in the two-hander last summer at Northlight Theatre in Skokie, IL, will reprise his role in New York.
Rehearsals on the production began mid-January 2002. Daisy Prince, who staged Brown's Songs for a New World, directs The Last Five Years, which has sets and costumes by Beowulf Boritt, lighting by Chris Binder and sound by Duncan Edwards.
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, Cathy, a musical theatre 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.
Marty Bell and Arielle Tepper, the new producers of The Last Five Years, grabbed the property after Lincoln Center Theatre backed out of a planned 2002 mounting. The official word was the artist and theatre weren't able to come to an agreement. Both a spokesman for LCT and Brown's lawyer, Mark Sendroff, refused to comment on the exact nature of their disagreement. But the widespread report in the theatre community said that the threat of a lawsuit, possibly brought by his ex-wife, Theresa O'Neill, stood in the way of future stagings of the intimate show. Asked whether the current production signaled that the legal wrangling over the show had been resolved, Sendroff reiterated that he was legally bound not to discuss the matter.
According to the New York Post, the divorce settlement between Brown and O'Neill "bars Brown from writing about certain aspects of their marriage."
To view Playbill On-Line's Brief Encounter interview with Jason Robert Brown from earlier this summer, click here.
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, 2001. Because of its intimate scale and economical two-person cast, The Last Five Years is thought to be highly producible, with a rosy future in the regional theatre circuit.
At the Minetta Lane Theatre in Greenwich Village on Feb. 6, the company and crew of The Last Five Years gave the New York press its first taste of the chamber musical. The emotional two hander's stars, Norbert Leo Butz and Sherie Rene Scott, ran through nearly every song in the score, with director Daisy Prince in the auditorium offering periodic guidance and the always-hands-on Brown himself, unseen backstage, leading the musicians and playing the keyboards.
Butz and Scott were dressed casually in denim, Scott in well-worn jeans and Butz in a jean jacket. They took turns stolling center stage to sing various numbers, delivering the terse lyrics with obvious familiarity. After a few particularly bleak pieces (the musical is about the slow, painful dissolution of a young artistic couple, as the man's writing career takes off and his wife's acting aspirations stall), Butz quipped to the audience of critics, columnists and photographers, "I actually do sing a very happy song later in the show."
That happy song was "Moving Too Fast," a jazzy paean to the character's meteoric rise in the publishing world ("I wrote a book and Sonny Mehta read it...I've got the singular impression that things are moving too fast"). Butz, fresh from his acclaimed performance as a spirited corpse in Thou Shalt Not, accompanied the tune with witty, minimalistic choreography (which, given the laughter from the crew, may have been of his own invention) which communicated his lived-in ease with the role which he created at the Northlight Theatre in Skokie, IL.
Scott, too, seemed relaxed and confident in songs about a blown audition ("I suck, I suck, I suck, I suck") and an excruciating encounter with a touring production called "A Summer in Ohio" ("I could chew on tin foil for a spell/Get a root canal in Hell/But it couldn't be nearly as swell/ As this summer in Ohio").
Butz and Scott were rarely on together on the stage, which featured an ice blue and grey set, vaguely reminiscent of Copenhagen's circular forum, but uprooted and placed on its side.
Among the songs featured in the preview were: "Still Hurting," "Jamie's Song," "See I'm Smiling," "A Part of That," "The Schmuel Song," "The Next Ten Minutes," "A Miracle Would Happen/When You Came Home to Me," "Climbing Uphill," "If I Didn't Believe in You," I Can Do Better Than That," "Nobody Needs to Know," "Goodbye Until Tomorrow/I Could Never Rescue You."
—By Robert Simonson