Cynthia Erivo and Joshua Henry Reveal Their Thoughts on Doing The Last Five Years

Special Features   Cynthia Erivo and Joshua Henry Reveal Their Thoughts on Doing The Last Five Years
 
The stars talk about their sold-out, buzzed-about September 12 performance of Jason Robert Brown’s powerful musical, how they approach the roles and what it means for the diversity conversation.
Joshua Henry and Cynthia Erivo
Joshua Henry and Cynthia Erivo Jenny Anderson

It’s the one-night-only event everyone is talking about: Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years starring Cynthia Erivo and Joshua Henry. The concert, playing September 12 at Town Hall, sold out in approximately half an hour. But it all started out as an offshoot of Brown’s residency at downtown’s SubCulture. This is approximately the 20th concert of Brown’s since his artist-in-residence status became official in December 2014.

As a place for Brown to collaborate with performers he’d always wanted to work with on his repertoire and also experiment with new music, SubCulture seemed like a great place to play with The Last Five Years. But when Erivo and Henry signed on, Brown and Subculture founder and artistic director Marc Kaplan knew it would be worth sharing with more people than the capacity of the intimate venue.

READ MORE: JASON ROBERT BROWN TALKS CASTING CYNTHIA ERIVO AND JOSHUA HENRY

Playbill.com chatted with Erivo and Henry separately—in true Last Five Years fashion. Here, they answer our questions and tell the story of how this concert came to be: Erivo backwards, Henry forwards.

CYNTHIA ERIVO, CATHY

There was a lot of talk about this past Broadway season as such a banner year in terms of the diversity of stories being told onstage and actor representation. This is the first, at least, very public performance with two black actors playing these roles. What are your thoughts on that?
CE:
When we decided to do it, I don’t know that it was the first thing that came to mind. I think Jason’s very particular about the singers he likes to use, and he loves the both of us and we love him. And so for him, it was just a case of I want these two singers to do this show and we’re not changing any words, we’re not changing any subtext at all. So as far as you’re concerned, Jamie is still Jewish, and Cathy is still a blond-haired girl, which I am, so that’s fine. But, inadvertently, we have realized that it is a huge statement to have two black actors playing these characters, which isn’t normally the way it has been done previously. We’ve had a wonderful season so far, and what I wish for the next couple of years is for that to continue to be the norm. Because I don’t know that that’s what’s going to happen in the next couple of years. Leslie [Odom, Jr.] said it so eloquently in an interview that what we have right now is wonderful, but what we want to see is whether that can uphold the next couple of years and onward; so that it isn’t, “Oh my gosh it’s a diverse year, it’s fantastic,” so that it becomes the norm. So that it’s not strange to walk into a theatre next door and have loads of Latin people, loads of Spanish people, loads of African Americans—that doesn’t become the new thing, it just is. I hope I can play a part in trying to help to allow people, writers, producers to be unafraid to embrace that and to keep that going, because it’s a wonderful thing when it’s done well, and I think everyone needs to see themselves represented when it comes to theatre and stage and Broadway and Off-Broadway and all those things.

 

What is your favorite song in the show?
CE:
Oh dear. It’s hard. I really love “The Next Ten Minutes.” I think it’s just a really beautiful moment for the both of them. It’s a real true “I want to spend my life with you, will you spend your life with me, please, and we’ll keep going until we can’t keep going anymore,” which is wonderful and sad with respect to the story because that’s kind of what happens, they keep going until they just can’t anymore. There’s another one I do at the top of the show. It’s not “I Can Do Better Than That,” which was my favorite but now I keep going over [all] the music. I can’t help it, it changes every day where I’m like, “Ooh I love that one, but oh that song’s amazing.” And I never knew I’d love “The Shmuel Song” that much, but I really do. When Josh does it, he’s so lovely, it’s so wonderfully told like a proper story told in full throttle. He’s just brilliant. It changes. I can’t help it. I try to stick to one but it can never stay that way.

 

How much chemistry does there need to be because you’re not onstage together? More so that it’s tangible for the audience? Less?
CE: I think there needs to be more. I think it still needs to feel like they could be in the room together. It’s strange because they’re going in opposite directions. So Cathy is going backwards in time, so she already knows all the things that you’re seeing her partner go through. It’s just that she has some onlook at everything that’s happening. I feel like she’s in the room with him, she can hear everything that he’s saying. Whether or not he can hear what she’s saying is a different story. But there is a moment where they meet in the middle, and they really are together, but it has to feel like they didn’t meet there just for the first time. It has to feel like they’ve been together for a long time before that moment. So I feel like there needs to be more chemistry in the room even when they’re not speaking to each other.

 

You mentioned the possibility of you doing this with different people and Joshua is who it is. I have to say—
CE: It’s pretty awesome.
It’s the dream we didn’t know we had. How much rehearsing will you do together?
CE: We’ve had one session together, and I think we’ll have another one and then I think we have the day [of]. We’ve been doing our rehearsals separately, which hasn’t been terrible because a lot of it is in isolated incidents on their own before they come together. So it’s nice to sometimes come together to hear each other’s voices and to feel each other’s energy in the room at the same time.

 

What do you like to infuse into your Cathy that you think is a bit unique?
CE:
What’s strange is there’s a line in “Shiksa Goddess”: if you had a tattoo, or if you had any piercings or if you had a shaved head, which is basically me. Completely. My kind of normal is very different than most people’s normal. That to me is my norm. I know that my psyche, my self, has a strong essence. I’m feisty by nature. I feel that [my performance] is just naturally going to fall into that. I like to connect quite deeply with things, so when there is a sadness and when there is a frustration, it’s probably going to be super obvious. I can’t hide my feelings. I won’t have to do very much for it to come to the surface, it will be there for everyone to see. That’s not to say that no one else has been able to do that, but that’s something I know that is particular to me and that I enjoy doing. There’s nothing sort of hidden for anyone.

 

Like you said, if you didn’t do it people were just going to keep asking you and asking you and audiences have such a strong response to this show. No one ever thinks, “Why are we doing this again?”
CE: We’re all suckers for love stories, and I think we’re all suckers for the exploration of something even if it’s a love story that’s gone wrong. The idea of looking into someone’s heart and looking into someone’s memory is still quite magical, I think.

 

What is it about The Last Five Years specifically that pulls you into the music and the show and the character?
CE:
I think it’s just the wonderful telling of the story of two people who really were in love and kind of lost their way a bit. She’s searching for what happened and how they loved each other, and he doesn’t know until he gets to that point that it has happened. I just love this love-lost, love-is-gained story about these two very normal people who are both extraordinary in their own ways, one of whom doesn’t quite know that she is—but knows that she wants something but can’t put her hands on what it is that she wants—and one that knows exactly what it is and lets that stuff get between himself and his partner. It’s a story of many love stories and couples that have been through it and come back again. I think it’s a great universal story to see and hear, and the music is amazing.

 

You first performed with Jason Robert Brown during his residency at subculture and then that video of you singing “I Can Do Better Than That” at Marie’s Crisis went all over the Broadway sphere. Was that the beginning of all of this?
CE: Well, actually, the first time I performed with him was in London. He came over to do a concert at Royal Festival Hall and that’s the song I did there. When I got to New York, we decided that I would do the residency with him at SubCulture, and so that happened, and then I went to Marie’s Crisis and they asked me to sing a song, so I did that one because it felt like it was part of the arsenal, and then I guess our brains started thinking about what could happen and what we could do and whether or not this might be a possibility. Then we kept hearing from other people that we should do it and that they wanted to see me do it with someone, and there were loads of suggestions of who to do it with. At first it was Leslie and then it was Ben Platt, all sorts. Then I guess one day Jason just was like, “I think we should just do this because we’re going to keep being asked about it,” so that’s how it sort of spun out of control in the best possible way, so now here we are. Myself and Josh in the next couple of days.

JOSHUA HENRY, JAMIE

How did you get pulled in to this project? Since it is part of Jason’s residence at SubCulture.
JH: We did a concert at SubCulture, and I sang some of his stuff from Parade, which we did at Avery Fisher Hall a little while ago. At that point we hadn’t spoken of it, but shortly after that there was some Twitter talk of Cynthia and I doing The Last Five Years. It wasn’t Jason, it was literally people had just tweeted that. Then Cynthia and I were sort of private messaging each other and saying, “Wouldn’t that be really really cool?” I didn’t know that Cynthia had done another concert or two with Jason at other times and that they had spoken about it, as well, and she did one of the songs from The Last Five Years. Fast forward to a few months ago, now, Jason just reached out and was like “Let’s just do this.” He just emailed Cynthia and I and said, “Do these days work? Yes. Let’s do it.” So it was as simple as that on my end. It was very exciting.

 

You sold out in half an hour on the pre-sale day. There’s something about The Last Five Years. Why do you think audiences have such a strong response to this show?
JH: I think the music is brilliant, technically and emotionally. I still remember the first time I heard Jason Robert Brown sing that song when I was a freshman at the University of Miami, he sang “Movin’ Too Fast,” and it was the first time I cried—nasty cry. It’s a celebratory song but I remember almost snotting because it was so brilliant—the music just got me. I think the music is incredible; I think it’s about relationships building up and tearing apart. Whether you’re a kid or an older person, everyone can relate to seeing that, being a part of that, witnessing it, so that’s a timeless thing. I think what we’re seeing now is it’s written in such a brilliant way that it doesn’t matter the performers that are involved with it, it can live through different age groups, different races, different cultures I think. I think that’s what’s interesting about Cynthia and I doing it, and that’s what I’m really excited about. We’ve had a few rehearsals now, which is so exciting.

 

 

How much are the two of you rehearsing together?
JH:
It’s only going to be a couple of times because it’s so individual, but we do have some duets together, and we have to be there to support each other being in the scenes and things, so I think altogether it’ll just be a handful of times. It’s thrilling! It’s different than anything you’ve heard on the recording. I didn’t see the Off-Broadway show, but it’s different than hearing anything I would imagine. Hearing Cynthia sing some of these songs—it’s totally re-imagined, yet still has the same intent. I think that audience… That is the golden ticket and they’ll be in for a real treat. Hopefully there’ll be another time, we’ll see.

 

You spend so much time not on the same stage. How much of a chemistry does there need to be between the two of you?
JH:
I think that’s something that we’re finding out right now, and in this last week we’re going to put it all together even more, but it was very important for us to even be next to each other in rehearsal singing these songs. To feel each other and how when you have the other person, you’re singing a song it’s a solo, but to feel how this person may react, and also to hear each other sing. I think that informs a lot of [choices]. For instance, hearing Cynthia, hearing her strength and her vulnerability and where she slides on that spectrum with Cathy. So that informs how I talk to her and how I get upset with her and when I get annoyed. It was all about hearing Cynthia go to those places. There’s just a sensitivity that I think in a very short time we’ve had to develop, and it’s exciting to do that with her.

 

How would you describe your take on Jaime?
JH:
Well, what I’m fascinated by him is: he’s a genius, and he got success very early in his life, and that does something to a person. That’s something that I can sort of relate to. In coming to New York I got my first Broadway show six months after I got here. So that song, “Movin’ Too Fast,” means so much to me, knowing that feeling where it’s just where you imagined yourself but it’s flying by you at a million miles an hour. So I have a lot of connection with him—I’m not calling myself a genius, P.S., but that idea of success coming to you quickly and what that does to your relationship. I was in a relationship (thankfully I’m married to the woman I was in a relationship with at the time), but that affects things because there’s no template. It’s a hard thing. When success comes, it changes everything, so I’m interested in portraying what that’s like and I think I have a lot of connection with that.

 

Is “Movin’ Too Fast” your favorite song from the show, or is there another one you love? 

JH: I think... Oh gosh, that’s so hard!!! I think ”If I Didn’t Believe In You”? Maybe? I seriously can’t answer that question. I can’t.

 

You mentioned earlier that what’s so beautiful about this is that so many people can step into the shoes of Jaime and Cathy and that it’s not just one type of story. This is the first time that we’re having two black actors play these roles and diversity was a big topic this past Broadway season. How are you feeling in terms of moving that forward?
JH:
I hope that it just continues to give black actors and other actors of color opportunities in ways that they haven’t had before especially because if the show works and artistically it works for that to happen, then why not? Why not? It’s so important for us to see ourselves up onstage, represented, and art is the best place for that to happen. And I think once it happens in art, it will happen even more in pop culture and more film and more TV. I think Broadway really cracked something open last year, and hopefully it wasn’t a fluke. And I think what Jason sort of caught onto was: why not? There are so many great reasons for it to happen. I’ll never forget after Shuffle Along…, there was this little girl—she was five years old with her mother—and I met them at the stage door, and her mother told me, “She looked up on that stage and she said, ‘They all look like me.’” The feeling of wonder that was just all over her face and the pride that came about because of that... Now she knows growing up that she can do something like that. She can shine. There are examples of that. The more we see that all across the board, red, brown, black, yellow, white, I think that’s just very important. I’m glad that Jason and Lin-Manuel [Miranda] and a lot of other people are starting to see that. I’m very excited about that and to be a part of that.

 

I don’t think Jason was like, “I’m gonna do that black L5Y.” I think he just said, “Cynthia is off the chain, Joshua is off the chain, let’s do it.”
JH: That’s exactly what he said. It wasn’t let me fill some quota. He was like, “Who can do this really really well?” That was the thought process—and because he knows his material and there was nothing saying no. So that’s really, really cool.

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