The Chicago Tribune gushed. The Sun-Times raved. Time magazine glowed. Good reviews promised a future for Jason Robert Brown's new two character musical, The Last Five Years, which ended an extended world premiere run at the Northlight Theatre in Skokie, IL, July 1.
The New York Times reported in late June that the show was expected to have a New York City berth this coming winter, at the Mitzi Newhouse Theatre at Lincoln Center Theatre. That's now been confirmed, with production spokesperson Philip Rinaldi telling Playbill On-Line that Daisy Prince will again stage the tuner when it opens at the Newhouse in mid-March 2002, following February previews.
Broadway.com has reported that Norbert Leo Butz and Aida's Sherie Renee Scott may co-star, but there's been no official word on casting from LCT.
LCT commissioned the piece but allowed Northlight to test it in a world premiere. The intimate new musical, which charts the rise and fall of a marriage over five years, from different points of view, 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.
No word yet on casting for the New York production, which featured Norbert Butz and Lauren Kennedy as singing marrieds in the Illinois staging. In glowing reviews for the intimate, 80-minute musical, senior Chicago critic Richard Chistiansen of the Tribune, and Hedy Weiss of the Sun-Times, seemed to be egging on commercial producers, inviting a future production following the regional nonprofit debut. "Exhilaration, so intense that it brings tears of joy, is at hand in the premiere of The Last Five Years at Northlight Theatre," Christiansen wrote in the first paragraph of his review. 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).
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.
Although Brown is divorced, he said the work is not autobiographical. "Everything I write comes from my life," he told Playbill On-Line. "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."
Between May 25-27, the musical "sold more tickets in a single weekend than any other Northlight production ever at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie," a spokesman said. It's "the second fastest starter" to Northlight's all-time box office record-holder in its 26 year history, Always Patsy Cline in 1994.
The two-person tuner follows the relationship of a "nice Jewish boy" and an Irish Catholic girl in New York City. During a five year period, they fall in love, marry and their bond loosens into divorce. Tom Murray musical directs. Brown was in residence at Northlight during the run of the staging, and conducted the six piece band (and played piano). Jewish and Irish musical themes are woven with contemporary pop and Broadway sounds to create a multicultural urban atmosphere. Insiders say the show is crafty and on a small enough physical scale that it will eventually be a hot property on the regional theatre market.
"I find it incredibly close to the bone, especially being a performer myself," observed Northlight artistic director B.J. Jones. "This deals with an actress and a novelist. When one career takes off and the other doesn't, I think that's close to the bone for anyone in this day and age of two career partnerships. All the while, it's very funny and the structure has a wonderful sort of counterpoint quality; it makes each song more resonant because of where it lies in the journey."
Brown was music director of Dinah Was, which Northlight presented in 1998-99. Subsequently, he accepted Northlight artistic director Jones' offer of the 350-seat Skokie Northlight venue for the premiere of a vest pocket musical. Brown was working on a two-person show for Lincoln Center that the New York non-profit wasn't ready to do, and Brown and Lincoln Center said Northlight could test it. The show turned out to be The Last Five Years, which has some spoken dialog in it, but is mostly sung-through.
The design team in Illinois included Beowolf Boritt (set and costumes), Chris Binder (lighting) and Rob Milburn, Michael Bodeen and Ray Nardelli (sound).
Before The Last Five Years comes to the Mitzi Newhouse, the venue will house Richard Greenberg's Everett Beekin, starring Bebe Neuwirth.
— By David Lefkowitz
and Kenneth Jones