Why take Jason Robert Brown's intimate musical, exploring a flawed relationship — told theatrically through a series of solo songs, with one character moving forward and the other traveling backwards — and place it on the big screen? "I love it," explained director Richard LaGravenese, who envisioned the piece for film. "That's the only reason."
As family, friends, press and industry members filtered into the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center — including stars Jeremy Jordan and Anna Kendrick and Tony Award-winning writer Jason Robert Brown, fresh off opening his latest Broadway musical The Bridges of Madison County — it was evident that "The Last Five Years" was a labor of love and a passion project for all involved.
"I was obsessed with the score, and I never saw the show initially," confessed LaGravenese. "I would listen to it over and over, and I just knew it… I just listened to the score, and I kept seeing it. I wanted them to sing to each other [in the film version] because it adds a whole other layer to the song, to the story and to what relationships are."
It seemed unlikely that The Last Five Years, Brown's semi-autobiographical story about insecure Shiksa actress Cathy Hyatt (Kendrick) and rising Jewish novelist Jamie Wellerstein (Jordan), would be a perfect match for the big screen — the material is comprised of over a dozen solo moments told out of order, leaving the audience to piece the doomed relationship together throughout the course of the evening. However, LaGravenese was insistent on bringing each moment to life, with Cathy and Jamie singing to each other throughout various locations in New York City (which serves as the setting of the musical and the third character of the new film). "Probably, in some sort of fevered dream, I thought [a film] might happen," said songwriter Brown, "but of all of my shows, it was the least likely. I really thought it's so impressionistic and so theatrical that it was going to be very hard to do, [but] when I met with Richard about doing an adaptation, he was so passionate about it and had such a clear idea of how to bring it to life, that he totally won me over. But I was very skeptical until then. I don't know that I would have signed on if he had not been so committed to how to do it."
The film stays completely true to its source material — which premiered in Chicago in 2001, opened Off-Broadway at the Minetta Lane Theatre in March 2002 and was, most recently, revived at Off-Broadway's Second Stage Theatre — and only enhances each musical moment. Viewers are invited into Cathy and Jaime's passionate bedroom, the Ohio stock theatre that Cathy reluctantly travels to each summer, Jamie's various book signings and office at Random House publishing company and Central Park, where the couple is engaged, among others. "I was very excited because [the musical is] incredibly intimate, and that's generally what film captures really well — the subtle intimacies between people," said Jordan, who finds himself living out a dream as Jamie Wellerstein. The actor, Tony-nominated for his role in Newsies and recently seen on television in NBC's "Smash," first encountered the material in college.
"Sometimes you don't know your dream role is your dream role until you get it, and you're like, 'Holy shit!' But I knew this…," said Jordan. "The second I heard this [score] back in college when it first came out, I was immediately obsessed. I never actually seen the show, but I very intimately knew the soundtrack [and] — along with every other musical theatre lover — related to it instantly. I had it memorized before I even auditioned for this movie."
Kendrick, however, knew nothing of The Last Five Years before signing on. "When I got the script, I was really excited because Parade is my favorite musical," she explained, "but I actually had never listened to Last Five Years. I read the script without having ever heard the music, which was one of the most impressive things [because I was] weeping reading the script — just reading the lyrics on paper and reading screen directions. Then, the next day, I listened to the soundtrack while I reread the script, and I realized I could never listen to the soundtrack ever again. It was so beautiful, and I [thought], 'Oh, I can't ever listen to this again… I'm just going to have to learn it from scratch, otherwise I'll just be doing an impression of the CD.'"
Although the actress — a Tony nominee for High Society who is best known for her film outings in "Camp" and "Pitch Perfect" — was afraid of imitating original cast member Sherie Rene Scott (who appears in the film as a casting director at one of Cathy's many auditions), she is completely different from the actresses who played the role before her and relates to Cathy's strong need for validation.
"The thing about Cathy… She thinks that everyone is younger and thinner than her. Maybe they are, and maybe they're not. Cathy is her own worst enemy, and Cathy's fatal flaw is that she doesn't believe in herself, and she wants to see her confidence reflected through a man," said Kendrick. "You can't have somebody else be the person who is giving you confidence. I understand looking for validation elsewhere, and that isn't a long-term solution. So, I think Cathy's downfall comes from insecurity more than actually being a deeply flawed person."
As for fault when it comes to Cathy and Jamie, Kendrick finds it difficult to place the blame. "I mean, it's so hard. Is it ever really somebody's fault?" she asked. "If you have friends who are a couple, and they break up, they're definitely blaming the other person for the reason it didn't work out, so I don't think there's an easy answer. But, that's the great thing. I love hearing people talk about the material…" Director LaGravenese agreed. "I wanted it to be balanced, so that you really can't [decide]… That's how relationships are," he said. "You fall in love and you both make mistakes, and you're both right, and you're both wrong, and sometimes it just doesn't work out, and that ambiguity is what, to me, is so beautiful about this."
The film brings the Cathy-Jamie dynamic to a new level, allowing audiences to meet their friends, colleagues and past lovers (played by a slew of other theatre actors, including Jordan's wife Ashley Spencer), see their struggles and successes and relish in their happiness. Passionate and touching scenes between Jordan and Kendrick ensue during "Shiksa Goddess," "I Can Do Better Than That," "The Next Ten Minutes" and "Goodbye Until Tomorrow," and heartbreak and conflict are evident with songs such as "If I Didn't Believe in You" and "See I'm Smiling," among others.
"There's something that is very honest about wanting to feel the kind of love that these people feel and also know that it might not work out," said composer-lyricist Brown. "I think that there is something very real and very universal about that, especially for young people and young artists. It's a piece about what it is to be a young artist. It's a piece about what it is to have arrived in this amazing city and say, 'I'm going to conquer all of it at once. I'm going to fall in love with the perfect person. I'm going to be a big star. I'm going to do all of that' and then see whether it plays out the way you planned, and I think there's just something that is very true about the piece. I mean, there's certainly something that is very true for me about the piece, and so I think it rings for people that way."
A release date for the film has not yet been set.
(Playbill.com staff writer Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.) Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan on the "Last Five Years" Film Set