He's Not Afraid of Anything: Jason Robert Brown Sounds Off on Stepping Into the Pit for Last Five's Last Day
By Michael Gioia
Tony Award winner Jason Robert Brown not only directed the Second Stage Theatre revival of his two-person musical The Last Five Years, but on the show's final day, he joined the band to accompany Adam Kantor and Betsy Wolfe as they told the story of a couple falling in and out of love. Brown chatted with Playbill.com about the experience.
"I was thinking, 'Jesus Christ, this is hard!' Really! It's a lot of notes," Brown confessed to Playbill.com at Avatar Studios May 22, when Kantor and Wolfe took to the recording studio to lay down tracks for the upcoming cast album of Second Stage's acclaimed revival of The Last Five Years. "All I was doing was getting inside the music and being there. I mean, I think there's some more romantic thing I'm supposed to say, but, to me, there's nothing more magical… I submerge myself in the act of making music, so that's what I was doing… Honestly, to make music with Betsy and Adam was wonderful."
Before Kantor and Wolfe stepped out onto the Tony Kiser stage, Brown and the musicians took their seats at the 2 PM May 18 matinee. The crowd quickly realized that they were in for a memorable musical moment with the Tony-winning composer at the piano.
"The bass player [Randy Landau] and the guitarist [Gary Sieger, who played in the orchestra] are part of my band, the Caucasian Rhythm Kings, and they have been for 15 years now," said Brown. "They never missed a single performance of the almost-90 shows that we did. It was the second-to-last show, and I really thought, 'I want to get one chance to play it with them.' That was my entire thing. On top of everything else, and below everything else, I think I'm a musician first. I'm a guy who likes to make music with other musicians. Directing is fun, but it's not the same as making music for me. I wanted to make some music, so I took advantage of the opportunity."
Brown's The Last Five Years premiered in Chicago in 2001, prior to its original Off-Broadway life at the Minetta Lane Theatre in 2002 — starring Sherie Rene Scott and Norbert Leo Butz. At Second Stage, Brown took the reins to direct and create the world in which struggling actress Cathy Hyatt (Wolfe) and on-the-rise Jewish novelist Jamie Wellerstein (Kantor) meet, fall in love, get married and break up over the course of five years.
"Norbert and Sherie were these sort of supernovas — right on their way to crashing into the sky — and, I think with Betsy and Adam, we're right at the same place," added Brown. "There are these two people who are about to become these explosive forces in the theatre. So all I can do is capture that energy. It's very specific. It's very special, and it's very much theirs."
Fans of the musical tend to know Brown's iconic score from the original cast album, featuring Butz and Scott, that takes the listener through the ups and downs of the couple's relationship through a series of solo songs — Cathy telling the story in reverse chronological order, and Jamie starting from the beginning.
At the recording studio, Brown said that the goal with the new cast album is to not only preserve Kantor and Wolfe's performances, but to give listeners a fresh experience. "We did a fantastic recording the first time through with Norbert and Sherie," he said, "and so there were things that I wanted to make sure we did — not to just preserve what Betsy and Adam are doing, which is so sensational — but also to make it sort of a different experience than the one we had. In the studio here, everything is all in the exact same room. The singers are here, all the musicians are here and everybody is singing and trying to get as close to the live experience of all making music together as we could, which is not the way that most cast albums — or any albums — are made these days. It's very exciting, but it also presents a lot of challenges, but I think it really allows Adam and Betsy to bring their best to the table."
Brown added, "You know, I think that people are going to love this recording, and it will be no less definitive than the first one. I think that it documents these two incredible performances, and it documents exactly the score that I wrote, so it would be hard for me — in the abstract — to say that one is going to supersede the other or have some function that the other doesn't, but it was important to document what Betsy and Adam were doing because it was so special and so unique."
Ghostlight Records will release the cast album this summer. Check back with Playbill.com for a sneak peek inside the recording studio.
(Playbill.com staff writer Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)
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