PLAYBILL BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Jason Robert Brown, Now Directing His Beloved Musical The Last Five Years

By Brandon Voss
07 Mar 2013

Norbert Leo Butz and Lauren Kennedy in the Chicago premiere
At what point did you realize that The Last Five Years had become a cult classic?
JRB: It's been a slow dawning over a number of years. It's great. I lived in Italy in 2005. When I came back, I found that I was very much in demand on college campuses. Everyone wanted to book me to come talk to their students and theatre groups. The show was also being done a lot. I was paying my mortgage with The Last Five Years. So sometime around there, I must've figured it was doing OK.

What is it about the show that's resonated with so many people?
JRB: I love that these characters have very full, honest emotional lives. A lot of musical theatre has to stint on those things, but I didn't write this for anybody but me. I had something I needed to say, which gave me freedom to write these characters as deeply as I could, so they're flawed but very recognizable. People see themselves very much in these characters.

Is it accurate to describe the show as autobiographical?
JRB: It's not not autobiographical. On an emotional level, it's very autobiographical. I had a really tragic first marriage, so that part is true. Knowing anything about my own biography, you can't watch the show and not see a lot of parallels, but the specifics aren't autobiographical.

Have audiences missed the point if they leave the show picking sides?
JRB: You can take from the show whatever you want. For me, the fun thing about the last 11 years is seeing how the reviews that do place blame are evenly split. Either Cathy's horrible and unsupportive or Jamie's a rotten philanderer. I've been able to rest comfortably knowing that I managed to write something balanced.

Do you like seeing as many college and regional productions as you can?
JRB: No, I really don't. Emotionally, it's very hard for me to watch. I've probably seen about 50 of them, but it takes a lot to get me there.

Can you still be surprised by fresh interpretations of the material?
JRB: I'm always open to being surprised, but I've always had a very specific thing in my mind about what this show is. I'm open to seeing what other people do with it, but it makes it a variation on what I wanted it to be — as opposed to the actual thing I wanted it to be. That was probably even true with Daisy's interpretation; as gorgeous as it was and as superbly cast as it was, I don't think it was ever exactly what I saw in my mind. So it's been really exciting trying to nail down exactly what that thing is in my mind and put it up on stage.

That sounds like something a control freak would say.
JRB: You're supposed to be a control freak when you're an artist. That's the whole point of having a vision: Why have one if you're not going to protect it?

What's it like to revisit the characters through older, wiser eyes?
JRB: The feelings of both characters were very, very close to me. I have a more avuncular interest in the characters now, as opposed to the more direct personal interest I had the first time. I look at them like, "Oh, these kids, they don't know what's coming!" I feel for them as someone older.


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