Halfway into Out of the Box Theatrics’ production of The Last 5 Years, Nasia Thomas accomplishes what can only be described as a moment of classic movie magic in her performance as Cathy Hiatt. While singing from the musical’s only duet, a single tear falls down her cheek as she stares into the eyes of her co-star Nicholas Edwards, delivering an instance of simplicity in an innovative virtual production that took the theatre world by storm upon its premiere in March 2021.
Filmed over the course of four days and presented as a movie, the production was a far departure from previous iterations of the contemporary musical theatre piece. Rather than a bare-bone staging with two actors trading off solos, the production, directed by Special Tony Award Recipient Jason Michael Webb, was told as a memory piece and captured in a New York City apartment, affording the performers a full environment with which to engage. Arriving at the end of a second winter of COVID isolation, the new staging felt both claustrophobic in its tight quarters and buoyant in its creative approach to pandemic storytelling.
More important than its creative staging, The Last 5 Years starred two young Black actors in a musical that had previously been white-washed. Since its inception, all of the previous major iterations of The Last 5 Years have only showcased white actors with the exception of a one-night-only benefit concert starring Cynthia Erivo and Joshua Henry. Suddenly, with Out of the Box Theatrics’ production, the legacy of Jason Robert Brown’s story became more inclusive.
And it’s been a long legacy. The Last 5 Years, which tells the story of aspiring actress Cathy and writing superstar Jamie as they fall in and out of love, recently marked the 20th anniversary of its debut at the Northlight Theatre in Illinois May 23, 2001. That production starred Norbert Leo Butz and Lauren Kennedy before transferring Off-Broadway at New York City’s Minetta Lane Theatre in March 2002, with Sherie Rene Scott in the role of Cathy.
Since then, the musical has become a staple of the contemporary musical theatre canon. In addition to its relatability to anyone who’s loved or lost, the musical typically requires very little to produce—just two actors, a small group of musicians, and minimal props, costumes, and scenic design.
But despite its ubiquity, the musical seemed out of reach of Thomas, an Elon BFA alum whose Broadway credits include Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations, and Caroline, or Change. “I didn't touch The Last 5 Years up until a couple of months ago. Growing up in a music theatre program as a young Black woman, you get songs for the roles that you're expected to play. So I sang a lot of Caroline, or Change. I had a little Dorothy [from The Wiz] in there,The Life and House of Flowers and all this kind of stuff. But I never really had the opportunity to do JRB stuff. I did one song in college: I did “Just One Step” [from Songs for a New World] but other than that, I wasn't assigned those songs.”
“To tell a human story and to not have to be a doo-wop girl that I have been doing since I graduated college, I thought, ‘I have to do this.’” Thomas elaborates, “I'm so thankful for those experiences and those roles. But to be able to do something that didn't require me to be Black and in a period piece was another reason why [I had to do it.]”
Thomas also wanted to challenge herself as an artist with the show. “I knew that it was going to be a challenge because Jason don't play with that hard music. But as hard as it is, the music is really, really, really, really, really bomb.
Scott, who made her Broadway debut in The Who’s Tommy before starring in shows including Rent and Aida, also recalls feeling the pressure of performing Brown’s score. She was accustomed to singing pop, rock, and jazz, so the “musical theatre” vocal placement of The Last 5 Years was a challenge for her, which is also part of why she gravitated towards the project. But more than her desire to overcome the vocal hurdle, it was her relationship to the character that made her want the role.
“I had that weird feeling like, “Oh, there's going to be more famous people than me or more attractive people than me or people who could be better singers than me [auditioning for the role]. But nobody on this planet can play this part better than me. I felt such compassion for her. I understood her,” Scott reflects on her experience fighting for the role.
Scott was cast, her place in the show’s history immortalized in the musical’s cast recording, which was created with Sh-K-Boom Records of which Scott was a co-founder. While the show only had a brief run Off-Broadway, the album made the show accessible to generations of performers and fans.
But that history is bittersweet for Scott. “It was such a special experience mixed with a lot of unkind things. A lot of lies and unkindness and incredible joy at being challenged and rising to the occasion as an artist under incredibly difficult circumstances. But that being said, it's still one of the things I'm most proud of doing. I didn't sing from it until 2019,” she explains, detailing the cabaret she created with Norbert Leo Butz about their fall out and the renewing of their friendship. “It was too special to me. And I didn't want to cheapen the experience.”
Scott’s special relationship with the show has been mirrored by countless fans and performers in the last two decades, which was another part of the pull of the production for Thomas. “I'd like to say it was ‘for the culture,’” she says about adding a Black perspective to the musical’s history, “I knew what this was going to mean to a lot of people.”
But there can be a burden in being a trail-blazer, and Thomas felt pressure to be excellent not only for herself but also for an entire community behind her.
“I had really bad imposter syndrome about it,” Thomas explains. “The morning after we wrapped, I called [Ain’t Too Proud co-star] Derrick Baskin, and I was like ‘I'm struggling right now because I feel an enormous amount of pressure. I feel like this is going to be the moment where people decide who I am and decide if I'm good enough to do anything like this. I knew that The Last 5 Years has a cult following and I was preparing myself for people to hate me. And then the younger Black artists: Are they going to see themselves in me if I'm trash at this. I felt an enormous amount of pressure”
“And Derrick said to me, ‘Nasia, it's not pressure. It's a gift. You get to carry a flag for other little Black people to see.’ I got to create art in a pandemic when a lot of people were not working. And I can't let all of these fears and doubts get in the way of how precious that gift is.”
That gift resulted in a new seminal production in the musical’s history, one that Scott relishes. “I think it is the best production I've seen of The Last 5 Years,” Scott exclaims to Thomas. “I can't say enough how much I genuinely like your voice. The depth and the richness on top of your ability. I just felt her. I mean, when you were singing “Still Hurting,” I just wanted to hold you. But I also realized that it was also me wanting to hold myself back then.”
The Out of the Box Theatric’s production also drew critical and audience acclaim. Nevertheless, Thomas felt the need to brace herself for hate since she was inhabiting the role as a Black woman. Not only was she bringing her race, she was bringing her personality, her voice, and her point of view to a character that had not been commonly seen as Black.
And while Black women face a unique level of criticism and vitriol, both in the theatre industry and world at large, misogyny and hate-speech is something all women face on a daily basis. Though separated by generations, both Scott and Thomas recall instances as women where they had to maneuver around abusive directors or producers, flippant yet offensive comments from collaborators, and hurtful comments from strangers.
“All women have horrible experiences. Nothing protects you from it unless you have people around you that are going to protect you. And I just didn't have that. It goes to show how on the front lines you are in that role and how on the front lines we are as women. As performers, we're really putting our soul out there. I think that's why this show is especially hard. Because when I sing, I feel like I can't hide. In that show, it's a two person show, there's no one to look at. These two people are everything. It is probably the most vulnerable place you can be in. We all have [misogyny] as a common language as women, but I can't understand the depth of having the issues that we deal and then on top of that, having discrimination issues because of my color.”
Thomas continues. “I think when you go through those experiences, you start to realize the things that you're not going to stand for and you start to challenge yourself to stand up for yourself.” she says, “It also teaches you to have to dig within and say ‘nothing you can say can take away my gift. You can't deny anything that I bring to the table. it's undeniable.’ Once we learn how to handle these situations, once we start speaking out like we're doing this whole year, then we start to clear a path so that the people coming behind us don't have to deal with that shit.”
For both Thomas and Scott, that path forward starts with the people involved in theatre’s creation. Both actors call for more representation behind the scenes and not just in the cast. “I speak from a place of being a dark-skinned Black woman: I am over seeing the same people do the same things. I want to see more Black theatremakers and theatre owners. I want to see Black people doing Black hair on Black shows. I just want to see a bigger representation in every single field because we can all do it all."
Thomas cites productions demanding tangible change from their producers in the form of best practices, hiring requirements, and more. And Scott recalls an instance of a collaborator requiring a Black mentee to trail him on the job as a stipulation of signing, a personal effort to create more access and opportunities for Black theatremakers. And projects like the most recent production of The Last 5 Years push the musical theatre form forward, with representation encouraging a new wave of artists and changemakers.
“It shouldn't have even been a big deal for me to do The Last 5 Years. I am extremely proud to be a part of The Last 5 Years family, to have been given this opportunity to be another staple specifically for the people who never thought that they would do it and represent for the chocolate girls,” Thomas states. “People will remember the original. They'll remember [Scott’s] performance, and then in the middle [of that legacy], there will be this production. If I was in college and I saw this, the amount of things that I could believe that I could do… The amount of people who look like me who got shut down in these programs or put in a box is traumatizing. But when we are given these opportunities, we show up and we show out.”
It’s clear that The Last 5 Years will continue to thrive in the musical theatre world. Already, the musical is slated to appear on stages across the United States and internationally, most notably with Southwark Playhouse's production scheduled to transfer to the West End in the fall. But with Out of the Box Theatrics' production, the show’s legacy has shifted and expanded.
“To see it move forward in this way is healing,” Scott reflects, looking back at 20 years of the show. "And I feel this is now the legacy. Real artistry comes in the reinvention. It's an honor to see this growth happening.”
Inside Nasia Thomas and Sherie Rene Scott's Glam Photo Shoot for The Last 5 years
Photography by Marc J. Franklin | Styling by Jake Sokoloff | Photo Assistance by Michaelah Reynolds
Wardrobe by Banana Republic, Zara, H&M, Club Monaco, Aldo, GAP, & Other Stories, and Isabel Marant