If you ask Cynthia Erivo, it started in London when she first sang “I Can Do Better Than That” in concert with Jason Robert Brown. Ask Joshua Henry, and it started as a conversation in the Twittersphere. But ask Brown himself about how the one-night-only Town Hall concert of his The Last Five Years came about, and it begins with his artistic residency at SubCulture, the downtown music venue that has hosted 19 monthly concerts of his since December 2014.
“I think this is our 20th concert in the residency, and we wanted to do something special and I usually do a concert on or around September 11 anyway that is a more significant concert to me because that day is still so significant to me having been here and lived through that,” explains Brown. “When I thought to ask Joshua and Cynthia to do the concert, honestly my thought was to just do it at SubCulture, but I could feel the minute that I asked them and the minute that they both said yes that already there was this real force around that idea.”
“Cynthia and Joshua, even I want to see that,” continues Brown. “Who doesn’t want to see Cynthia and Joshua do pretty much anything?”
(The composer/lyricist has a point. The September 12 concert sold out in less than an hour during the pre-sale.)
There does seem to be an energy around this concert, partly because it’s The Last Five Years, partly because it’s Erivo and Henry singing it and partly because it’s the first time a prominent production of this show features two black actors. Diversity in storytelling and representation has been at the forefront of the cultural conversation; it’s hard not to imbue the moment with extra meaning. While it is a milestone, Brown, Erivo and Henry all agree that it was not the intent to do “the black Last Five Years.” It was the intent to cast talented people and create an experience—which makes it an even more ideal expression. “It wasn’t ‘let me fill some quota,’” says Henry of Brown’s thought process. “He was like, ‘Who can do this really, really well?’” Erivo agrees: “I think Jason’s very particular about the singers he likes to use, and he loves the both of us, and we love him. It was just a case of ‘I want these two singers to do this show.’”
Brown feels he’s found “a thrilling match of performer and part” in both Henry and Erivo.
“What is thrilling about them is that neither of them feels beholden to what Sherie [Rene Scott] and Norbert [Leo Butz] did [in the original] or what Betsy [Wolfe] and Adam [Kantor] did [in 2013],” says Brown. “They’re both able to come at it from their own experiences and their own lives.”
True, Henry isn’t Jewish like Jamie, but neither was Butz. “Being able to work with him on how to make that feel organic and how to make that feel like something that it is his and he can own onstage has been really wonderful, because he’s an actor of so many resources, and he’s got such incredible depth,” says Brown. “But all of that is to one side, because he opens his mouth to sing ‘Movin’ Too Fast’ and, honestly, who cares? It’s the greatest sound in the world when he does that.” Henry couldn’t be more thrilled to be taking on Jamie and exploring the world of the young genius.
As for Erivo, her rendition of “I Can Do Better Than That” has become famous since a video of her singing the song at Marie’s Crisis splashed across the internet. She recently reprised the performance as part of 2016’s Elsie Fest.
While she feels the perfect fit for Cathy now, it wasn’t always the case. “When I first presented the song to Cynthia for the concert in London, she said, ‘No that doesn’t feel like me,’” says Brown. “I pressed her a little bit and said, ‘Why would that be?’ And she said, ‘She just sounds sort of needy and kind of weak in a way I don’t like to be onstage.’ And I said, ‘Well, I think that this song is about more than that, but why don’t you just take a look at it and see how it feels and if you really don’t like it, we’ll cut it.’ And she did it at the concert, obviously, and it was this enormous success because she was able to see past what that character’s surface neediness is into what that character’s real hidden strength is. To watch her find the strength of that character and to let the strength be the dominant color, as opposed to the needy victim-y part of it, is really exciting. It’s a color I don’t often get to see, as far as this show is concerned and as far as that part is concerned, but it feels completely compliant with the way that the piece is written.”
While audiences cannot wait to hear the Erivo-Henry treatment of the score, there’s also something about The Last Five Years that draws people in like a magnet—no matter who sings it. “I would like to think it’s just because we recognize ourselves in those people and something in us is rooting for them,” says Brown. “I think part of the job of storytellers is to tell us stories about who we are so that we get a chance to see them. I think the people who aren’t storytellers need to see things about themselves, they need to sort of see things that tell them a little bit [about] who they are…. I have to believe that that’s my job.
“So in that context I think there must be something about the characters and the course of The Last Five Years that people feel, ‘I need to feel that, I need to be part of that story because that’s something about my life that I won’t see unless I see it in this place,’” says Brown. And while Town Hall is a larger space than typically used for such a small-scale show, Brown will stay true to its essence. “The point of doing The Last Five Years is to engage with those actors at the most intimate level possible,” he says. “That’s very much what I plan on doing.”