There is a wedding in The Last Five Years, now playing at WaterTower Theatre in Addison through July 1, but instead of being the fairytale ending, it’s in the middle of the show.
Jason Robert Brown’s 2001 musical traces the five-year romantic relationship of Jamie and Cathy, from the hopeful beginning to divorce. Brown twists the show’s perspective by having Jamie tell his story from the beginning of the relationship to the end while Cathy tells her story in reverse chronological order.
The two characters meet in the middle at their engagement and wedding. “That seemingly simple conceit, I think, is why people are really engaged because we’re able to see it from both sides at the same time versus feeling like you’re only getting one person’s perspective. There are two protagonists in this show,” Kelsey Leigh Ervi, the show’s director, said.
In contrast to many musicals, this show is about flawed people navigating a modern romantic relationship. “It’s not about the ‘Oh, we’ve overcome everything and now we’re married and now life is open ahead of us.’ We know what happens at the beginning, so it becomes about the journey there and how these two people changed and grew despite the relationship,” Adam C. Wright, the show’s musical director, said.
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The musical investigates the personal development each character experiences during this chapter of their lives. Divorce is not a failure; it’s an evolution of the individual.
“It’s more about the sustained validity of their relationship despite the fact that it has ended. That their relationship and that these feelings they feel and these experiences they had together are still valid and important and they changed each other. There was a lot of love in this relationship and there was a lot of loneliness,” Ervi said. “That makes this show different from other musicals in that it truly shows the inner conflict these two people are experiencing.”
Jamie, an emerging novelist played by Seth Womack, and Cathy, a hard-working actress played by Monique Abry, contend with communication issues, divergent career trajectories, and changing individual priorities.
“I think the trick is communication. That’s what we learn in this show is that they have trouble communicating. We can hear both sides. He doesn’t understand what she’s saying and neither does she understand him. It’s like they’re speaking slightly different languages,” Wright said.
“They start to lose themselves in this relationship,” Ervi said. “They realize, ‘Oh I’ve now lost myself in this. I don’t know who I am anymore. I thought I knew the things I wanted and I’m not getting those things or they’re not the things I thought I wanted. So this must not be the place where I need to be.’”
The show’s music reflects the emotional highs and lows of this modern romance with complex musical diversity. “All of Jason Robert Brown’s music, but specifically this show, is a really nice mix of big romantic classical elements like Beethoven and Rachmaninoff – very emotional and bombastic. But then he mixes in these contemporary elements: rock and pop and funk and jazz and show tunes, kind of rolling it together to make it his own style,” Wright said.
Wright often works on traditional romantic musicals, but he relates to contemporary characters like Jamie and Cathy. “I really like having the flawed characters. The love stories that do interest me tend to show up in Sondheim or Adam Guettel shows where the people themselves are also flawed and they’re more real to me, more three-dimensional so I can identify with them more. That helps me play for the actors if I can bond with the characters. I can be a better accompanist,” Wright said.
The Last Five Years has a cult following, with people on social media asking each other if they are a Cathy or a Jamie. This familiarity is Ervi’s greatest challenge. “I think for me, it’s directing a show that everyone knows,” Ervi said, explaining this production’s staging shows the characters onstage together. “It shows that there’s loneliness in this relationship, that often times these people feel very alone. I think loneliness is a more palpable feeling when you see loneliness exist between two people together. For me, that means seeing them onstage together and seeing how lonely both of them feel next to each other.”
Inspired by a recent visit to Los Angeles’ Museum of Broken Relationships, Ervi includes objects from the artistic teams’ past relationships on the set, with additional volunteered mementos displayed in the lobby. This musical does not end happily ever after, but that may be the reason it is so beloved. “People like seeing a story that they can relate to,” Wright said. “More people do experience more than one big heartbreak, and this is a show that communicates what that feels like.”