In Jason Robert Brown’s intimate, two-actor musical “The Last Five Years,” the audience meets rising-star writer Jamie as he meets and falls in love with Cathy, a struggling actress. Things go well, until they don’t. But what sets this show apart from the usual failed romance is where Cathy is at the top of the show—she begins the show five years later, at the end of her relationship with Jamie, looking back, then tells her side of the story in reverse chronological order.
They’re only at the same point in their relationship once, ever-so-briefly.
“There’s one moment in the middle of the show where they sing together, and it’s when they get married,” said Actors Theatre of Louisville associate artistic director Meredith McDonough, who directs the upcoming production.
“It’s a piece that’s only looking at the biggest and most important moments in a relationship,” she added.
“The Last Five Years” opens Thursday and runs through Oct. 26 in the Pamela Brown Auditorium.
McDonough said the nonlinear structure of the play allows the audience to watch a relationship’s life cycle unfold without placing fault or blame. The story is sung-through, so every moment is a big moment.
“It’s that whole idea of when you look back and you reflect back on the major relationships in your life, and you go wait, what was the moment when things began to shift? And it’s really slippery,” she said. “The way this piece operates with time, because you’re never lined up exactly, it doesn’t allow us to sit in judgment in the audience.”
This is the first musical she’ll direct for Actors Theatre, but musicals are one of McDonough’s passions. In her previous role as a director and developer of new plays at Northern California’s TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, she worked extensively with new musicals. A former program director for the National Alliance of Musical Theatre, she brought her enthusiasm for the form with her to Actors Theatre when she joined the artistic leadership team in 2012.
McDonough first fell in love with “The Last Five Years” in 2001 at the play’s world premiere at Chicago’s Northlight Theatre, but unlike Jamie and Cathy, her affections for Brown’s music and story haven’t unraveled over time.
“It’s something that I’ve wanted to do for a long time. Louisville is a super music-driven town, and I think music like this, it has the best parts of contemporary music theater, but also has a delightful pop edge without being a rock musical,” said McDonough. “It has the best of both worlds.”
“The Last Five Years” is part of a small but growing trend toward the intimate musical—Actors Theatre mounted a similar show two seasons ago, Todd Almond’s “Girlfriend,” which featured only two actors and a small live band. John Cameron Mitchell’s “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” now on Broadway after making its bones off-Broadway and in a beloved indie film, is one of the best-known examples of the genre. Former Actors Theatre associate artistic director Sean Daniels recently directed a popular new one-man musical, Benjamin Scheuer’s “The Lion,” at New York’s Manhattan Theatre Club and in London’s West End, to high acclaim.
The small musical was a shift for Brown, who wrote “The Last Five Years” after he finished the music for his 1998 Broadway musical “Parade,” a true-crime story about a Brooklyn-born Jewish man falsely accused of rape and murder in 1913 Atlanta. “Parade,” which garnered Brown a Tony Award for best score, boasted an opening night cast of nearly 50 performers.
McDonough says the first instinct is to credit the economic benefits of the small-cast show—it’s a lot less costly to field a cast of two than 50—but she thinks there’s actually more to working with less.
“I feel like a lot of people who have been writing these big musicals are also writing smaller things because it allows them to explore character in a much deeper way,” she said. “In big musicals, if a character gets one solo, that’s a pretty big deal. As opposed to in a show like this, where they have seven opportunities—each—to give us a window into what’s happening with them.”
A film adaptation starring Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan will open in theaters on Valentine’s Day (spoiler: it’s not a happy ending/beginning). Check out the teaser trailer—and see how difficult it is to stage a sung-through musical structured like this on film—over at Entertainment Weekly.