This month I’m going to explore The Last Five Years from the perspective of the music director. This is the first in a long-running series focusing on repertoire musicals from the viewpoint of the person behind the piano, providing context, casting tips, advice, and general knowledge for future music directors of these shows (or for those that are just curious). Let’s dive right in!
Plot Summary and Style
The Last Five Years is one of amateur theatre’s enduring contemporary classics. Jason Robert Brown is the composer of our show today, and he’s pulling all of the classic JRB punches with this one. The musical follows two young professionals, Cathy and Jamie. Cathy is an actress struggling to get her career off the ground in New York, and Jamie is a a successful up and coming novelist, with his first book about to be published. And that’s it. There are no other characters (at least “on-screen”). The casting of this show is one of the first things that sets it apart: it’s a two-actor musical, and it is a marathon for both performers (more on casting in the next section).
Now that we have our characters, here’s the plot: boy meets girl. Jamie and Cathy begin dating. Jamie’s first novel is picked up by a publishing house, and his career begins to take off. Cathy’s acting career, on the other hand, is stagnant, even as she auditions more and more. After a period of courting, the two get married. End Act One. Cathy’s acting career begins to improve as she receives a job offer for a role in Ohio. Jamie’s fame and popularity is also on the rise, and he begins to cheat on Cathy with his editor. Soon Cathy discovers this, and the two part with anger and resentment. End Act Two.
Simple, right? Except not. Enter the next thing that really sets this show apart: Jamie experiences this entire plot chronologically, but Cathy experiences it backwards. So what I wrote above applies to Jamie and his songs, but Cathy begins the show after Jamie has left her and their marriage, and slowly progresses backwards until, in the end, she stares longingly after Jamie as he leaves after their first date. It’s a powerful storytelling technique, and cannot be really understood until the show is experienced for oneself.
The musical is quintessential JRB, and as such it’s full of blues-rock, cocktail jazz, and just a hint of classical. It’s also largely autobiographical, and it was written early in his career, so he really sinks into that sound. The score is incredibly challenging, too, and many of the numbers (especially Moving Too Fast) are considered the most virtuosic of piano accompaniment parts in the Broadway repertoire.
As mentioned earlier, the musical consists of only two actors, so casting is both easier and harder than ever before. On the one hand, it’s a lot easier to just worry about two singers and their compatibility and their chemistry and their abilities. But on the other hand, it pits people so desperately head-to-head that casting can be a hard political process (in amateur theatre specifically).
My recommendations on casting Cathy:
- Pick someone with a very strong belt. This is not a soprano part, though she does have to sing legit at one point (though in an almost pastiche way).
- Pick someone that can stand up to Jamie. She’s definitely the follower in the relationship (as explicitly indicated by the lyrics in the show), but she also has to blow up at him, and get really, really angry.
- Make sure she has chemistry with Jamie. This can be easy to forget, since they never truly interact except in one moment, but the couple has to be believable.
My recommendations on casting Jamie:
- Again, a tenor with a strong belt is necessary for this role. We’re talking A4s high. And perhaps more importantly, he’s gotta have endurance, especially for Moving Too Fast and Shiksa Goddess.
- Pick someone that can play “douchebag”. Jamie is really a terrible person for a lot of this show, and the actor has to be comfortable playing that.
- Make sure he has chemistry with Cathy. I know I said it above, but this is worth repeating. Their relationship has to be believable.
Tips and Tricks
My only tips for this show really come down to your preparation as a pianist and conductor. It’s hard to understate how difficult this show is as a player, and how challenging it can be to really get the music to lock in and groove. Because it is so jazzy and bluesy, it really pays off to find musicians that are used to playing in this style.
As far as teaching your performers (and working with your performers), I really hope that if you’re doing this show, your performers are up to snuff to learn most of this music on their own. It’s a very challenging show for not only the musicians but the vocalists, so take the time that would normally be spent learning the music focusing on fundamental vocal technique (endurance and stamina is vital in this show, so going back to the basics and working with your performers on proper breath control and healthy singing can really pay off here).
This show is a blast to perform, and I wish the best of luck to the future MDs of The last Five Years!
Stay tuned for next month’s, where we’ll discuss vocal arranging for new musicals (separate from arranging and orchestrating). Until then!