Theatre / The Last Five Years

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The full, two-membered cast in the only moment they sing together.

Give me a day, Jamie.
Bring back the lies,
Hang them back on the wall—
Maybe I'd see
How you could be
So certain that we
Had no chance at all…
Cathy Hiatt, "Still Hurting."

No matter how I tried,
All I could do was love you
Hard
And let you go…
Jamie Wellerstein, "Goodbye Until Tomorrow/I Could Never Rescue You."

A one-act, two-person musical by Jason Robert Brown (the Tony-winning composer behind Parade and, more lately, 13), The Last Five Years tells the story of an ordinary couple as they fall in—and out of—love, inspired by Brown's own failed first marriage.

Jamie Wellerstein is a Jewish novelist from NYC who gets his big break at the age of 23. Just prior to this, he meets Cathy Hiatt, a struggling Irish-Catholic actress, and romance blooms immediately. They get married, but things keep getting in the way: Jamie has frequent press gigs to attend, where he is assailed by endless temptation, and Cathy is unable to get her career off the ground, her greatest success being summer theatre in Ohio (and the Long Distance Relationship that requires). Cathy accuses him of egotism, Jamie accuses her of being too insecure to handle his success. Ultimately, they can't make it work.

What elevates the show to a different level is its structure. The score consists of alternating solos; Cathy or Jamie occupy the stage separately, and while each song is being sung to a specific person (sometimes each other, sometimes to friends and family), that person is rarely present and certainly never responds. This gives both characters a chance to tell their side of the story, without anyone interrupting to rebut, defend or correct. Furthermore, there is Anachronic Order involved: Cathy, the careful and introspective one, tells the story Back to Front, starting after Jamie has left her and moving towards their first date; headstrong, reckless Jamie goes in the normal chronological direction. The only moment the timelines cross, the exact Climax of the show, is their Wedding Day. The show's structure accents its characters, who, despite their love, are fundamentally at odds with each other.

The score's wit and emotional maturity has been favourably compared to Stephen Sondheim, whilst Brown's music draws on a wide range of styles that include rock 'n' roll, latin, contemporary pop and Jerome Kern, yet still with a degree of theatrical complexity.

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This work provides examples of:

  • Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder: Jamie starts his affair whilst Cathy is off touring in Ohio.
  • Adaptation Expansion: the film has an extremely minor case of this, as there are no new songs, no new singers, and only one other character who even has dialogue. But it does add a couple dances (a diegetic one in "A Summer in Ohio" and a… less-diegetic one in "Moving Too Fast"), and some direct interaction between the characters during most songs. This was enough to offend some purists, who pointed out that part of the charm of the stage play is that, since the other character is absent, you are free (and, indeed, required!) to imagine for yourself what their side of the story is.
  • All Men Are Perverts: Explored, rather honestly, by Jamie in "A Miracle Would Happen".
  • All Musicals Are Adaptations: Subverted; the plot is an original one, although inspired by Jason Robert Brown's failed marriage to his first wife.
  • All There in the Manual: the story's anachronic structure, which is the most important element of its narrative, is not mentioned anywhere in the film proper or its marketing. There are reviewers who, lacking this information, are on record as having no idea why the movie made sense.
    • The sign outside Cathy's summer stock theatre is used several times as an establishing shot; however, these shots are so far apart from each other, and are so similar on first glance, it's easy to miss that the year on the sign keeps changing.
  • Alter Kocker: Schmuel. Justified in that his story is clearly set in The Old Country (there's no actual town of Klimovich, but it's a Russian surname, while the cities Minsk of Belarus and Odessa of Ukraine are also mentioned).
  • Anachronic Order: As stated above, Cathy's scenes start in the present and each one moves further back in time.
  • Audience Monologue: Although extremely common in musical theatre, here it's consciously avoided; all the songs are addressed to a specific character, though that character is not played by anyone.
  • Auto Erotica: the movie throws this at "I Can Do Better Than That." For added amusement, it includes the lines, "You, and you, and nothing but you… Fresh, undiluted and pure, top of the line, and totally mine!"
  • Book Ends: In Cathy's second song, "See I'm Smiling," and second-to-last song, "I Can Do Better Than That," she talks about Jamie: "You, and you, and nothing but you / Miles and piles of you." One is a fresh-new-love celebration of her boyfriend, the other a bitter screed about his egotism.
    • Jamie's first song, "Shiksa Goddess," and last song, "Nobody Needs To Know," both feature the line, "I could be in love with someone like you."
  • Bowdlerize: to satisfy the MPAA, the film version does away with a fair bit of swearing, resulting in a Precision F-Strike where there used to be quite a few more of them. The movie's soundtrack re-adds at least one F-bomb but leaves the rest of it as is.
  • Breakup Song: Really the entire thing is a Breakup Musical, but the focal post-breakup numbers are the opening and closing songs: Cathy's "Still Hurting" and Jamie's "I Could Never Rescue You" (which, for maximum Tear Jerker status, is combined with Cathy's chronologically earliest, falling-in-love tune, "Goodbye Until Tomorrow").
  • B.S.O.D. Song: Jamie's "Nobody Needs To Know" is noticeably bleaker than anything that's come before, and seems to mark the point when he gives up on his marriage.
  • The Cast Showoff: Invoked by "Climbing Uphill". The line "…who have been sitting like I have, and listening all day, to two hundred girls, belting as high as they can!" is usually used to show off the actress playing Cathy's vocal range. Also, from the same song, "Jesus Christ, I suck, I suck, I suck!" is often played ironically, having the actress sing the last "I suck" quite beautifully.
  • Clingy Jealous Girl: Jamie needs privacy in his daily life—the entirety of "A Part of That" is about his constant trips to "Jamie-Land", a place that is absolutely integral to his career, and how frustrated Cathy is that she can't allow herself to drag him back from them. Of course, there's also the fact that All Men Are Perverts, and Jamie is tempted by his deluge of female fans.
    Jamie: All that I ask for
    Is one little corner
    One private room
    At the back of my heart
    Tell her I've found one
    She sends out battalions
    To claim it
    And blow it apart
  • Compliment Backfire: in the film, Cathy has some extra lines of dialogue in "The Schmuel Song," including, "Wait, I'm Schmuel in this story?" By the end of the song, though, she's visibly touched.
  • Counterpoint Duet: The end of "Goodbye Until Tomorrow / I Could Never Rescue You".
  • Creator Cameo: in the film, Brown shows up during the rambling audition in "Climbing Uphill."
  • Dark Reprise: Several, including:
    • Jamie's "I could be in love with someone like you" theme, originally addressed to Cathy, is later (and miserably) addressed to his mistress, Elise.
    • Cathy's "You, and you, and nothing but you" theme. (Technically a pre-prise.)
    • The first lines of the show are about how "Jamie is over and Jamie is gone… and I'm still hurting." Three songs later and five years ago, in "Moving Too Fast," Jamie sings about how "Some people analyze every detail… But I keep rolling on," using the same melody, if in a different key and tempo.
    • The haunting, romantic waltz theme that plays throughout the show—and is even used as Jamie and Cathy's wedding dance—turns out to be "I Could Never Rescue You", Jamie's final farewell to his marriage.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Both of the leads, but especially Jamie.
  • Distant Duet: Sort of. In the finale, "Goodbye Until Tomorrow / I Could Never Rescue You", Jamie and Cathy are separated by time; however, they don't exactly sing the same song so much as two songs that overlap each other.
  • Downer Ending:
    • Apart from the obvious—the breakdown of their marriage—in the end, Cathy is still trapped in the summer stock hell that is Ohio, and it's possible that Jamie's meteoric streak is waning.
    • Even worse, there's evidence that neither of them has learned from their mistakes. In "A Miracle Would Happen," Jamie mentions kinda-semi-flirting with an attractive woman… at least until Cathy shows up, "'cause she knows (they always know)", implying his unfaithful streak has gotten him in trouble before. Meanwhile, Cathy has a song about how she "gave up [her] life for the better part of a year" only to have the fellow blow her off "with a heartfelt letter".
  • Drowning Our Romantic Sorrows: "A Miracle Would Happen" takes place in a bar, where Jamie is complaining to his best friend, Rob, about the struggles of married life.
  • Fading into the Next Song: Often used to maintain dramatic momentum.
  • Final Love Duet: Sort of (see Distant Duet, above). For Cathy it's a love song; for Jamie, it's an out-of-love song.
  • First Law of Tragicomedies: the show manages to use this arc, despite being, technically, neither a tragedy nor a comedy. This is primarily because Cathy is The Eeyore—out of her nine songs, there are only three where she's really happy (the wedding and then the final two of the show). In comparison, Jamie is something of a Blithe Spirit and only really starts to get frustrated around when she lightens up… but when he does, he goes so grimdark that he even manages to drag "I Can Do Better Than That" and "Goodbye Until Tomorrow" down with him.
  • Foregone Conclusion: The show starts with Cathy's line "Jamie is over and Jamie is gone".
  • Gaslighting: In "Nobody Needs To Know", Jamie admits to his unseen lover that he outright lies to Cathy about seeing another woman. In the movie version of "See I'm Smiling", he goes a step further and responds to Cathy's (accurate) accusations by calling her "crazy".
  • Green-Eyed Monster: Aside from Cathy's suspicions about the large number of flirtatious girls Jamie finds himself surrounded with at various press events, there's an extent to which she is jealous of Jamie himself. Cathy believes herself just as talented as he is, and just as deserving of the runaway success he's received. Thus, it frustrates her that, so far, absolutely no one else in the world agrees. Not even Jamie.
  • Hope Spot: "See I'm Smiling" is one for Cathy. She is pleased (or trying to be) that Jamie has managed to make it out to Ohio, and is looking for ways to repair their marriage. Then she has that epic blowout…
  • "I Am" Song: For Cathy, it's "Climbing Uphill"; for Jamie, it's "Moving Too Fast". Both songs are about their careers, but are also indicative of their general approach to life (and hence the direction we see them moving through time).
  • Incredibly Long Note: enforced in "Climbing Uphill" when the pianist flops a cadence.
    Cathy: Why did I pick these shoes? Why did I pick this song? Why did I pick this career? Whyyyyyyy…?
    Pianist: [finally finds the next chord]
    Cathy: …yyyyy does this pianist hate me??
  • In Love with Love: implied by "Nobody Needs To Know": "Since I need to be in love with someone… Since I need to be in love with someone…"
  • Ironic Echo: Cathy's arc is about total parallel. To start, we have the "Book Ends" entry above. In the third song, "A Part of That," she admits that she tends to "follow in his stride; instead of side-by-side, I take his cue," whereas in "Climbing Uphill" she pledges that she "will not be the girl who gets asked how it feels/to be trodding along at the genius's heels." In the song just before she gets married (chronologically) she's waiting for "When You Come Home To Me," and in the song just after, "A Summer in Ohio," she's waiting for him to come away to her. And she has not only the first song, chronologically ("Goodbye Until Tomorrow", sung to end their first date), but the last. The only song she has that is not a direct echo or parallel to another number is, of course, "The Next Ten Minutes".
  • "I Want" Song:
    • In "Shiksa Goddess", Jamie proclaims that what he wants more than anything is a girlfriend who isn't Jewish.
    • In "I Can Do Better Than That", Cathy wants to escape the suburban fate of her school friends, but still wants to find true love, too.
  • I Will Wait for You: Cathy has a knowingly reflexive audition song to this effect, "When You Come Home To Me".
  • Kick the Dog:
    • In the movie, Jamie's line, "I will not fail so you can be comfortable, I will not lose because you cannot win" comes off as this, judging by how obviously hurt Cathy is by that line in particular.
    • Also, him telling her she's "being crazy" in "See I'm Smiling", to which she screams, "No, I'm not, NO, I'M NOT!" Especially upon a second viewing, when you realize that she's absolutely correct about her suspicions that Jamie's cheating on her, so, no, she's really not being crazy. In that context, Jamie telling her she's being totally irrational just comes off as needlessly mean.
    • Not to mention what leads to the aforementioned argument in "See, I'm Smiling". Jamie comes out to visit Cathy in Ohio like he promised, but tells her he "has" to leave early. That night. Without even seeing her show. On her birthday. On a rewatch, you know he is only making a token effort to be a supportive husband—remember, this song takes place after "Nobody Needs To Know" chronologically—making him look even more cowardly. And his reaction just confirms what she has already suspected.
  • Leitmotif:
    • The opening riff of "Still Hurting"—the I-VII♭-v(dim)-I sequence—plays whenever Cathy is hurt by something Jamie does ("A Part of That" and all over "If I Didn't Believe In You").
    • The melody of "Still Hurting" is echoed in "Moving Too Fast", as mentioned above.
    • The show starts with a quaint waltz. It is played again just after the wedding, often staged for the newlyweds' first dance. Its third use is as the melody of "I Could Never Rescue You."
    • There's a two-note figure, the 7th of the key descending to a sharp 4th, always played on a bass instrument, which echoes through several songs. It is most prominent at the end of "A Miracle Would Happen" as Jamie is very specifically distracted by Elise, and represents his heart beginning to stray. Appropriately, it is woven throughout that entire song… and, perhaps most damningly, throughout "The Next Ten Minutes".
  • Long Distance Relationship: With Cathy touring in summer stock and Jamie out schmoozing the publishing set, this becomes a major factor in the couple's break-up.
  • Love Hurts: The Musical.
  • Love Martyr: Cathy. She puts up with a lot of shit for Jamie's sake. (Depending on your point of view, the reverse is also true.)
  • Love Triangle: Jamie, Cathy and Jamie's mistress, Elise.
  • Minimalist Cast: In typical stage performances, the actors playing Jamie and Cathy are the entirety of the cast. Additionally, though there are written parts for two cellos, a violin, a guitar and an electric bass, all of them can be discarded and the entire score performed on piano, reducing the total number of performers in the show to three.
  • Mood Whiplash: Inherent in the story's structure, since one character is always closer to the Downer Ending than the other.
  • Motor Mouth: The interior monologue version of "When You Come Home To Me" has about four times more lyrics than the normal one.
  • Musicalis Interruptus: When Cathy launches into one more reprise of "When You Come Home to Me" for another audition, Jamie can't take it anymore and has to cut her off before she finishes the first line. Decidedly not Played for Laughs.
  • Never My Fault: Both Jamie and Cathy blame the other for their marriage problems. Cathy blames Jamie's selfishness and his being a little too willing to lap up the attention young women give him. Jamie blames Cathy's jealousy and bitterness that she's not as successful. Neither are exactly wrong, and which was the cause and which was the effect is anybody's guess.
  • The Oner: "Still Hurting" is only five shots, two short ones at either end and three stitched together using wipes so that they appear to be a seamless whole. With the song itself over five minutes long, that's a lot of long takes. No wonder they got actors who have been on Broadway!
  • Pep Talk Song: "The Schmuel Song", big time. It doesn't appear to be that way at first, but the story's moral is that when opportunity comes knocking, go for it, even if it seems too good to be true—you'll never know unless you try. The final verse is a direct address from Jamie to Cathy, encouraging her that she can make it as an actress.
    • "If I Didn't Believe In You" is intended to be one, but Jamie's dissatisfaction with his marriage overwhelms it at times.
  • Pimped-Out Dress: The dress of Schmuel's dreams is definitely this, though we can only imagine it. His hope was to sew "a dress to fire the mad desire of girls from here to Minsk", and he obviously succeeds, considering that the girl whom he brings it to marries him the very next day. (And since she wears it at the altar, that also makes this a Fairytale Wedding Dress.)
  • Properly Paranoid: Cathy worries Jamie is cheating on her. She's right.
  • Rage Breaking Point: After years of gritting her teeth and smiling her way through various problems in her own career and marriage, Cathy finally snaps when Jamie comes to see her in Ohio and then tells her he has to leave early (in the movie, "early" is that night), without seeing her show. Also, it's her birthday. She tries to calm as she calls him out ("You know what makes me crazy? I'm sorry—can I say this? You know what makes me nuts?"), but it's not long before she's screaming and crying, years of anger finally pouring out.
  • Sanity Slippage Song: A funny one for Cathy, with her crazy inner-monologue version of "When You Come Home To Me"; also darker ones for Cathy ("See I'm Smiling") and Jamie ("Nobody Needs To Know") as they each face the breakdown of their marriage.
  • Setting Update: The 2014 film changes a few lyrics to make it clear that the show is set in the 2010s instead—for example, Cathy sings "well-placed tattoos" instead of "looked like Tom Cruise" to describe an attractive guy and "these are the people who cast Russell Crowe in a musical" as opposed to "Linda Blair" to describe her frustrations with the theater industry. And she has to find Jamie's book in "a Target in Kentucky," since there are no longer any Borders open there (or, indeed, anywhere).
  • Shiksa Goddess: A whole song by this title, in which Jamie rejoices that his new girlfriend is not Jewish and admits that he doesn't really care about anything else. If you were imply from this that Jamie's and Cathy's relationship is a little shallow… you might be right.
  • Shout-Out: Cathy's line "just keep rolling along" and Jamie's line "I keep rolling on" may be a shout-out to another anachronic musical, Stephen Sondheim's notorious Merrily We Roll Along.
  • The Something Song: "The Schmuel Song". Used very deliberately; while it would've been easy to name the song "The Story of Schmuel" after Jamie's short story, the song is actually about Cathy, who Jamie sees as a "Schmuel" because she's too afraid to pursue her dreams wholeheartedly.
  • Somewhere Song: Given a passing nod in Jamie's "A Miracle Would Happen", in which he imagines a world with no other distractions (particularly female ones) where he could concentrate on his marriage with Cathy.
  • Stay in the Kitchen: Defied by Cathy, who declares, "I will not be the girl stuck at home in the 'burbs / With the baby, the dog, and the garden of herbs." In the Career Versus Man debate, she picks her career. Unfortunately, so does Jamie.
  • Stepford Smiler: in "A Part of That," very strongly in "See I'm Smiling," and even as early as "A Summer in Ohio" we see Cathy gritting her teeth and making the best of a situation she is not happy about. By the time of "See I'm Smiling", the facade is visibly cracking.
  • Stylistic Suck: Cathy gets hit with this in the opening moments of "Climbing Uphill." In the Original Cast Recording and movie soundtrack, the accompanist takes off at a very sprightly pace and a half-step higher than written, forcing Sherie Rene Scott and/or Anna Kendrick to scramble in their wake. In the 2013 Off-Broadway Revival, Betsy Wolfe gets afflicted with someone who can't piano whatsoever, taking some six beats before they consent to be in a key at all.
  • Sung Through Musical: though not without at least a little bit of dialogue to set the scene for "If I Didn't Believe In You". Averted in the movie, which adds a bit of dialogue (though not much).
  • Time Travel: Schmuel's talking clock winds time backward as he sews the dress, subjecting the old tailor to forty-one years' worth of Merlin Sickness in a single night.
  • Truck Driver's Gear Change:
    • Subverted in "Nobody Needs To Know," which is in A-flat for its entirety up until the last six measures, when it modulates down a half-step into G major.
    • Played straight in "Goodbye Until Tomorrow."
    • Played With in "Moving Too Fast," Jamie's triumphant litany of newfound success. It ratchets up the half-step an astounding seven times times, putting us a fifth above where we started… at which point Jason Robert Brown resolves it as a dominant, and lands us back in the original key. So, getting super excited just to go nowhere, huh?
      • Although also played straight with the final verse. "Out of control, out of control…"
  • Unwanted Harem: In "A Miracle Would Happen" Jamie laments that, no sooner is he married, his literary success suddenly makes him a huge hit with lots of co-ed undergrads. As time passes, it becomes clear that its not the harem that's unwanted, but rather his wife's disapproval.
  • Wedding Day: The moving "The Next Ten Minutes".
  • When She Smiles: Gender Flipped in "A Part of That."
  • Your Cheating Heart: In "Nobody Needs to Know."

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