Modern Romance: Second Stage Theatre’s ‘The Last Five Years’ Jerks Tears and Tugs Hearts of a New Generation

Adam Kantor and Betsy Wolfe in “The Last Five Years” at Second Stage Theatre.
Photo © Sara Krulwich

I’ve always felt that, out of the four seasons, Spring was the perfect time to fall in…and out of love.  As many new couples go walk hand-in-hand out on the streets of New York City, blissfully unaware of the day-to-day realities of a relationship they will soon experience, one couple is discovering just that on West 43rd street.  In Jason Robert Brown‘s much-beloved cult favorite The Last Five Years, the exciting beginnings and tumultuous downfall of a relationship is examined with an intimacy as never before seen in a musical since perhaps its own original mounting in 2001 (which was helmed by Daisy Prince).

As a longtime theater-lover, I’d always heard of The Last Five Years — commonly shortened to L5Y — but never in my RENT-obsessed mind had, at the time, thought much of it.  Until, that is, when my friend Michelle at the Super Awesome Broadway Ninjas blogged about it.  At that point, I had been quietly working on what was then a 6-year writing project, which also dealt with the stages of a relationship told through flashbacks.  When I read about L5Y‘s original concept and format I was naturally intrigued and immediately purchased the Original Cast Recording.  I fell in love with Brown’s beautiful music and story — and the rest, as they say, is history.

For the uninitiated, L5Y is told from the perspectives of Jamie Wellerstein (previously portrayed by Norbert Leo Butz, now taken on by Adam Kantor), a novelist and Cathy Hyatt (originally Sherie Rene Scott, now Betsy Wolfe), a stage actress.  Doesn’t sound all that earth-shattering — that is, until you consider the way these characters tell their story: Jamie narrates from the beginning of the relationship, while Cathy starts from the end.  The show is designed as such that each song the characters sing act as interior monologue, and it is the music through which much of the action is derived.  Each scene, while on different timelines, seems to flow effortlessly from one to the next, yet the contrasts in emotion that result are at once striking and powerful.  All this is probably owed to the fact that this 2013 production is directed by none other than its creator, Jason Robert Brown himself.

Brown’s score being the first thing I fell in love with in relation to this show, it seems only appropriate that I talk about it first.  After all, when one mentions L5Y, the music is most likely the first to come to mind to anyone who has heard its score.  It is probably not much of a stretch to suggest that the music could be a third character in the show.  The music is the main device used in order to tell the story, and every emotion is written into each note and lyric with graceful precision, each a piece of the puzzle, having its place and purpose.  This is clearly reflected in the arrangements of the score, under the careful direction of Thomas Murray.

Apart from the beautiful score, it is the performances from each actor that have certainly benefitted the most from having the show’s creator at its helm.  While I have never seen the original production myself, I can say for certain that we’ve found a perfect Jamie and Cathy this time around in Kantor and Wolfe, respectively.  Kantor, who made his Broadway debut as Mark Cohen in RENT, shines as aspiring writer Jamie and fearlessly takes on Brown’s score with some impressive vocal acrobatics, most notably in “A Miracle Would Happen/When You Come Home to Me.”  His Jamie is playful and flirtatious, while still managing to balance all of that out with unabashed romance.  For her part, Wolfe — last seen on Broadway’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood — is adorable and charming as Cathy.  She presents to us a Cathy that is vibrant and strong-willed, yet insecure and vulnerable at the same time.  In short, Wolfe makes her feel real, which helps us as voyeurs further relate and feel an affinity toward the characters as their relationship unfolds.  Her own interpretation of the music, particularly in “A Summer in Ohio” and “Goodbye Until Tomorrow/I Could Never Rescue You,” complements the score in an understated way .  In fact, both performers do exactly that when they finally cross paths on “The Next Ten Minutes,” the scene in which their characters marry and the only one in which they meet on the same point in the timeline.  Their voices softly tread through the waves of strings and piano accompaniment, just as their characters do the same when their own journey enters tempestuous waters not long after.

It wasn’t just the actors’ individual performances or the music that helped to reinforce the theme of a rocky relationship; Derek McLane‘s set designs and Jeff Croiter‘s lighting were minimal but effective, and did a great job at taking us along for the ride.  Everything was done in such a way that felt just right for the show, not just for the purpose of mood and setting, but for the emotional undertaking that is required for a show with such heavy subject matter.  One shining moment for me was the clever way “The Next Ten Minutes” was staged (which I won’t get into here, but if you go see the show, you’ll know what I’m talking about).  Another was “The Schmuel Song,” which had LCD screens help amplify the story-within-a-story.

This time around, The Last Five Years has proved that you can fall in (and out) of love again, as fans both old and new turned out to show their love for the musical.  It is a beautifully rendered piece of theater, one that will without a doubt continue make audience fall in love again and again for generations to come.

The Last Five Years‘ final extension 
runs until May 18th
For more information about this production,

The Play(s) That Changed My Life

So, I’m about a month late into this, but in conjunction with the American Theatre Wing’s release of their book, The Play That Changed My Life, in which various playwrights recount their own first theatrical experiences that inspired them. I may be no theatre legend, but I thought I’d do my take, anyway. Here’s my bit:

I am lucky to say that I had not one, but two plays that changed my life. One of them was really technically a play; the other was, in fact, a musical…called Rent. Some of you already know of the impact the show has had on my awareness of aids, but it also affected me greatly in terms of my love of theatre, as well. I actually first encountered Rent when I saw the Chris Columbus-helmed film with two friends back in November of 2005. It was only later, when I’d join my high school drama club in 2006 (my senior year) that I’d finally seen the staged production. The film, as we all know, wasn’t the best and those who have seen the show know that the production values were minimal, so it wasn’t necessarily its presentation that enthralled me. Rather, it was the music and lyrics that, as corny and cheeseball as it sounds, spoke to me. And, I have to admit, I was also quite moved by the story of composer Jonathan Larson’s tragic life and death. In many ways, I very much related to him, in that I felt that life should be lived simply, and felt connected to the “bohemian” lifestyle he led. I, even at the age of seventeen, felt it urgent to change American Musical Theatre in my own way, much like he did. It was through this connection with the show (and its creator) that I realized how much I really wanted to be a part of an artistic community. It wasn’t about having money or power, but rather being fulfilled artistically, and Larson’s message of La Vie Boheme stuck with me long after I exited the Nederlander.

The other play that changed my life was columbinus, a piece produced by The United States Theatre Project, which had toured around the nation (it had its World Premiere at the Round House Theatre in Silver Spring, MD, along with a co-World Premiere at Perseverance Theatre in Juneau, AK), eventually finding its way to New York Theatre Workshop. The play — which featured blogger and actor Karl Miller – revolved around the Columbine High School shootings back in 1999. The day I went to see this production, it was with my AP English class — our last trip of the year.  My AP English instructor at the time (and the inspiration behind Youth Arts New York), was quite instrumental in encouraging his students to experience and see the theatre; the same year, he had Judith Malina and Hanon Reznikov from The Living Theatre come into our classroom to speak. Anyway, upon viewing columbinus, with its innovative presentation and incredible acting, I immediatelyknew that what I had felt at Rent, in terms of belonging in the theatre, was cemented as I sat in NYTW’s small stage space. I can’t really pinpoint what it was, but I remember thinking that what I saw happen right before my eyes was a piece of art, and that I wanted to be a part of a community that made such thought-provoking, intensely emotional pieces of art.

Following that trip, Mr. Croonquist gave us an extra credit assignment to review the play, which I nearly jumped at the chance to do, since I felt I had so much to say about what we’d just seen. Once I’d handed it in, I remember my teacher raving about it over the next few days, saying how impressed he was with what I’d written, and how he thought I should go into the theater. Indeed, his yearbook message even read:

You belong in the theater! I really saw you in your power there. The world is ready for you — you have so much to offer. Nurture your creativity. Follow the path of the artist.

I didn’t know then how big a role criticism would later take on in my life, but that first review, I knew, wouldn’t be the last I’d write.  However, I wouldn’t be able to follow the artist’s path until a little more than two years later. In the span of those two years, I’d taken up a pre-nursing major, during which time I’d felt conflicted between reason and passion. It was during this time that, interestingly enough, it would be Miller (whose blog I’d just happened upon, then) who’d dispense some very insightful advice about my Life Choice ruminations:

Knowing doesn’t make it easier, but doing it will make it easier.

I took those words to heart, more than I realized myself, and now — as you all know — I’m at a much better place than I was then, and have achieved more than I could have imagined in terms of my involvement with theatre (though, a lot more needs to be done — I shall elaborate on this on my next post). So as you can see, my association with columbinus, NYTW and just that last trip in general will always hold some significance to me.