From Stage to Screen: “The Last Five Years”
Let me start this article off with a bit of a disclaimer: I am the least objective, most biased person I know to write about The Last Five Years. The original stage show is my all-time favorite musical. It introduced me to my all-time favorite musical composer. It contains what is not only my all-time favorite show tune, but may just be my all-time favorite song, period. My husband and I used one of these songs in our wedding.
You could say I was pretty excited about this movie.
The show’s music and lyrics were written by renowned composer Jason Robert Brown and is very loosely based on his own first marriage. Brown’s work is known in the musical theater world for its thoughtful, emotional lyrics and notoriously difficult scores—as in “Don’t use his songs for auditions or your accompanist will hate you.”
This show is probably his most popular, and I’m not the only one who fell in love with it. It debuted off-Broadway in 2002 with Norbert Leo Butz and Sherie Rene Scott and grew to become a cult favorite, performed all over the U.S. and around the world. The movie version was directed by Richard LaGravenese and features musical theater darling Jeremy Jordan and movie musical darling Anna Kendrick.
What’s the Plot?
On paper, the plot for The Last Five Years is pretty straightforward. It shows the rise and fall of a five-year romance between Jamie Wellerstein and Cathy Hiatt, a couple of twenty-somethings pursuing creative careers in New York. Jamie is a novelist who makes a big splash with his first book and rises through the ranks, going to parties and book signings as he becomes a literary celebrity. Cathy wants to be an actress, but her success is mostly limited to a recurring gig doing summer stock in Ohio. The two become increasingly unhappy together — Cathy sees Jamie’s success as a constant reminder of her own failure while Jamie grows frustrated with Cathy’s waning support. The two never manage to reconnect, and in the end, they drift apart completely.
Saying their relationship fails isn’t a spoiler, because the show’s unique format lets you know right away where this story is headed. It’s told in a series of solo songs, with the two characters progressing slightly differently through their shared story. The opening song, “Still Hurting,” is sung by a heartbroken Cathy after Jamie has left her, and her songs continue to tell the story in reverse order, ending with a giddy, hopeful song about their first date. Jamie’s songs, on the other hand, move forward in time, starting with the delightful love song “Shiksa Goddess” and ending with him penning his goodbye letter to her. The two timelines meet in the middle for a wedding duet, and then move past each other.
What Was Different in the Movie?
Honestly, not a lot. This show is told entirely in song, with little to no dialogue. If you hate musicals, this may not be the movie for you. Leave the score intact, and it’s all pretty much the same. No songs are cut, and minimal dialogue is added, so the basic structure is identical. Jason Robert Brown himself was heavily involved in the movie, so the few lines that are altered for relevance or the PG-13 rating were artist-approved. (My favorite was the original sarcastic line “These are the people who cast Linda Blair in a musical,” which here is sung, “These are the people who cast Russell Crowe in a musical.”)
The biggest change is one that was inevitable in a screen adaptation. The original production is typically very minimal, with an extremely tight focus on each individual characters as they sing their songs. Each song is clearly a monologue, often on a nearly bare stage, with setting, props, and other characters all conjured in the audience’s imagination. Cathy sings songs to Jamie, but Jamie is not present on stage, much less interacting with her. Jamie sings about parties and book signings, but we never see any of these.
While transferring this to film opens up the world and recreates all the things that the show paints for its audience, it also widens the story’s focus, and, as a result, it all feels a little scattered. Sure, you still only have one character singing at a time, but with everything else you can see around them, each song feels less “Jamie’s” or “Cathy’s” and more just a part of a bigger, less well-defined picture. The camera’s tight focus on our leads is a fairly effective trick to keep the emphasis on them instead of the bustling world around them, but there’s still something tonally different about this.
Is that good or bad? I’m not sure it’s either. It’s just different. In the stage show, during the darker moments of their relationship, having each character on stage alone serves to show us how isolated and alone they feel, even when they’re with others, and that isolation seems to be contributing to their relationship’s decline. In the movie, that sense of isolation isn’t so strong, but you get a better sense of how their actions born out of frustration or loneliness affect the people around them.
One of the things I like best about theater is that each production of a show can bring something different to light in the story, and I think that’s the best way to approach these changes. Songs like “The Schmuel Song” and “If I Didn’t Believe In You” take on new meaning when you can see Cathy’s reactions to what Jamie is saying. It may not be the same as the show, but that doesn’t mean can’t be just as powerful in a new and different way.
How Are the Songs?
Jeremy Jordan and Anna Kendrick are both talented actor/singers, so it’s no surprise that they knock it out of the park here. They tackle the music and have the performing chops necessary to make each song snapshot work. Even when the other is onscreen with them, they are usually the only ones singing, and so it’s still up to them to carry the emotion of the scene by themselves. This is not an easy thing to constantly ask of your actors, but they make it work, and it’s wonderful to watch.
It’s important to note that the emphasis here is on the acting rather than the singing. That was probably the right choice for the movie, but it does mean some really enjoyable melodies get lost. “Shiksa Goddess” is the prime example here. In the movie, it’s sung breathlessly during a love scene, and while the laughing, adrenaline-fused rendition is appropriate for the moment on screen, it may be a bit of a musical disappointment to those who love the song as vehemently as I do.
If you like the music, consider checking out the 2002 off-Broadway cast recording for a slightly different take on the characters and slightly more music-centered renditions. Fun fact: the actresses who played Cathy in the original off-Broadway cast and the 2013 revival have tiny cameos. Sherie Rene Scott plays the only woman who watches Cathy audition, while revival cast member Betsy Wolfe plays Cathy’s former stripper roommate. Show composer Jason Robert Brown also shows up as the pianist who hates Cathy (where he appears to be having great trouble reading her audition music).
How Do They Compare Overall?
The show: I hypothetically ranked the show itself on my Flickchart. I typed “Last” into the search bar, and the first movie that I hadn’t seen in the list was The Last Samurai, so it became my placeholder. Ranking the original show of The Last Five Years, the show rocketed up my chart to land at #6, right below Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, another musical… and now I’m thinking it maybe should have beaten that one as well. Like I said, I really, really love this show.
The movie: This didn’t land much lower than the show version. In fact, it landed higher than any other movie has on a first viewing since I started using Flickchart. It’s now at #45 out of 2319. The only match-ups it lost in that ranking were when it went up against American Beauty and 12 Angry Men.
While the movie may fare slightly lower than its predecessor, it still captures just about everything I love about the stage musical. It definitely met my expectations. Fans of the musical can breathe easy and enjoy, while newcomers to the story could be won over by the poignant songs and the chemistry of its stars.
The Last Five Years can currently be rented or purchased on VOD. It opened in theaters to a limited release in just a couple cities on February 13, but it will be expanding to several other major cities on the 20th, including Chicago, Washington D.C., and Memphis. Find out where you can see it here.
I Liked This. What Else Should I Watch?
This is Jason Robert Brown’s first stage-to-screen venture, but he’s written musical versions of The Bridges of Madison County and Honeymoon in Vegas, so check those out and then listen to the cast recordings.