Intimate Musical Theater: "The Last Five Years"

Back in the early 1990s, composer Jason Robert Brown found himself playing at piano bars in New York City’s Greenwich Village, hoping that someone would notice his talents. He had studied composition in college, and once said that he thought he would end up as “an egghead composer with the horn-rimmed glasses and the pencil behind the ear.” He grew up on the music of the singer-songwriters of the 1970s such as Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon, and dreamed of following in the footsteps of Billy Joel who he described as “a rock star that played the piano and who chicks threw their underwear at.” Yet somehow, he always found himself pulled back to the theater, and after becoming friends with director Daisy Prince, he created his first stage production, a song cycle titled Songs for a New World. This led to working for Daisy’s father, legendary Broadway director Harold “Hal” Prince, who invited him to compose the music for Parade. The show premiered on Broadway in 1998 to critical success, and the next year, Brown took home the Tony Award for Best Original Score. His career was on a roll, but behind the scenes, his personal life had hit a rough patch.

Brown’s first marriage ended in a bitter divorce, and he had spent five years of his life working on the Tony Award-winning Parade, only to see it play just 83 performances.

“my response to [Parade] was, well, ‘Hell, this is no way to make a living.’ It was too exhausting and too hard and the therapy cost more than the royalties… So I started thinking: ‘I’ll just write a song cycle… the anti-Parade. It’s not a huge musical with 35 people and 20 people in the orchestra. It’s just going to be small and intimate and maybe it’ll be a theater song cycle… But in writing it… everything I wanted to do and say breathed in a very theatrical way. I said: ‘You know what? I think it’s a show and I didn’t mean to be doing that, but I guess I am now."

His theatrical song-cycle became The Last Five Years. The show premiered in 2001 at Chicago's Northlight Theatre to rave reviews. Time Magazine referred to the show as “better than The Producers,The Sun-Times hailed it as “poignant, richly dramatic and piercingly honest,” and The Chicago Tribune proclaimed “exhilaration, so intense that it brings tears of joy.” The production was slated to premiere the next year in New York at Lincoln Center, but Brown’s ex-wife brought a lawsuit against the show saying that the story of two aspiring artists falling in and out of love again too closely resembled their own doomed marriage, and Lincoln Center dropped the project.  After some script and score revisions to lessen the similarities, The Last Five Years premiered in March of 2002 at the Minetta Lane Theatre Off Broadway, and won Drama Desk Awards for Best Lyrics and Best Score. Mixed reviews and low attendance (the show was one of the first to open in lower Manhattan following 9/11) caused the show to run for only two months. Many critics wrote off the show, but fans thought otherwise.

Following the 2001 production, the show quietly developed a cult following, and in 2013, it was again produced in New York at Second Stage Theatre, directed by Jason Robert Brown himself.  Audiences are inexorably drawn to the tragic story of the two flawed characters on the stage. When asked back in 2001 about why she wanted to direct the piece in the first place, Daisy Prince may have unknowingly predicted the reason for the show’s staying power: “It’s about a loving relationship that didn’t work out and everybody I know has been in one of those.”