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He said, she said
Jason Robert Brown’s Last Five Years

Whose lie is it anyway? That’s the premise of Tony Award–winning composer Jason Robert Brown’s latest opus, The Last Five Years. Directed by Eric C. Engel for SpeakEasy Stage Company, this two-character musical has a marriage-gone-wrong premise with a twist. Jamie (Tally Sessions), an increasingly successful novelist, tells the story from start to finish, but Cathy (Becca Ayers), a struggling actress, narrates the events in reverse order, beginning with the dénouement and reminiscing back to the beginning. And the story behind the show is even more complicated.

Originally commissioned by Lincoln Center, The Last Five Years, Brown’s third musical, was inspired by his own failed marriage to actress Theresa O’Neill. After its promising debut in Chicago in 2001, O’Neill decided the story was a little too close to home and threatened to sue. Brown altered lyrics and details regarding the female role. When the revised show finally opened in New York, it received a tepid review from the New York Times, though other media outlets were rapturous. Time named the musical marriage rehash one of the Ten Best Shows of 2001.

Brown earned his Tony before he was 30 for the score to his first Broadway show, Parade, which was directed by Harold Prince and premiered at Lincoln Center. That musical was hardly standard Broadway fare: with book by Pulitzer winner (for Driving Miss Daisy) Alfred Uhry, it treats of the lynching of Jewish factory manager and accused murderer Leo Frank in 1913 Atlanta. Indeed, Brown disdains conventional musical theater. "It’s very conservative. I spend very little time trying to sup from the glass of musical theater." Instead, the songwriter experiments with myriad musical styles ranging from rock to gospel, singspiel, and classical, though he says, "I still think of myself as a rock-and-roll guy." His songs often have unusual structures — which isn’t surprising when you consider the unconventional design of The Last Five Years. "I wanted to have a man and woman telling the story of their love affair, and I said, ‘I can’t do that chronologically as a love affair — it would be boring.’ But having her go backwards and him go forward and they’d meet in the middle — I thought it would be fun." He’s been dismayed that out-of-town audiences haven’t "gotten" it. SpeakEasy artistic director Paul Daigneault says the company considered putting a note in the program explaining the concept but decided against it. "I like to give our audiences credit for being smart and savvy and figuring it out. I really feel strongly about letting them discover it as they’re watching it."

This is the second Brown show to be done by SpeakEasy, whose concert staging of the song cycle Songs for a New World played to acclaim several years back. "He deals with such universal themes in a contemporary way," says Daigneault. "The way he tells his stories is urban and modern, and the style of his music also has that feel. With Songs for a New World, each song was its own mini one-act play, and The Last Five Years isn’t just another boy-meets-girl, girl-meets-boy story." Indeed, some two dozen productions are planned for the next few months. Brown thinks the universality of the subject matter contributes to the show’s appeal. "You may be sitting there and thinking it’s someone else’s story, but I bet you can feel this and understand this. With this show, I wanted to say there’s no blame to be placed."

The Last Five Years is presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company at the Boston Center for the Arts, 539 Tremont Street in the South End, January 30 through February 29. Tickets are $25 to $35, with $15 student rush; call (617) 426-2787.

Issue Date: January 23 - 29, 2004
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