The Last Five Years and Structural Suspense

Coming Soon: The Last Five Years Film

The Last Five Years Set Photos

Set photos are running rampant

With all the set photos being released this week, it appears the producers of The Last Five Years film adaptation really want a big return on their investment. I suspected that when Anna Kendrick (Pitch Perfect) and Jeremy Jordan (Smash) were cast as Cathy and Jamie.

Or should I say Tony Award nominee Anna Kendrick (High Society) and Tony Award nominee Jeremy Jordan (Newsies) starring as Cathy and Jamie? That theater pedigree helps in a show that has such a theatrical conceit.

A quick refresher on The Last Five Years: Cathy and Jamie recount their five year relationship from opposite perspectives. Cathy starts at the end and goes back to the beginning, while Jamie starts at the beginning and works his way to the end. They only meet up once onstage to sing together–not counter melodies, but actual interaction.

The film is foregoing that conceit and it makes me so nervous. Cathy and Jamie are going to sing to each other. They’re planning on using all the songs and keeping the time jumps, but with the couple interacting I fear a muddy mess.

The score is confessional in nature. When Jamie sings about meeting a “Shiksa Goddess,” he would never dream of telling Cathy she’s some kind of conquest on his rise to the top. Likewise, when Cathy sings about “A Summer in Ohio,” she would never have complained that much about doing summer stock if Jamie was there in person.

The Last Five Years Waterfornt

Are Cathy and Jamie meeting at the pier?

Sure, there are songs that hinge on interaction. “See I’m Smiling” is all about Cathy’s surprise that Jamie has arrived after their relationship became strained. She sings about all the things she wants him to do and how hard she’s trying to save the relationship. She even references how they’re sitting, how he laughs, how he smiles, and how they’re interacting. I can see the scene on film: a lovely walk on the waterfront after meeting at the docks, perhaps a montage of Cathy’s memories to foreshadow some of the upcoming scenes.

It’s so early to try to put a judgment on the film. The talent is there. The music is there. My excitement level is far higher than I anticipated.

Yet I have to mention a personal bias here. This is an adaptation of a show about mid/late 20-somethings falling in and out of love. Jeremy Jordan and Anna Kendrick hit that perfectly–28 and 27, respectively. With the way they’re being dressed in the show and the subject matter, they’ll read the right age onscreen.

But I prefer actors aging down for the role. The Last Five Years has a really complex score filled with a lot of intricate character shifts. It has a very strong voice about relationships and love. Typically, onstage, the actors are a few years older than the characters in the script. It’s not an uncommon casting choice–how many twenty-somethings play teenagers?–but in this show it adds a level of nuance and maturity that only comes with more life experience. Sherie Rene Scott and Norbert Leo Butz were only a few years older than the characters when the show premiered in 2001 and their performances are why the show is so fondly remembered.

That bias is why I’m so drawn to a recently released video of Lea Salonga in rehearsal for a concert. Salonga (Tony Award winner for Miss Saigon and the singing voice of Jasmine and Mulan in the Disney pantheon) brings this beautifully nuanced sense of understanding and acceptance that I doubt a younger performer could pull off. With the right Jamie, Lea Salonga could easily pull off a production of The Last Five Years. It’s a total piece of fantasy anyway; if the actors read young, you’ll accept the reality of the show.

Just watch this performance of “I’m Still Hurting,” the opening song in The Last Five Years. I’ve watched it at least 20 times since it was uploaded last Friday and it brings me to tears every time. Bonus points duly awarded for doing the rhythms as written in the actual score (ahem).

Can Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan match that level of intensity or wisdom that sells the (let’s be frank) self-centered story of The Last Five Years? You need the audience to immediately understand from the first pair of songs that the show is all about diagnosing what went wrong over a big chunk of a shared lifetime. This isn’t the free-wheeling spirit of 500 Days of Summer that has the opportunity to wallow in self-indulgence and too clever scene juxtapositions to be a crowd-pleaser. This is a very low-key narrative that rests on a simple conceit and a fantastic score.

I want The Last Five Years to be a rousing success because I want musicals to be bankable again. If they earn money, studios will invest the time and energy needed to make more that don’t hinge on ridiculous close-ups of A-list actors shooting snot out of their noses for extra sincerity*. And if musicals are profitable again, maybe A-list actors won’t be required for EVERY leading role in a movie musical anymore.

We’ll see how The Last Five Years turns out eventually. At the very least, more people will learn about this wonderful little show. That’s a victory.

*Salonga played Eponine and Fantine professionally on Broadway and in anniversary concerts. She didn’t need blacked out teeth and 15 seconds pauses between words to sell “I Dreamed a Dream.” She didn’t even need the costume. She just needed a stage. Just saying.