Five Years, One At A Time

by Dan H

Dan is very, very confused by The Last Five Years
The Last Five Years is a little-known, comparatively new musical, which has just finished a run at a small theatre in Oxford, and which I have just been to see with my parents and girlfriend. My brother was doing the lighting, and having seen a production in Edinburgh last year, he'd said it was well worth a look.

The musical charts the five-year rise and fall of the relationship of its two protagonists, Jamie Wellerstien and Cathy Hiatt. The twist is that the story is told from two perspectives one (his) starting at their first meeting and working forwards and the other (hers) starting at the end of their relationship and working backwards (with their wedding being a duet in the middle).

It's a really nice idea, and it's full of lots of really nice touches where things reflect and underscore each other in quite a satisfying way. There is, however, a major major problem with the play, and that's that "Jamie" is a complete dickhead.

The musical was written and composed by a man named Jason Robert Brown, and was apparently based on his relationship with his ex wife. One track actually had to be cut from the final production because she sued. You would think, therefore, that if anybody was going to come across as a complete waste of blood and oxygen it would be her. Creating a musical about your own divorce in which you come across as a narcissistic jerk takes a special kind of talent.

The musical begins with Cathy singing about how Jamie has left and she's totally miserable.

Jamie is over and Jamie is gone
Jamie's decided it's time to move on
Jamie has new dreams he's building upon
And I'm still hurting

And of course the show ends with Jamie singing about how he's leaving.

I called Elise to help me pack my bags
I went downtown and closed the bank account
It's not about another shrink
It's not about another compromise
I'm not the only one who's hurting here
I don't know what the hell is left to do
You never saw how far the crack had opened
You never knew I had run out of rope...

Now I hate to be all Joss Whedon Minority Warrior about this, but notice how her song is all about him, and how his song is ... well ... also about him? That's basically the way it works throughout the entire play. Cathy comes across as a warm, caring woman who falls deeply in love with Jamie. Jamie comes across as a self absorbed little wankstain who seems to view Cathy as some kind of pet. Indeed he seems to have little to no investment in their relationship, in his final song, Nobody Needs to Know (the "I'm cheating on my wife but it's apparently not my fault" song) ends thus:

And since I have to be in love with someone
Since I need to be in love with someone
Maybe I could be in love with someone
Like you...

I mean really, what the fuck? Remember that this song comes at the end of a five year relationship. He's fucking married he shouldn't be going on and on about how he "has to be in love with someone."

Because of the structure of the musical, Jamie's early songs are juxtaposed against Cathy's late songs, and vice versa. It's almost ludicrous to compare them. The wedding duet (The Next Ten Minutes) is framed a song from each of the partners. Cathy's song, A Summer in Ohio is about how awful it is to be stuck in a garret in Ohio with a gay midget an an ex stripper, but how it's okay because she's totally in love with the wonderful man who makes her amazingly happy:

He wants me, he wants me, but he ain't gonna get me
I've found my guiding light, I tell the stars each night
Look at me, look at him
Son of a bitch, I guess I'm doing something right
I finally got something right

After the wedding, we hear Jamie's song from the other side of the fence, which is about how much it sucks that he can't bone other women.

Except you're sitting there
Eating your corned beef sandwich
And all of a sudden, this pair of breasts walks by
And smiles at you
And you're like "That's not fair!"

I mean, seriously guy. Seriously.

You could almost convince yourself that Brown was writing the musical to apologise for having been such a colossal dickhead, except that there are dozens of little moments where he seems to be strongly sending the message that he (in the persona of Jamie) was totally a genius while his ex (in the persona of Cathy) was a worthless little maggot who would be nothing without him.

Cathy's second song (and therefore the one which occurs nearest the end of their relationship) is called See, I'm Smiling. It's her last ditch effort to save what they have together. It's sweet and sad and rather honest:

I think we both can see what could be better
I'll own when I was wrong
With all we've had to go through
We'll end up twice as strong
And so we'll start again this weekend
And just keep rolling along

It is juxtaposed at the end of the play with Jamie's If I Didn't Believe In You which I think is supposed to be romantic, or at the very least supportive. But is isn't. It's basically him saying "you'd be nothing without me you bitch."

No one can give you courage
No one can thicken your skin
I will not fail so you can be comfortable, Cathy
I will not lose because you can't win

You see, the reason his marriage went wrong was because his wife was threatened by his success. And the play is full of stuff like this. Even the duet in the middle begins with Cathy, with her tiny feminine mind, mistaking Jerry Seinfeld for John Lennon at a wax museum. Throughout the performance Cathy sings about how awesome Jamie is and how lucky she is to be part of his genius, while Jamie sings about how awesome he is and how lucky Cathy is that he occasionally deigns to remember that she exists.

It's a shame because it's a fantastic idea for a musical, and if the male lead wasn't such an unutterable dickweed it would be genuinely poignant. If both parties were sympathetic, it would be a fascinating exploration of the way that relationships form and fall apart. As it is, it winds up being an exploration of the fact that you should never marry a narcissistic fuckhead who thinks he's better than you.
Themes: Theatre

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Comments (go to latest)
Guy at 05:57 on 2008-06-09
Do you think the writer knows that he is (or is depicting his alter-ego as) a narcissistic fuckhead? I think in a way there can be a sort of redeeming humility or at least honesty in someone who confronts the fact that they're arrogant and egotistical and is able to admit that these are not entirely admirable characteristics. There's some Woody Allen films and some Loudon Wainwright III songs that go into this territory and to me seem quite sympathetic. I guess the difference is between exploring the idea and nature of egotism, versus the much less attractive acting out or embodiment of egotism, which I suspect I find as unattractive as you evidently do...
Arthur B at 10:26 on 2008-06-09
I suppose the crux of the matter is whether Jamie ever gets any kind of comeuppance (aside from Cathy leaving him), and whether his egotism is ever seriously challenged in the course of the play. If neither of those things happen then it's easy to see how the musical would end up seeming less like an exploration of narcissism and more like an endorsement of it.
Dan H at 20:56 on 2008-06-10
Do you think the writer knows that he is (or is depicting his alter-ego as) a narcissistic fuckhead?

I considered it, but there's just so much in the play that underscores the idea that Jamie *really is* a genius and Cathy *really is* nothing without him.
Wardog at 11:32 on 2008-06-16
I'm genuinely quite bewildered by it. I've recently been listening to the soundtrack in an effort to try to work out *what the fuck he thinks he's doing*. I think part of hte problem of the production that we saw was that the female lead was significantly better than the male lead which unbalanced it somewhat - when he's well sung he is *vaguely* more attractive; he comes across as genuinely quite vibrant and lively (I mean, you can see why you *might* conceivably fall for him, if you had low self esteem and no better offers), albeit still narcissistic and self-absorbed.

But I still can't find anything like regret or honesty in there - also I kind of can't help but think that if it was a melancholy rumination on how their relationship fell apart because he was a dick his ex-wife wouldn't have sued him over it. I tend to find "oh shit I fucked up because I'm fundamentally a pillock" themes quite moving becaucse I tend to fuck stuff up on account of being fundamentally a pillock as well - but his side of the musical seems to be absolutely lacking in self-awareness, self-irony or the necessary shades of self-deprecation.

I suspect he's trying to portray Cathy as unhappy and needy ... but her complaints never come across as anything other than *completely fair*. I mean, in her second song "See I'm Smiling" she's clearly met up with him to try to salvage the relationship but when it turns out that he's not willing to put the time she (understandably) gets angry and the song degenerates into an hysterical monologue in which, I suspect, we're meant to see how unreasonably and demanding she is and won't let him get a word in edgeways:

You know what makes me crazy?
I'm sorry, can I say this?
You know what makes me nuts?
The fact that we could be together
Here together
Sharing our night
Spending our time
And you are gonna choose someone else to be with
No, you are
Yes, Jamie, that's exactly what you're doing:
You could be here with me
Or be there with them
As usual, guess which you pick
No, Jamie, you do not have to go to another party
With the same twenty jerks you already know
You could stay with your wife on her fucking birthday
And you could, God forbid, even see my show
And I know in your soul it must drive you crazy
That you won't get to play with your little girlfriends
No, I'm not, no I'm not!

But for God's sake, it's her BIRTHDAY! The whole thing is full of moments like this.

I just ... don't ... understand ...
Arthur B at 13:32 on 2008-06-16
I think in the guy's head Cathy's complaints may be shrill and shrewish, but to us as the audience they seem reasonable.

Did the ex-wife sue him over it? I can't think why; it looks like it's the best assassination of his character going.
Nathalie H at 21:34 on 2008-12-06
As a big JRB fan and also a big fan of this show, it's a pity you never saw it at the Menier Chocolate Factory a year or two ago. Discussing it now I think some of it is in the characterisation: the one I saw, Damian Humbley played Jamie as a very happy, charismatic man who got in over his head and didn't always realise that he was behaving like a dick, versus Lara Pulver's Cathy who was more quietly understanding and resentful. However, we've concluded that he's so wrapped up in his selfish bubble that he partly doesn't realise and partly doesn't try, whereas she does.

I think you said above that in the one you saw Jamie was less well-played; reading your review and mine, I'd probably conclude that top-notch acting makes it less obvious what a dick Jamie is; however, he is still a dick. I think Damian Humbley partly dressed it up in very good and very human characterisation, however you can still see it by looking at the lyrics.

His wife apparently sued him over the character called Kathleen (which was changed to Cathy), and the song 'I Could Be In Love With Someone Like You', which you can still find on the album 'Someone Else's Clothes'.

Finally, I hope this doesn't put you off JRB for life - I would recommend both Parade, which is a fantastic musical, and Songs For A New World (which is more of a series of songs) over Last Five Years.
Wardog at 12:35 on 2008-12-08
I will certainly check out Parade and Songs For a New World because, although it's not instantly accessible, the more I listen to the *music* from The Last Five Years, the more I like it. Unfortunately Dan can't bear the lyrics so we don't listen to it very much :) But the more I've listened to the soundtrack which has a qualitatively *better* sung Jamie, the more I can muster a grudging sympathy for the guy ... but it's more the accord of dickhead to dickhead, if that makes sense, than because I can find something to like or admire in his character. And I get the feeling that that wasn't supposed to be the point, or if it is the point that it's a terribly dark one. The song that really stands out for me is Nobody Needs To know ... which has flickers of awareness in it ("I promise I won't lie to you" - surely you don't believe that, mate?), but these are then snuffed out again by the resurgence of "but I'm a genioooos" self justification.

I suppose if you look at the thing more widely as being a manifestation of how all relationships are doomed to degenerate into a struggle between a Victim and a Villain, it's quite interesting but, again, this falls over when you realise that neither the author nor Jamie himself are willing to acknowledge that this is the role aportioned to the character. at 13:33 on 2014-11-17
I think my Ferretbrain identity application got lost in the mail, but this one recently came to Louisville and I had a chance to see. I might've been a bit tainted by having read this review, as I went in primed to be unsympathetic to Jamie, and I unsurprisingly was. I think the criticism of the false equivalence in the story may be pretty revealing of JRB's character: he seems to very much want the responsibility for the dissolution of their relationship to be equally distributed, and the fact that it doesn't come across that way to most people maybe suggests his priorities are a bit out of whack. I see a couple of obvious reasons for this:

* the infidelity angle. Ultimately, no matter how fucked up your relationship is, sneaking out on your spouse tends to be pretty blameworthy no matter how you apportion the blame for other elements of the relationship dysfunction. It doesn't help that he starts fantasizing about fucking other people, like, one song after their wedding.

* the false dilemma. A message the play seems to endorse is that one has just passion enough to either excel at work or to devote oneself to love, but not both. This feels like bullshit to me. Nothing we see suggests that Jamie's work requires any effort whatsoever, what with the montage of Columbia University and everyone else coming to genuflect at the altar of his writing skill. "I'm a Part of That" kind of highlights the isolating nature of his work, but for the most part his withdrawl from his wife and immersion into a distinct social whirl appears to be entirely voluntary.

* the unsupported complaint. AFAICT, Cathy's grievance is that Jamie has withdrawn into his work and work environment, which we see in great abundance (see the "false dilemma" above). Jamie's is that Cathy resents his success. We kind of never see that at all --- as mentioned, "I'm a Part of That" acknowledges a certain frustration with Jamie's self-absorbtion, but it's very mild. On the contrary, Cathy seems to honestly take pride in her own accomplishments: surely wanting Jamie to come and see her show when she's finally landed a part is wanting to share her triumph, not some sort of sign of resentment.

So, yeah, I'm not sure what to make about the notion that the intended message was that things fall apart and that everybody's to blame, because the actual events of the play seem to belie that. I have a vague feeling JRB himself subscribes to the "there is enough passion for work or love but not both" theory, which doesn't speak much to his self-awareness. at 18:31 on 2014-12-12
Necro-ing again with the news that they're apparently making a movie of it (with Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan). Although the central conceit seems to translate poorly: based on the trailer the two of them are interacting in more scenes than just the midpoint, so the time-shifting doesn't seem to quite align with a viewpoint shift, which feels kind of like it's missing the point completely.

Speaking of Anna Kendrick musical films missing the point completely, some of the trailers for Into the Woods seem to be, uh, a bit coy about the fact that it's a musical. I mean, yes, reading between the lines the references to Wicked and Chicago are pretty big clues, but if you get those then you were probably already familiar with Into the Woods in the first place.
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