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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