An examination of young love's evolution and eventual dissolution, playwright Jason Robert Brown's The Last Five Years portrays the rise and fall of protagonists Cathy and Jamie during their tumultuous journey as a couple. The play follows an unconventional structure — Jamie's story unfolds on a linear timeline, while Cathy's perspective is told backwards. The two characters meet only once, at their wedding, in the middle of the show.
Brown graduated from the Eastman School of Music, and he'd already won a Tony Award — for Best Original Music Score for the show Parade in 1999 — by the time he wrote The Last Five Years. (Brown also won two Tony Awards, for Best Original Score and Best Orchestration in 2014 for The Bridges of Madison County). Loosely based off of Brown's failed marriage, the musical had its first run at Chicago's Northlight Theatre and was then produced Off-Broadway in 2002. International revivals have followed in countries such as Germany, the UK, and Norway.
To call this story a tragedy would be to sell the work short. This ardently powerful musical, which is being produced by Footlight Players, explores not only the demise of a once-flourishing relationship, but also the uncapped vulnerability that comes with acknowledging that love is, often, a fleeting aspect of the human experience.
"When I was offered the opportunity to direct [The Last Five Years], I researched it and listened to every recording I could find," says director Robin Burke. "Because of the nature of the show and the size of the cast and orchestra, there is a great deal of freedom with the design and staging concepts. This type of show is well-suited to Piccolo Spoleto, in that the music carries the show almost all by itself."
The play makes it painfully obvious from the beginning that Cathy and Jamie do not end up together — Cathy opens the show lamenting the end of her marriage with the song "Still Hurting." In a sharp juxtaposition, attendees are introduced to Jamie five years earlier through his jaunty rendition of "Shiksa Goddess," a song depicting his joy about dating a new woman, Cathy.
From song to song, the audience can see how the relationship unfolds. But instead of simply following their story as a heart-rending love affair, the play's structure allows the viewer to see the honest truth behind the couple's inevitable break-up, without assigning blame to either person for the relationship's failure.
"If we saw the show in linear progression, we would judge Jamie and Cathy throughout the show," Burke explains. "In this format, we all have fresh eyes and ears. We begin the story with goodbye and hello. We end the story with hello and goodbye. The only time their lives meet is in the middle."
Burke, a 30-year veteran of theater and the performing arts, began his career while studying at the University of Houston with legendary Panamanian director José Quintero and renowned playwright Edward Albee (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?). Burke debuted off-Broadway in the play Ascendancy at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre in 1998, and has appeared with Houston's Tony Award-winning Alley Theatre, Theatre Under the Stars, Stages Repertory, and the House Shakespeare Festival. Since moving to Charleston, he's won four Theatre Charleston Awards — including Outstanding Director 2013 for his Midtown Productions show Shirley Valentine — and was recently nominated for the City Paper's Best Local Actor.
When asked about the challenges and rewards of working within the constraints of musical theater — specifically with Brown's songs, known for being rhythmically challenging and complex — Burke was exceedingly positive and, in fact, rejected the notion that musicals are reserved solely for happy-go-lucky scenarios. "While the piece is emotional and intimate, it is also funny and quirky, too — in almost every sense, a mini-opera," Burke says. He's referring to the romantic high in songs like "The Next Ten Minutes," sung as the couple exchanges vows on their wedding day, and the blithe undertones in "I Can Do Better Than That," which features big dreamer Cathy exaggerating her disdain for small-town life by gossiping about one of her high school friends. "In a straight dramatic form, this story would be entertaining, but in a musical form it becomes something bigger and better," he adds. "The best musicals are like chocolate: Bittersweet is best."
Cast members Rebecca Weatherby (Cathy) and Caleb Copper (Jamie) were selected for the lead roles from a general audition for Footlight Players. Weatherby is a rising senior at Charleston Southern University majoring in Choral Music Education, and her performance as Cathy marks her first musical theater credit. In contrast, Copper is a web developer for Blackbaud with several shows under his belt, although The Last Five Years is his debut as a romantic lead. "I liked both of them at the auditions but was not sure about the cast until the final moments of the last night," Burke reflects. "Once I heard them together, I knew I had my cast. Together, they are magical."