Jason Robert Brown's The Last 5 Years gets a fantastic Off-Broadway Cast Recording from Sh-K-Boom.
If you're a devotee of musical theater recordings, you're probably familiar with the "How in God's Name Can This Show Have Been a Flop?" phenomenon. For years, people who didn't get a chance to see such musicals as House of Flowers and Candide and The Baker's Wife during their brief original runs have enjoyed their magnificent scores as preserved on their respective cast albums and wondered how these shows could have been anything less than monster hits. More recently, CDs of Steel Pier and Seussical have prompted similar thoughts. And unless the box office figures of Jason Robert Brown's The Last 5 Years improve markedly in the near future, we will soon be able to add the new Sh-K-Boom cast album of that show to the list of divine recordings of shows that just didn't make it on stage.
Following an acclaimed production in Skokie, Illinois, The Last 5 Years opened to mixed-to-negative reviews at the Minetta Lane Theatre in New York on March 3, 2002. (The location of this venue may well be contributing to the show's box-office woes, but that's another story.) Reveling in Brown's eclectic yet original, sophisticated yet accessible music and his witty, heartfelt lyrics, one can scarcely imagine that TL5Y would be anything other than a knockout theatrical experience. Bad books are often blamed for the failure of shows with great scores, but that hardly applies in this case: The Last 5 Years is virtually through-sung, with only a few spoken lines spotted here and there.
So, what's up? Well, here's this reviewer's theory, in a nutshell. The Last 5 Years concerns the romance, marriage, and breakup of a writer named Jamie and a singer-actress named Cathy. Though these two behave as if they are truly in love with each other, their bond isn't strong enough to survive the cold, hard reality that Jamie's career is taking off like a rocket while Cathy's is stalled in summer stock. The terrifically intriguing but risky gimmick of the show is that the audience sees the arc of the relationship as moving forward in time (from beginning to end) through Jamie's eyes but backward in time (from end to beginning) through Cathy's. One of Brown's major points seems to be that the couple weren't meant for each other in the first place and never really connect on any profound level, which is why The Last 5 Years consists almost entirely of solo numbers; the two voices combine only in the engagement/wedding scene at the center of the one-act evening and then once more, across time and space, in the final moments of the show.
The problem is the method chosen by director Daisy Prince to convey the couple's estrangement. Even when one character is ostensibly singing directly "to" the other on stage, there is no eye contact between them--indeed, the silent partner often stands or sits in shadow while the other, brightly lit, sings his or her heart out. Now, this approach may make perfect sense in theory but, in practice, it probably accounts for the fact that some critics and audience members have remained unmoved by a show that should be heartbreaking.
Personally, I loved The Last 5 Years despite Prince's miscalculations--and I'm certainly not alone. You should definitely see the show live on stage at the Minetta Lane if you possibly can. If not, the cast album--Sh-K-Boom's first--will provide endless hours of pleasure. Deservedly hailed earlier this season for his brilliant performance in the otherwise appalling Thou Shalt Not on Broadway, Norbert Leo Butz scores time and again in Jamie's numbers; he is thoroughly charming in "Shiksa Goddess" and "The Schmuel Song," wonderfully conflicted in "Nobody Needs to Know," and he even manages to convey with conviction the rather patronizing sentiments of Jamie's "If I Didn't Believe In You." As Cathy, Sherie René Scott, who should have gotten a medal for retaining her dignity in the misconceived role of Amneris in Disney's Aida, makes a meal of the vastly superior material she has been handed by Brown. Her delivery of the showbiz-themed inside humor of "A Summer in Ohio" is right on target, her recreation of humiliating audition experiences in "Climbing Uphill" is pricelessly funny--and then she makes you cry in "Still Hurting" and "See, I'm Smiling." If you fail to be deeply moved when listening to her duet with Butz in the final sequence, "Goodbye Until Tomorrow"/"I Could Never Rescue You"--well, you should probably check to make sure that you have a pulse and a heartbeat.
Brown himself conducts the six-person band and plays piano for the album, as he does for the show. The quality of the recorded sound is excellent and the packaging is great--especially the cool, mirror image photos on the front and back covers of the CD booklet. Please do not let the less-than-stellar reviews garnered by The Last 5 Years prompt you not to purchase this superb disc.