Reimagining The Last Five Years: Director Jason Michael Webb Previews His Immersive Screen Production
Plus, watch a clip of star Nasia Thomas singing "Still Hurting."
A new streaming production of Jason Robert Brown's The Last Five Years will debut on Monday, March 15. Directed by Tony Award winner Jason Michael Webb (Choir Boy), the musical two-hander will be even more unconventional than usual. Not quite a movie, this production, which stars Broadway vets Nasia Thomas as Cathy and Nicholas Edwards as Jamie, was filmed entirely in a New York City apartment and reimagines the in-person boundaries of immersive theater for the screen. Here, Webb tells us what to expect.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
This is a Last Five Years set entirely in an apartment. What does that concept bring to the material?
When we play back our memories in our head — whether we're in the shower, at dinner — we're rethinking or reimagining our victories and traumas in the ways that we remember them. Jamie and Cathy are the doing same. In setting The Last Five Years in an apartment, Jamie and Cathy are manifesting these memories, rather than living them as we see them. These two characters are remembering them as they hold them, which is really informative when you dig into the truth of what they are going through. People are going to see that on the screen, but they're also going to see the musicians manifest as friends and helpers throughout. They'll see Cathy's Ohio peers in the living room. We had to figure out really cool ways to create each one of the settings inside this apartment.
I think what we stumbled on is not theatrical film, but it's not cinematic theater, either. We did use some theatrical devices and captured them on film. We wanted to create a piece of immersive theater, and the way we're able to do that during the pandemic is to make the audience the camera. As the participant, you're able to get next to these characters and see what they're going through up close.
What do Nick and Nasia bring to the material?
They're so special. In the first couple of seconds, you're going to hear Nick and Nasia and you're going to know how special their performance is, and what they were able to tap into. What we found in the process were the similarities between these character and us as creatives. One of the beautiful things about both Jamie and Cathy is that they reflect our own flawed existence. We are flawed. We try to make the right decisions, they don't always work out the way we want them to, and then we have to deal with the consequences. What we tried to do was dig into our own lives for when we had gone through something like that, and figure out how to say them through the words that Jason gave us. We think Jamie and Cathy are characters, but the reason it hits so hard emotionally is that we see ourselves.
Was Jason involved at all?
No. What I'm hoping that Jason Robert Brown finds when he sees the show is that we took good care of the characters and the text and the music and put it into the bodies of people that it's not normally put into. It creates another version of that experience that shows people the parallels between how we've seen it before and now.
Given your musical background, how did you come at this from that perspective? What does this production sound like?
We largely used the original orchestrations. But there's no drums in the original book, so we added percussive elements, and thickened up a few small things here and there. Largely, it is the same gorgeous orchestrations we all know and love. I played a lot of these songs for friends of mine and have never actually had a chance to sink my teeth into the whole show, so I jumped at the chance to do that. This show is full of songs that elicit emotions that we all, as creatives, try to get an audience to feel. So that was a great joy.
What are you hoping people take away from watching this production of The Last Five Years?
In a time when we can't see live shows, and we can't feel the vibration of hundreds of people around us experiencing the same thing, what I hope people will pull away from this is that sense that we still have that in is. That we still can gather in this untraditional way and experience stories that are truthful. We can see ourselves on a screen. We can see our friends soaring and able to do the things they've always wanted to do. I love seeing Nick and Nasia doing this show because I know how much it means to all of us, from the production designer to the stage manager to the producers. Everyone was on the same page from the very beginning, and to see that that joy is still possible at a time like this is what I take away from it.