Picking Sides & Missing the Point
(Writer’s note: This article presupposes that you’ve seen The Last Five Years. If you haven’t, do so before reading this article.)
After seeing Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years for the first time in 2005, I was very much on Team Cathy, if you will. It had been about two years at that point since my last relationship had ended, poorly at that, and I was, to borrow from Cathy herself, still hurting, to some extent, so it was very easy to side with her after seeing her left alone by Jamie. From that point forward, even though I’m better suited to sing Jamie’s part, it was Cathy’s songs that spoke the most to me.
Years later, I heard that Richard LaGravenese, who wrote the brilliant screenplay for BEHIND THE CANDELABRA, was adapting the stage show into a film. I thought to myself, this man must be nuts; there is no way you can translate this very particular show to film. I’m so glad he did though because he, with the help of the very talented Jeremy Jordan, who plays Jamie in the film, helped me to hear his part clearly for the first time. What I heard was a man left just as lost from his relationship with Cathy as she was.
On stage, The Last Five Years is an emotional experience but told in a stark visual manner. It more or less consists of two people taking turns in the spotlight, singing solos and emoting as if they were living in that moment. The film fills that dark space outside of the spotlight with detail and colour so we can better contextualize the feeling in the room while Jamie and Cathy go from their hopeful beginning to their bitter end. It also allows for the distance between the characters to be eliminated as they interact directly with each other instead of standing apart and singing out to an audience.
Perhaps it oversimplifies the interaction but relationships are already complicated enough, especially when they’re told in this fashion. To further blur the lines between the good times and the bad, Brown positions each character on separate time lines. Cathy is telling her side of the story in reverse chronological order, while Jamie is telling his in the order that it actually happened. As the song order alternates between each character, we jump back and forth in time until we meet in the middle, which, in both the film and the stage show, is the only point where the characters break the wall between them and sing to each other at the same time.
The Last Five Years is based upon Brown’s personal experience with his first failed marriage. It is so personal in fact that his estranged wife, who will remain nameless as I’m sure she would probably prefer it, actually threatened to sue him because of just how similar it was to their lives. While this doesn’t make Brown the least biased person to tell this story, I do still feel that his heart was in the right place, at least in regards to the show.
As much as one can argue that Cathy comes across as maybe weak or broken from hanging all of her happiness on the success of this marriage, one can also argue that, while Jamie seems to have the easier ride with his success as a novelist and his eventual philandering, that many of his decisions are motivated from fear. I believe that when Brown shares lyrics like, “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.” from “Nobody Needs to Know”, it becomes clear that for all his success, he is still just a boy inside, frightened to be alone.
I’m not trying to excuse Jamie’s behaviour (nor am I trying to blame Cathy); we all have choices to make and, while our fears and insecurities have a heavy influence over our decision making process, we can still choose to take the harder path over the path of least resistance. I think it is important when watching The Last Five Years to remember how young these characters are though. They are in their early 20’s when they meet and this is their first real love. While one can hope that we have the capacity to carry that first love through the distance, and while it certainly does happen for some, it can be a far more difficult prospect for others.
To better understand how Cathy and Jamie went from great to gone, it can be helpful to look at their songs in actual chronological order. Brown might consider this sacrilegious, and I admit that as a purist, I’m not terribly comfortable with it myself, but when you do this, it is easier to see what brought them together, what drove them apart and how each of them contributed to their success and demise. For instance, in “Shiksa Goddess”, Jamie reveals without even realizing that maybe his attraction to Cathy was initially inspired by a way to distance himself from his family and past. While Cathy meanwhile, in “I Can Do Better Than That”, claims that she knows “when a thing is right” while trying to convince both Jamie and herself about how far she’s come in her life. But when love is new, we rarely hear ourselves speak; we just fall.
And then success happens, which also happens to bring about their ultimate failure. It can be very difficult to say the least to be in a relationship where one person is thriving and the other is struggling. I’ve always felt that love, as wondrous as it is, is not enough to sustain a successful pairing. Life as it unfolds will have influence over that love and test it a number of ways, of which this is just one. As Jamie finds success as a novelist, Cathy cannot make it as an actress. Her confidence drops and she begins to see herself as inferior, as a failure, and eventually, Jamie sees her the same way. When he tries to give her “unlimited time” in “The Schmuel Song” for her to pursue her passion, as grand a gesture as it is, for someone who is already down on themselves like Cathy is, it can be seen as just another way she is incapable of making it work on her own.
By the time Jamie proposes and they are then married, it is clear to us, if not to them, that this is not the answer. “The Next Ten Minutes”, in which Jamie proposes, exposes their immaturity on the subject of marriage itself. As he sings that he will “never be complete” and she sings that she will “never be alive” until they say, “I do,” it is clear that their expectation of marriage is unrealistic. This harkens back to an earlier passage in “Moving Too Fast” when Jamie sings, “Some people can’t get success with their art / Some people never feel love in their heart / Some people can’t tell the two things apart.” Cathy can’t find success with her art while Jamie can’t tell the two things apart and doesn’t realize that he doesn’t feel love in his heart. They’re both just trying to fill the hole.
They aren’t together in the same city after they’re married; he’s still in New York being feted as the “grand fromage” (“A Miracle Would Happen”) while she’s in Ohio performing (“A Summer in Ohio”). This is not ideal for newlyweds but once again, life doesn’t stop so you can enjoy each other’s bliss all the time. Things decline from here. Cathy begins to feel like she isn’t a significant part of Jamie’s existence (“A Part of That”); and Jamie tries to make one last attempt to boost Cathy’s spirits (“If I Didn’t Believe in You”) without realizing that saying things like “I will not fail so you can be comfortable, Cathy / I will not lose because you can’t win,” do not inspire confidence in anyone.
By the time Cathy has her meltdown on the pier in “See I’m Smiling”, which incidentally is my favourite song in the show, and is personified perfectly by Anna Kendrick who plays Cathy in the film, there is no hope of reconciliation. At this point, she is yelling to be heard and he is blocking out everything she’s saying. That doesn’t mean that there was never any love though. I can sit here and pick apart what motivated them to be together and what led to them to fall apart, but love exists because of these things and despite these things. That is what makes it so special and so sought after. In fact, the one moment in this musical that brings me to tears every single time I see it is one of great love. It’s in “The Schmuel Song”, when Jamie sings to Cathy, “Have I mentioned today how lucky I am to be in love with you?” This line brings tears of joy to my eyes every time.
Braving the world alone is not an easy thing to do. We all tend to think that having someone else at our sides will make the journey not only better but easier as well. Until you experience what sharing your life with someone really truly means though, you can never know what you’re signing on for. In my mind, both Cathy and Jamie live on past The Last Five Years and each other. It is these kinds of experiences, where you are dragged down to darker places than you ever imagined, when all you were looking for was love to begin with, that make you a stronger person, that inform the kind of person you eventually go on to be.
I like to think that when Cathy and Jamie find themselves falling in love with someone again, that because of what they went through together, they will be coming to that table with eyes that are opened wider to what that truly entails and with hearts that are still open enough to allow that experience to happen again. Not everyone survives the kind of pain that Jamie and Cathy endured and that only failed love can bring. But whether your last five years were terrible or terrific, they should never be the last you ever know of love.
On a related note, Jason Robert Brown was remarried in 2003 and he and his wife are together still, with two children. We all need to forgive and let go and I like to think that as Jamie and Cathy sing goodbye to each other as the final lines of the show in perfect harmony, in “Goodbye Until Tomorrow / I Could Never Rescue You”, that Brown was able to do just that with this genius work of art.