Jason Robert Brown Talks About The Last Five Years

By Simon Hodgson

Today, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop revolution Hamilton broke a Tony Award record with 16 nominations. Jason Robert Brown, composer of The Last Five Years, is encouraged by Hamilton’s success. “[American musical theater] feels like it’s branching off in (at least) two different directions,” says Brown. “There is the very corporate ‘entertainment’—musicals painted in broad strokes and designed to appeal to the widest possible audience, such as Aladdin and Finding Neverland. Then there is the very personal and cheerfully idiosyncratic approach, which brings us work like Fun Home and Hamilton. I don’t care a whole lot about the first branch, but that second branch is very exciting and that’s the kind of work I’ve been trying to do all along.”

This intention is apparent in The Last Five Years, which has its roots in Brown’s personal experiences of love and heartbreak. The result is a unique musical with an exuberant score that has remained in the hearts and minds of musical theater lovers worldwide. The Last Five Years opens at A.C.T.'s Geary Theater May 11 and runs through June 5. We caught up with Brown to talk musicals, marriage, and moving through time. 

Composer Jason Robert Brown. Photo by Scott Selman, 2014.

What was your thinking behind the reversed storytelling structure?

My main instinct when I started the piece was to write something for two singers, where they could alternate solo songs. I decided early on to have it be a love story, and once I decided that, I was stuck for how to tell the story, until I realized that if I had one character tell the story in reverse while the other told it chronologically, that would keep it more interesting than if I had them both moving in the same direction. When I made that decision I had no idea how much it would bring to the narrative; I’m very grateful for that particular flash of inspiration. I’m surely indebted to Merrily We Roll Along (always one of my favorite musicals) and to Tom Stoppard, whose work often plays with time in deeply emotionally resonant ways.

Your work pulls from multiple music genres. What’s your process in framing the storytelling through song?

I think of theater music like costumes—the minute a character puts on the music, it should help define that character. Cathy is an actress, so her music is a little more showbizzy and extroverted, while Jamie is a writer, so his music is more nerdy and complicated. Much of the show is about how their different ethnic and financial backgrounds affect their relationship, and that’s built into the music as well—Cathy’s Celtic roots peek through the texture of many of her songs, and Jamie’s Jewish DNA is coded into several of his pieces. Of course, there’s also enough overlap in their respective sounds to make them believe that they belong together.

Do you think Cathy and Jamie could have or should have saved their relationship?

No, I think they were both young enough to move on from something that was never going to make them both happy. Better to know at their age that they’re not suited for each other than to wait until the kids arrive, or the mortgage is due. I can’t speak for anyone else’s choices, but for these characters, I think they got into something before they really knew what that kind of commitment entailed. The next time, I’m pretty sure they were both much smarter and more realistic about the kind of work that partnering really requires.

To read more of our interview with Jason Robert Brown, look for the upcoming volume of Words on Plays. 

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