The Story behind The Last Five Years

By Shannon Stockwell

Composer Jason Robert Brown.
Photo by Maia Rosenfeld.
After writing the music and lyrics for Parade, a musical about the 1913 trial of Jewish factory manager Leo Frank, Jason Robert Brown was burnt out. “I had been working on [it] for five years and [it] ran for three months,” Brown says. “It was too exhausting and too hard and the therapy cost more than the royalties.” His first instinct was to get out of show business, but as he was planning where to go, Lincoln Center Theater (LCT) called him and said they wanted to commission a piece.

He began to explain an idea he had been working on: an intimate song cycle about the relationship between a man and a woman (the polar opposite of Parade’s 30-odd cast members). And as Brown was explaining, he came up with the idea of the two timelines crossing and meeting in the middle. LCT approved his idea. But Brown found that he couldn’t create something that belonged only on a concert stage, like Songs for a New World. “It was at that point—when I was writing about these two people who literally and physically and metaphorically could not get together—I said: ‘You know what? I think it’s a show and I didn’t mean to be doing that, but I guess I am now.’”

In 2001 The Last Five Years opened to rave reviews at Northlight Theatre in Skokie, Illinois, but when it moved to off Broadway, it didn’t do so well. After it closed, Brown became frustrated. “I really didn’t want to be in the business anymore,” he said. “I thought that if this town didn’t know how to support that kind of work, I didn’t need to be here.” He left the city and moved to Los Angeles. It wasn’t until 2008, and the Broadway premiere of 13, that he would have another show in New York.

Despite New York’s reception of The Last Five Years, the show was extremely successful during its national tour. And, although it’s 15 years old, it has remained popular across the country. Brown is not surprised by its success. “I actually did sort of foresee [the success of The Last Five Years],” he says. “It’s a show with two characters, so I knew that people would want to do it. There was no guarantee, but I hoped . . . that it would go out into the world, be shared, and become part of contemporary musical theater vocabulary.”

A.C.T.'s production of The Last Five Years runs until June 5. Click here to purchase tickets!
To read a complete biography of Jason Robert Brown, click here to purchase a printed or digital copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series. All proceeds go to our ACTsmart education programs, serving teachers and students throughout the Bay Area. 

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