Meet the producer, director, and cast of Limelight Theatre’s The Last Five Years.
The Limelight Theatre and 1st Stage co-production of one of my favorite musicals, Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years, opens April 9th at the Jewish Community Center in Rockville and transfers to 1st Stage May 7th. When I heard that the orchestra will include two cellos playing that incredibly gorgeous score, and then heard that two of my favorite local actors were cast in the leads – John Loughney and Carolyn Myers – I wanted to know more! I asked producing director Jan Stewart, director Jay D. Brock, and his two co-stars to talk about the show.
Jan Stewart (Producing Director of Limelight Theatre):
Joel: Why did you choose The Last Five Years?
Jan: Because of the beautiful music and the unique twist of an old story.
Joel: Why did you decide to co-produce the show with 1st Stage (this year’s winner of the Helen Hayes Awards’ John Aniello Award for Outstanding Emerging Theatre Company?
Jan: I love to work cooperatively with others, particularly when the other is as passionate about the mission as I am. We knew that Mark Krikstan’s 1st Stage was a successful, motivated and highly professional theatre company, and that we could create some great synergies. Just two examples of these synergies: We have utilized the musical/vocal and casting talents of Jane Kalbfeld (the casting Director of 1st Stage, and one of its Board Members) both in the audition process and in working with the actors on their singing and dialect. Jane has been a valuable and very supportive asset in this process; and we hired Cheryl Patton Wu (the resident 1st Stage Costume Designer) to be the Costume Designer for the Last Five Years. Cheryl is talented, efficient, thoughtful and extremely timely and reliable in carrying out her design duties.
Joel: What makes this production so special and unique?
Jan: Outstanding actors (John Loughney and Carolyn Myers), talented musicians, and a wonderful design team.
Joel: What was the audition process like?
Jan: Long. It was 3 days, including 2 call backs, and many talented actors auditioned.
Joel: Why did you choose John Loughney and Carolyn Myers as Jamie and Cathy?
Jan: I was at all the auditions and we selected John and Carolyn because they are not only are good actors and great singers, but the performing chemistry between the two of them was spectacular.
Joel: What do you want audiences to take with them when they leave after seeing The Last Five Years?
Jan: I’d like them to be humming a tune from at least one of the songs and have felt moved by the deep level of the dramatic performance.
Jay D. Brock (Director):
Joel: Tell us about The Last Five Years
Jay: The Last Five Years is about the deterioration of a marriage due to two people’s inability to love selflessly. Jamie openly admits that he values his marriage and writing career with equal weight, and wishes to pursue both with tenacity. Cathy who states that the relationship comes first ultimately sabotages the relationship because of her own jealous desire to achieve the same level of success as her husband in her acting career. Neither one of them is actually honest with the other about their true feelings, and each of them display their complacency to deal with the deeper issues with repetitive phrases such us “were okay” and, “were doing fine.” This wedge in the marriage finally materializes in Jamie’s song, If I Didn’t Believe in You, when he pleads with Cathy, “Can we please for a minute Stop blaming, and say what you feel?”
Joel: What is your vision for this production?
Jay: Many people who know this musical describe it as a piece about marriage or divorce depending on their particular outlook on life. I would disagree and say that this musical is actually about is the inevitable disintegration of a relationship when two people are unable to love one another selflessly.
My vision for the show includes presenting a two sided story that generates empathy for both characters. It’s easy to look at the actions of one character and pass judgment, but sometimes we have to look not only at what one does do but what one does not do. Even though this musical does not end happily (which we know from the very first song) it is my hope that people walk away from it with a better understanding of what selfless love is and see that they can lean from the mistakes of the characters. To that end it is my vision that the “present time” of the musical is actually in the middle when Cathy and Jamie’s lives physically intersect on their wedding day and to portray the rest of the show as memories past and potential future. This idea will create an environment where the audience will see the future as unwritten rather than as a form of certain destiny
Joel: Introduce us to your designers and how they will help you to bring your vision to life.
Jay: Every serious relationship whether plutonic, familial, or romantic is fragile and requires constant work to maintain and even more work to grow. When I met with the designers the central image I brought to the table was a tree-house…quoting Jaime from the song Nobody Needs to Know,
“We build a treehouse
I keep it from shaking
Little more glue every time that it breaks
And then I start making
Conscious, deliberate mistakes”
The metaphor of a tree-house as marriage was a perfect design spring-board for set designer Joe Musumuci. His initial designs spawned from key-words like disintegration and fragmentation, and while I was not interested in a literal “tree-house” as a set, the imagery of the fragility of that structure was perfect. Lighting designer Jason Cowperthwaite took his cue primarily from the notion of the past being a memory and the future being unwritten. His overarching concept is to keep the past and future shadowy and dreamlike and bring a crystal clear “realistic” focus to the wedding day in the middle of the musical. His initial images utilized earth tones such as tree-bark browns and moss for the past and vivid surreal colorings such as sky blues, and sunsets for the future.
Finally Cheryl Patton-Wu our costume designer focused her ideas to be relevant to the timelines that the characters experienc:. Jamie, starting out as an Ivy League drop out to highly successful writer and Cathy (whose story is told in reverse) starts as a veteran New Yorker and travels backwards to her roots as a girl raised on the Eastern Shore. Due to the musical having only two characters, multiple costume changes back and forth would have been impractical, however Cheryl brilliantly starts each character in one costume and through addition and subtraction transforms them right in front of the audience into something else by show’s end.
Joel: Tell us about the orchestra.
Jay: Jeffry Newberger who is an accomplished conductor and violinist is heading up the musical direction for this production. Jeffery received a graduate degree in conducting from Catholic University a number of years back and works primarily as a professional musician and teacher. Our orchestra is as prescribed by the score, a violin, two cellos, a guitar, bass, and piano, Jeffry has used his contacts to secure some of the best freelance musicians in the area and will be leading the pit as the violinist.
Joel: Who are Jamie and Cathy, and how will you direct John and Carolyn in the roles?
Jay: Jamie is a Jewish writer who starts the show as an ivy-league drop out and ultimately ends the show as a bestselling author. Jame wants it all…he is an ambitious, energetic workaholic who proclaims, “that he must be in love with someone.” Cathy is a wide eyed Catholic girl from the Eastern Shore who moves to New York to make it big as an actor. She is modern, strong willed, woman who recalls in one her songs the story of her best friend who was married and pregnant right out of high school. She adamantly declares that she wants more than the typical domestic life that is common in her hometown, and she is willing to sacrifice almost everything to achieve her goals of being, “a big time star.”
This musical is about as close to straight theatre as you can get with a musical. There are no chorus girls, no male quartets, no dance numbers, no acrobats, clowns, fireworks, or exotic animals to take focus; only two actors who have the lone job of singing to you a heartfelt story that realistically chronicles their five year relationship. I realized immediately that I had to approach it from a straight theatre perspective rather than a musical theatre angle.
We spent a great deal of time analyzing the text and music to put together a comprehensive big picture about what happened and when. It was of the utmost importance that the actors dug deep into the libretto and discovered the emotional lives of these characters. I wanted them to discover every beat in the text & music and individualize each moment as significant from the next. While this show is often regarded as simplistic it is actually one of the most difficult musical roles that a singer will have to act. I have challenged the cast to go beyond simply achieving an excellent technical performance and examine their own failed relationships to bring a sense of “messiness” to every moment of the show. Really the staging in this production is pretty minimal and is employed only as when necessary to tell the story. The real difficulty for actors (and ultimately the biggest payoff) in this production is simultaneously fusing the carefree joy of young love with the heart wrenching pain of loss from one moment to the next.
Joel: What makes this production so unique?
Jay: Well for starters the structure of the musical is such that Jamie’s story is told from the first date to the end of the marriage, while Cathy’s story is told form the end of the marriage to the first kiss. This allows the audience to track the marriage from two different perspectives and put the pieces together like a puzzle as the musical progresses. An early goal of mine was to diligently work on not taking a “side” in this marital conflict. It is no surprise that blame for the two characters generally falls down gender lines, but when you dig deep you find that both characters have done a lot of damage in this marriage and they both are at fault for its failure.
It is important to me to always see any production as a unique product of all the artists combined working at this very time in this very place. This mindset always inspires a production that is distinctive from any other production that you have ever seen. For example we, (the design team) have disregarded the majority of the scene settings in the libretto, as they generally do not have much to do with the story and often feel a bit gimmicky. I have also taken some liberties with the staging as it is generally intended that you only see one performer at a time in a song (with the exception of the wedding) and we have tried to include the characters in different numbers that they were not originally intended to move away from the “two ships passing in the night” feel of the show. I have also pushed the actors to approach the material from a more classical acting perspective than you typically would in a musical. All of this aimed at creating a production that is as emotionally rich in substance as the music that scores it.
Joel: What do you want the audience to take with them after seeing The Last Five Years.
Jay: I want them to learn from Jamie and Cathy and not attempt to identify who is at fault. This is not a unique relationship with unusual circumstances…it is a relationship that has moments that will be recognized by every patron in attendance. As a married man of (ironically) five years, my work on this production has often come too close to home for me as I see Jamie’s ambition in myself and see many of his flaws as my flaws. In truth some of his behavior has been a warning as I have heard many of my own wife’s hurts echoed in Cathy’s lyrics. I hope that the work that the actors have done in this musical prompt heartfelt relational discussion and perhaps even an apology or two as couples leave the show. Theatre can be therapeutic – and if audiences can get past the blame game – they might discover something very close to their own hearts.
Performers John Loughney (Jamie Wellerstein) and Carolyn Myers (Cathy Hyatt):
Joel: Introduce your characters and tell us why you wanted to play Jamie and Cathy.
John: As the show begins, the audience is introduced to Jamie as a young, slightly cocky student. He soon becomes a successful writer who finds fame and notoriety at a very young age. At the same time he meets Cathy, an even younger ‘shiksa,’ who, along with his new found success, turns his world upside down. Jamie is an impassioned, egotistical and driven man, who ambitiously tries to balance life, love, fame and everything in between.
The first time I heard of The Last Five Years, it was about 6 year ago and the music drew me in after one listen. I could easily relate to the lyrics and the story of both characters. Jamie wants to be a writer – a few years ago in college – that was my goal. (Maybe this show will reignite that flame?) I also think everyone who knows and sees this show can relate to the struggles both of the characters face within their relationship. From Jamie’s early infatuation with Cathy to his pleading to keep the relationship afloat – it’s all very accessible and relateable. We’ve all been there.
Why did I want to play Jamie? Well, I really wanted to play Cathy. I’d be a great shiksa goddess, don’t you think? I’m kidding. I think Jamie is just one of those characters a lot of actors would love to play. He’s has great songs and has a good storyline, what more do you need?
Carolyn: Cathy Hiatt is a hard person to sum up in a few words. But, if I had to introduce her to someone, I would use words such as romantic, neurotic, ambitious, selfish, naïve, and strong. It’s actually been pretty easy for me to relate to Cathy (an actress playing an actress isn’t a tough step for me to take). Also, I’m a romantic person like Cathy, who’s ambitious, and can definitely be selfish. However, I feel like I relate to Cathy the most in relationship experience.
I’m not afraid to admit that I’ve used my own past heartaches as inspiration in this role (I’ve never been married, but I have had relationships that have spanned long periods of time). In fact, the changes that come about in Cathy and cause her to grow into a stronger person, arise from her experiences in her relationship with Jamie. I understand very much from my own life how one’s relationships can change who they are. Cathy emerges from her relationship with Jamie a stronger person. I can only hope I’ve come out of my own heartbreak with as much strength.
I’ve always wanted to play Cathy! It’s one of my dream roles. Not only is it a challenge to sing, but it’s a really meaty part dramatically. She goes through a complete character arc throughout the show (and not in chronological order). And while it’s important to recognize why she is surprised as the relationship fails, it’s also important to be aware of the flaws that caused it to come about. Not to say it wasn’t both parties’ faults. In fact, it would be very easy to vilify Jamie, taking the script at face value. However, Cathy is just as responsible for the failure of their marriage.
The challenge in playing the role comes from understanding her contribution to the failure of their marriage, while also approaching the role with her “all we need is our love for each other and the marriage will work,” frame of mind. Romantic, but not realistic. Also, moving backwards along the time line of their relationship requires much more focus on the previous action before each scene. So keeping that and many other aspects in mind, I have had a whole lot to challenge me as I’ve worked on this role. And I have to say, it’s a challenge I have been enjoying thoroughly.
Joel: Talk about your audition. What did you sing, and when did you get the call that you got the role?
John: Well, my first audition was around 11:30 PM after another rehearsal. I sang ‘Why?’ from Tick, Tick…Boom and then ‘What Do I Need With Love’ from Thoroughly Modern Millie. I rushed in and felt a little out of sorts and flustered, but apparently it went well 🙂 They called me back as I drove home, asking me to come in the next day to sing with “the Cathys”. After the callback, I was offered the role (a day or two later, I believe) and was thrilled! This is a role I’ve had on my checklist of dream roles.
Carolyn: My audition for this show was interesting. I got to the audition late at night after the normal audition time slots had ended (I was in Sitzprobe for RENT until about 11pm). In addition to that, I was also locked out of the audition building. So I had to go to the window where (I assumed) the Limelight crew was and wave my arms until they let me in. “Great first impression,” I thought. Once in the actual audition room, I launched into my audition piece; “The Beauty Is,” from The Light in the Piazza. Hardly after I began, Jan stopped me and asked me to sing something else, so I thought “What the hell?” I’ll sing “Summer in Ohio,” from the show (which I had never rehearsed, and had only brought the sheet music for on a whim), so I dove in and hammed it up! I made it as funny and light as I could, and made everyone chuckle a bit. I felt pretty good after that audition, and was called back immediately.
I remember distinctly getting the call to play Cathy. I had waited all week after the final callback, hoping to hear something, and finally, while I was finishing up some Christmas shopping at the Banana Republic in Pentagon City, I got a phone call from Jay (I recognized his number because he called earlier in the week with a question). And just as I went to pick up the phone, it died. So I had to wait until I had finished up my Christmas and grocery shopping (which was no easy feat, because it was December 18th… the day the first blizzard started to fall) before I could get home to check my messages. I finally got home to my phone charger later that evening to hear the message from Jay offering me the role. I think I just fell over right there. I was so happy and grateful to be offered one of my dream roles, that I sort of sat there stunned. It took me at least ten minutes to recover before I could call Jay back to accept the role.
Joel: What is your favorite song in the show?
John: Hmmm, good question. I love (and loathe) them all for some reason or another! Jason Robert Brown’s music is pretty complicated and, as I’ve come to learn, is considered ‘vocal gymnastics’. I’ve always been in love with Jamie’s last song, “Nobody Needs to Know.” It’s simply a beautiful song, lyrically and musically, and a very vulnerable moment for the character. “The Schmuel Song” and “If I Didn’t Believe in You” have grown on me a lot throughout the rehearsal process. By the time this interview is published, I’ll probably have new favorites. I think, as an actor (and for the audience), that keeps it fresh and exciting.
Carolyn: It’s really hard for me to pick my favorite song in the show. I can relate to every song in the show on some level and they’re all fun to sing, but I’d have to say that my favorite song is “Climbing Uphill,” (the audition song). First of all because I can relate to it on the auditioning front; many MANY times I’ve found myself in auditions thinking the very same things Cathy does (why’d I pick these shoes, why’d I pick this song, why’d I pick this career, why does this pianist hate me, Jesus Christ, I suck etc.). But other than that, the song touches on a very relateable point to me specifically. Not only can I understand Cathy’s frustrations about an acting career in general, but I can also relate to her desire for an unconventional life (I will not be the girl stuck at home in the burbs with the baby, the dog, and the garden of herbs, etc). Choosing a career in the arts is indicative of a desire to achieve something in life greater than oneself. It’s hard to describe specifically why that kind of life is such a draw, but I know I strive for it as much as Cathy does.
Joel: What is the most difficult song for you to learn and sing?
John: The most difficult to learn has to be “The Schmuel Song”, and the most difficult to sing is hands down, “Moving Too Fast”. I’d rather not say much more than that so I don’t jinx myself. If you know the score, I’m sure you’ll agree.
Carolyn: The hardest song for me to learn has been “A Part of That.” Over the course of that song, Cathy’s perception of her relationship with Jamie changes drastically. But since the song uses some words so repetitively, similar words needs to be imbued with completely different meanings in order to illustrate this change, especially the specific words “I’m a part of that.” Jay and I spoke a lot about how specific emphasis on specific words in that sentence can change its meaning entirely. For example, emphasizing the word “part,” may allude to Cathy’s questioning of her part in Jamie’s life (giving it a positive connotation when she’s confident of her role in his life and a negative connotation when she feels left out). And emphasizing the word “that,” may allude to her distaste for all the bad things that come with being married to Jamie and dealing with his career. So naturally I need to make incredibly specific choices to make the song make sense, AND keep all of this in mind while singing. Needless to say, it’s been difficult!
Joel: How would you describe Jason Robert Brown’s score?
John: It’s magnetic. It’s gorgeous. It’s heartbreaking. It’s clever. I don’t know any other composer quite like him. In this show in particular, the orchestra becomes the third character. The orchestra helps to narrate the story and evoke emotions just as much as the actors. It’s simply mesmerizing.
Carolyn: Jason Robert Brown’s score is incredibly complex and brilliant. I would have said just “beautiful” if I had been asked before rehearsals started, but the more we’ve delved into the meaning and subtext of the songs, the more we’ve discovered how much care and thought JRB put into this score. For example, at the end of the two songs where Jamie and Cathy are confronted with the failure of their relationship, Brown has added the same chord progression that he uses in “I’m Still Hurting,” (the song that occurs, chronologically, when their relationship is completely over). Also, (and my wonderful understudy Natalie pointed this out) at the end of “See, I’m Smiling,” and “Climbing Uphill,” Cathy says the words “And I…” We figured out that the end of those unfinished thoughts in both songs is also contained in the first song; “…still hurting.” So Brown is already alluding to Cathy’s impending heartbreak at the end of her and Jamie’s relationship during songs that occur before the end of the marriage
Joel: You were both in Keegan Theatre’s Helen Hayes nominated and critically acclaimed production of RENT. How did that experience prepare you for these roles of Jamie and Cathy?
John: I’m playing another Jewish character…is that a good enough answer? Haha. I looked at my resume and this is the 6.5th Jewish character I’m playing (Whizzer in Falsettos at The Elden Street Players – was ½ Jewish). Does that mean I have to convert?
I don’t know, I think every role I’ve played becomes a building block for the next role and the next show. As an actor, we pick up various tools from each production and we carry them with us to fine tune future performances and move forward.
I must admit, though, RENT has been a hard to one to get over. I’ll never forget that experience and that brilliant cast, crew and Keegan family. Reunion show, please?
Carolyn: RENT was an amazing experience, and I would have to say it prepared me for the role of Cathy mostly by preparing me for the amount of work! I was the ensemble swing for RENT (I had to understudy the roles of all four female ensemble members). It involved the most out of rehearsal work I’ve ever had to do! And now playing this one single role has involved that amount of out of rehearsal work plus more. From marking out my beats and memorizing lines, to hauling my score, to voice lessons and plunking out notes on my keyboard – attempting the role of Cathy has taken a lot of time and hard work!
Joel: What do you want audiences to take away with them after seeing The Last Five Years?
John: I think the show points out that all relationships (friendships, family and significant others) take a lot of work, effort, attention and communication from both sides. I kind of hope the audience debates Cathy and Jamie’s relationship and whether they think it could have worked or not. Also, I hope they take sides because I plan to sell ‘Team Jamie’ and ‘Team Cathy’ t-shirts after the show, too. I kid, I kid.
Carolyn: I want audiences to leave with a sense of hope. I know it’s a lot to ask after watching an entire show about a failed marriage. But a good question to ask oneself after a show is “why did the story need to be told?” The Last Five Years needed to be told because Jamie and Cathy could have worked out. Again and again Jay, John, and I discovered moments where, if just one thing had gone differently, their relationship could have been saved (if Cathy had supported Jamie in his career more, if Jamie hadn’t given up on their relationship, if they had both taken responsibility for their mistakes and not blamed each other). People need to recognize that things could have worked out for Jamie and Cathy, and that if we can catch the same flaws in ourselves, we can have hope for the futures of our own relationships.
The Last Five Years plays in the Kreeger Auditorium at the Jewish Community Center in Rockville, MD April 9 – 24, 2010 (get tickets here) before moving to 1st Stage in Tyson’s Corner (McLean), Va where it will play May 7 – 23, 2010. (get tickets here ).
Watch Rich Massabny interview Limelight Theatre’s Producing Director Jan Stewart and 1st Stage’s costume designer Cheryl Patton Wu – on Arlington Weekly News (March 18, 2010) here: