Jason Robert Brown’s musical The Last Five Years never had a particularly long run in its off-Broadway productions, but it has proven immensely popular through the years. The story is simple: a young couple meets, marries, and divorces, but there’s a small twist that makes the show unique. The characters, Cathy and Jamie, each tell the story of their relationship in episodes. While Jamie’s go from start to finish, Cathy’s begin at the relationship’s demise and go back in time to their first meeting.
A movie adaptation of the musical was announced in early 2013, starring Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan; however, with the exception of releasing the poster, there was almost no news concerning the production. Few photos were released, no premiere date was announced, and I started to question whether the movie was still on track. Happily, the film premiered at the Toronto Film Festival this month and is scheduled for commercial release Valentine’s Day, 2015.
With the movie finally ready to be released, I have begun doing what every fan does when a book/TV show/play is announced for a film adaptation: wondering how the magic of the original will translate to the big screen. There are a lot of aspects of the musical which make it difficult for a film adaptation. With the exception of one scene, the two characters never dialogue; there isn’t really a narrative thread to the show, and the back and forth structure of the storytelling can be confusing.
On stage, there are only two actors in the entire production and each song is a solo. Even numbers in which the other character is clearly present only feature one side of the conversation. Sometimes the other actor would be present in the scene but remain silent. For the most part, however, the songs are performed to the audience. The only time the two interact is when their storytelling meets in the middle and they both get to the night of their engagement. This dramatic device really wouldn’t work on film and as we can see from this clip of Cathy’s song “I Can Do Better Than That”, it has been done away with in the movie:
This will definitely make the individual scenes work better on film, but there was something so effective about having the two interact for one bright and fleeting moment in the stage production that I hope they really nail the engagement scene so that it still packs the same punch.
The structure of the show is also very episodic. I would honestly classify it more as a song cycle than a musical because each song tells a different part of the story, but they don’t connect in any way. Even if the songs were put in chronological order they would still be individual events which require the audience to fill in what relates them to each other.
This narrative structure is the most unique aspect of the musical and the one which I was most skeptical of for the movie adaptation. Since the two performers never interact on stage, one could tell roughly where the scene took place in the timeline of the relationship based on who was singing. Since the two characters will be interacting in the film, however, it may be harder to tell whether a scene is occurring at the beginning or end of the relationship. I initially wondered if the movie would rearrange the songs in order to tell the story from beginning to end, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. I’ll be very interested to see how the distinctions are made between Cathy’s reverse narrative versus Jamie’s linear one.
The movie looks promising. The casting of the two leads is excellent, in my opinion. Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan are very talented and very likable on screen. Both are accomplished singers as well: Kendrick in Pitch Perfect and, of course, her hit song “Cups”, and Jordan in the midst of a successful Broadway career including West Side Story and Newsies. For a musical with only two significant characters, that casting is key, and these two should do a fantastic job. As for the structure of the film, writer/composer Jason Robert Brown seems happy with it, so until I can see for myself I am pleased with that report, especially considering he had similar concerns to mine. For more information on the movie, the official site is here.