- OnStage New York Columnist
It was announced last week that a special one-night-only benefit concert of Jason Robert Brown's iconic two-person musical, The Last Five Years, would be presented on September 12th at Town Hall in NYC. The production will star recent Tony Award-winner Cynthia Erivo and Tony Award nominee Joshua Henry. Cut to thousands of musical theatre fanatics (myself included) clamoring to find out the nanosecond that tickets would go on sale online. But why? What is it about this show, fifteen years later, that still has people so eager to see any production that pops up? I even had a musical director friend of mine do the show in Japan to rapturous acclaim that totally sold out its run there. And why this newest concert with two of the hottest musical theatre stars today? Well the answer is simple, somewhat.
The Last Five Years tells a relatively simple story. It is a typical boy (Jaime) meets girl (Cathy) story, but told forwards and backwards and with a twist. Essentially, Jaime is an aspiring author who is rising to acclaim in the publishing world. Cathy is an actress trying to find her footing as an actress. What makes the story intensely fascinating, however, is that we begin the musical with Cathy's viewpoint at the end of their broken relationship (spoiler alert) and Jaime;s viewpoint at the beginning. It evokes a somewhat Merrily We Roll Along element of musical storytelling, for any Sondheim fanatics out there. But not quite. Remember, not just told backwards as in Merrily, but also forward. At the same time. Genius.
Reason number one for this concert: The Brady Center in Washington, D.C. All of the proceeds for the September 12th concert will be going to this organization whose mission it is to implement health and safety programs to reduce gun violence in our country. Given the senseless onslaught of gun violence recently in the last several months and years, the Brady Center is essential to putting an end to such tragic events and ensuring a future in this country of non-violence.
Reason number two for this concert: Cynthia Erivo and Joshua Henry. Why is this important? Theatre has always held a mirror up to society. Recently, there have been several discussions with the theatre community, especially in NYC, regarding ethnically diverse casting. While this conversation is by no means "new," just like the talks that are ongoing in this country regarding race, they are essential. The very nature of theatre is to make us all realize our universal humanity. Joe Papp, founder of the Public Theater, was a huge proponent of ethnically diverse casting. His philosophy was that if the material and talent is good, people will come. Just take a look at the most successful musical on Broadway right now: Hamilton. A completely diverse casting of African American and Latino American actors and actresses playing our founding fathers and mothers. The lesson again? The people will come. There has been one other instance in which the role of Cathy was played by an African American actress (Wendy Fox) at the African American-based Crossroads Theatre Company in New Brunswick, New Jersey in April of 2012. However, once again, the focus of this story is on a relationship. Race is not a factor. If anything, this version with Erivo and Henry will only enhance the story even more by viewing it through a new lens.
Reason number three: What really makes this story so appealing is its universality. Any person on the planet can relate to that feeling of sheer joy when falling in love. We can all identify with finding that one person that you believe you will settle down with and live a happy life (whatever one defines that as) in their companionship. What we can also identify with, unfortunately, is heartbreak. Like many relationships, Cathy and Jaime's is not perfect by any means. The cracks and chasms of their bond slowly reveal themselves and what is left is the bare bones of their relationship. Raw. The audience sees a bit of themselves in both Jaime and Cathy.
I will be attending the concert at Town Hall in September and I, like many others that night, am sure we will be treated to an evening that is nothing short of amazing. A true theatrical event that I'm sure will spawn more concerts, stagings and readings that continually make us rethink established works. I, for one, cannot wait to be a part of that.