Even if you’ve only a passing interest in musical theater, you’re likely aware of the devoted cult following that’s surrounded The Last Five Years since the show was first produced in 2001. Told entirely through songs, composer-lyricist Jason Robert Brown deconstructs a love affair and marriage between Jamie (Jeremy Jordan), a rising novelist, and Cathy (Anna Kendrick), a struggling actress, over the course of a half-decade. In a clever storytelling device, Cathy’s songs begin at the end of their marriage and move backwards in time to the beginning of their love affair, while Jamie’s unfold in the opposite direction and the couple meets in the middle when Jamie proposes.
Director-writer Richard LaGravenese, the acclaimed screenwriter of The Fisher King, The Bridges of Madison County and Behind the Candelabra and director of the woefully under-appreciated comedy Living Out Loud, fell in love with the show’s score when he first heard it. His new film adaptation of the passionately-adored show is a delicate, intimate song-filled antidote to the recent lavishly-produced big screen musicals such as Into the Woods and Annie and is now playing in select theaters and is available on demand. LaGravenese chatted with Queerty about making the musical, his talented young cast and working with legendary entertainer Barbra Streisand on her forthcoming adaptation of Gypsy.
I’m a big musical theater fan, but I’d never gotten to see the show. I kept hearing the buzz about it and about Jason. My friend Todd Graff, who directed the movie Camp that Anna is in, gave me the soundtrack. I just fell in love with the score. It was so honest and so emotional. You know how sometimes you get a CD and you just can’t stop listening to it? It would make me You get the chills because it’s hitting something in you. I remember “Nobody Needs to Know” being a song that I played over and over and the lyrics just killed me. A year later everyday my new favorite song would be “A Summer in Ohio” or “If I Didn’t Believe in You.” I just fell in love with the score and as I listened to it, I kept imagining it. It became an obsession.
Why do you think the show has developed such a passionate following?
It’s the great work of Jason Robert Brown. He’s one of our best composer-lyricists. I think it’s due to his pure talent.
In the stage show all the songs are monologues and sung to the audience, not to each other. In the middle is the only time they sing together because of the proposal. It’s two time periods, one’s going backwards and one’s going forward. The biggest difference is I imagined it being sung this way. It added a whole new dimension to the material and to this exploration of love and how people sing different songs to each other. When you’re singing it solo you get his point of view completely. But when you put her in it you get her reaction, which adds a whole other layer to it. That’s the biggest difference and just populating it with other people and little bits of dialogue here and there. It’s very minimal. It’s all the show.
Both of those skills are incredibly important. Anna was my first choice and she wanted to do it because she loves Robert Jason Brown’s work. We were lucky enough to have her attach herself to this before Pitch Perfect came out. I wanted her because of Camp so this was a lucky break. She loved the script and the score so she said yes. Casting Jamie required more of an auditioning process. There were many actors who you’d never think of wanting to do a musical who knew this score and sent me auditions from hotel rooms. The deal was I needed good actors who could sing and I would pick who I was interested in and they would have to sing for Jason.
Besides being so talented, Jeremy is incredibly charismatic. How did you decide he was right for Jamie?
I knew Jeremy as a tremendous singer. I’d seen him in Joyful Noise and a few episodes of Smash, but it was really in the room when he came to audition that I got the potential of what he could do. I had him sing “If I Didn’t Believe in You” over and over and act that song. Vocally, I knew he could do anything. That’s why I cast him.
Looking over your filmography I noticed a theme in several of your other movies, including The Bridges of Madison County, Living Out Loud and maybe even Behind the Candelabra, of how a great love affair didn’t work out but left a lasting impact on the people involved. Is this something you’re drawn to and seek out in material?
I don’t know if it’s a theme I seek out, but I’m starting to realize it’s something I believe. We put a lot of pressure on love. This poor thing has to last forever and it has to look like this and feel like this. I don’t know that that’s what love is. I think we’re here to evolve on our individual journeys. Sometimes you have to fall in love with people to grow. it doesn’t mean you have to stay with them and that it’ll last forever. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t meant that it was something that was regretful or lost. It was a necessary thing for our evolution as people. Sometimes if you’re lucky and you find someone to evolve with, that’s great. I’ve always been a loner even though I’ve been married a long time and I don’t really believe in romantic love as something that will last. It’s a wonderful thing that happens. I think I do all of these things because I don’t really know what love is and it fascinates me. I wonder how can you feel so unbelievable strong about someone that you’ll do irrational things and then it fades. I keep thinking of that line from Annie Hall when Woody Allen wonders why love stopped. An old woman says “love fades.” It’s a profound line.
I know I speak for a lot of musical buffs by saying I couldn’t be more excited that you’re working on the screenplay of Gypsy for Barbra Streisand. What’s the current status of this project?
I finished it before Christmas. Barbra and I worked on it from September through the fall. I had the best time with her. I can’t even tell you. It was like a fantasy come true. I did my first draft and went to her house to do rewrites. She’s so meticulous in the best possible way. We went through it page by page by page. I played Herbie and she played Rose. I’d play Louise and she’d play Rose. We laughed and had the best time together. I hope it gets made because having her sing that score and play that part would be the penultimate moment for those of us who love that musical. She’s just extraordinary to work with. She cares so much. She’s so passionate about it. She’s so smart. We had such a great time.
I hope it gets made, too, because it will be a religious experience for her fans and in some ways it could be considered a bookend to her film debut in Funny Girl.
The script is at the studio. Joel Silver is a very tenacious producer. I hear that he’s going to make sure this happens.
Any chance that either you or she will direct it?
I can’t answer that.
There’s been some concern that Barbra is in her early 70s and will be playing the mother of a very young girl in the early scenes of the film. How does your script address this?
I think it’s more about her singing that score. She’s an actress and it’s a movie. When Sarah Bernhardt was in her 70s she was performing younger roles. It doesn’t matter to me. She looks fantastic, first of all. I’m not going to be watching the movie doing math. I just want to hear her do that part. I know she can do it. For those who are going to have that problem, nothing we do is going to help that. They’re going to be out to comment on that. I’d rather have her play the part and sing that score and fuck the rest of it.
You first worked with her nearly 20 years ago on the last film she directed, The Mirror Has Two Faces. How has your relationship evolved since then?
It’s really comfortable. Because of Behind the Candelabra, she called me last winter about another project. It wasn’t about Gypsy initially. Suddenly we’re just two Brooklyn people talking to each other about one thing and then another thing and then 45 minutes later we’ve talked about a million things. Out of that, she sent me Gypsy to read and it just evolved into wanting to do a rewrite on it, which was primarily about putting Arthur Laurents’ book back into it, because it’s the best fucking book of any musical. [Laughs] And then expanding and doing things I’ve always wanted to do in terms of character for Louise and the relationship between June and Louise. It’s a tough show to make cinematic. “Some People” is a very tough song to make cinematic. It’s a dynamic song, but it takes place in a kitchen. So how do you film that? It’s the toughest number in the show. All of those things we worked on were really fun.
Watch the trailer for The Last Five Years below.