Sunday, 23 September 2012

Me and Jason Robert Brown - The Last Five Years

Jason Robert Brown - composer and
and writer of The Last Five Years
I have never felt good enough for Jason Robert Brown, well his material anyway!  Perfect casting you may think for the insecure, struggling actress, Cathy, in The Last Five Years whose personal demons contribute to the downfall of her marriage to Jamie, as shown in Guildford Fringe’s production in October. 

As an actress you spend years learning your niche; I know I suit a Rogers and Hammerstein style musical and can get away wearing rags on a barricade whilst lyrically dying in the French revolution but playing a modern 20-something actress in a failing relationship?  Well that sounds far too close to home and for some bizarre reason I feel much more comfortable playing a Yellow Bad Idea Bear in Avenue Q.  See, we actresses are complex and downright daft sometimes!   The challenge of ‘The Last Five Years’ (L5Y) is to attempt complex music, emotions and have enough chutzpah about you to hold a stage; I always felt those roles were best left to better known performers like Julie Atherton or Hannah Waddingham, not little jobbing actresses like me.  But after conquering ‘Avenue Q’s Kate Monster, a role synonymous with Atherton in the UK, I thought it was about time I got a bit of self-belief!

Putting my personal insecurities aside, Jason Robert Brown does write challenging music for both performer and musician.  Audition pianists shoot eye daggers at you if you dare to bring any of his songs to sing and after The Guildford Fringe’s first sing through last week of L5Y I nearly requested oxygen and a stretcher to take me home after a knackering rendition of “Summer in Ohio!”

performed by The Guildford Fringe Company October 2nd - 6th 2012
Jason Robert Brown exploded into my consciousness when I was a drama student in the distant early naughties.  Like any student, drama students lap up new material, wanting to be at the cutting edge of knowledge in their beloved subject.  I had a dear friend and roommate, Rochelle, who hailed from the glamorous New York City and who, along with tales of serving Al Pachino as a waitress and buying bras with Bernadette Peters, introduced me to new musical theatre composers including Jason Robert Brown.  She enthused about his work and slowly songs from ‘Parade’ and ‘Songs for a New World’ crept into to our presentation classes, (singing a different song each week for critique, it was terrifying!)

We shunned Rogers and Hammerstein and Jerry Herman for ‘Taylor the Latte Boy’ and ‘John and Jen’ because we wanted to put our own stamp on something, not be the 3,603rd student to sing ‘Summertime.’  Little did we know that every other student across the country was doing the same thing, but then isn’t that is nearly always the case? Anything new is very quickly picked up and becomes a trend; just look at 50 Shades of Grey, although I won’t compare the writing talents of Jason Robert Brown to that inane idea of prose and fortunate result of an incredible but mis-placed marketing campaign.
Someone in Guildford said to me that there is ‘a type of person’ who would appreciate L5Y, and who would that be - that specific and rare breed of human who has been involved in a relationship with another person?  Because that is everyone at some stage of their lives.  I want to banish all these beliefs that certain musicals are just for ‘elite’ musical fans or a certain type of audience. 

photo by Anthony Illott
I will be so bold as to say that there will not be a person in our audience who hasn’t felt or said at least one of the lyrics that Nick Wyschna and I will attempt to convey in L5Y.   That is why Jason Robert Brown is so clever; he has made a universal topic specific to this one couple, because when ‘it’ happens to you, you do feel as if you are the only person in the world to feel such joy or pain.  So how can this musical be just for the musical-loving elite?  Yes, we all have different musical tastes; some preferring a well-known ballad to the intricate melodies of Sondheim that can be hard to follow, but listen to the lyrics of any song to connect to it. 

When plays and musicals tackle the fundamental elements of being a human they can appeal to us all, whether you are a musical snob or a fan of Dirty Dancing, because human nature doesn’t change.  The new advert for John Lewis has that exact sentiment “the things that really matter do not change” and that is one of the main reasons why Shakespeare’s plays persevere because we will all, forever, be plagued with jealousy, love, friendship, family differences and the need to belong.  I am not suggesting that Jason Robert Brown is the Shakespeare of musicals but he writes characters and stories that we can all relate to and that is why L5Y affected me so much at 20 and affects me more so at 31.  I couldn’t relate to “I’m Still Hurting” at 20 (although I thought I could) but a few relationships down the pan 11 years later and who needs Stanislavski!

I hope we do see lots of drama students in the audience eager to see this revered piece but also see the average theatre go-er who is eager, as always, to see the L5Y “hold as ‘twere  the mirror up to nature....”...that Shakespeare knew his stuff!

see our rehearsal vid -

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