One of the worst things about Disney’s recent screen adaptation of Into the Woods is how it mangles a perfectly good Stephen Sondheim score. In the movie’s overblown orchestrations, too many instruments serve to reinforce the vocal melodies, drowning out Sondheim’s brilliant use of counterpoint and dissonance—much as Rob Marshall’s grandstanding direction papers over the unsettling narrative themes. By contrast, the movie version of The Last Five Years, Jason Robert Brown’s popular stage musical (which debuted at Northlight Theatre in 2001), derives much of its emotional force by preserving Brown’s minimal arrangements. Writer-director Richard LaGravenese expands upon the source material in other ways (chiefly by visualizing scenes that the characters can only describe onstage), but still he invokes the intimacy of a live production by keeping the music relatively unadorned. It’s a good thing he does, since Five Years is effectively a chamber drama.
Like the Harold Pinter play Betrayal, Five Years uses a nonchronological structure to analyze the breakdown of a marriage. Jamie (Jeremy Jordan) is an up-and-coming novelist; Cathy (Anna Kendrick) is an aspiring musical theater actress. They fall madly in love and get married, but the relationship crumbles as his career eclipses hers. The characters take turns narrating, but whereas Jamie tells the story from beginning to end, Cathy starts at the end and works backwards, and the friction between the two narratives complicates our feelings about both characters. At the start of the show, when Cathy laments the end of the marriage, she seems sensitive and grounded, while he seems callous and impulsive. But Jamie’s chronological story reveals both his determination and his difficulty in handling his overnight success; Cathy’s achronological journey from jaded bit player to idealistic novice indicates that she was never as certain about her goals as he was and that she’s prone to sabotaging herself.
Brown reportedly based the show on his own failed marriage, but Five Years seldom feels like navel-gazing. Its concerns go beyond the romantic frustrations of young creative types (a subject beaten into the ground by independent film and theater over the past decade) to consider how people’s attitudes towards work and love are shaped by their class and religion. Cathy and Jamie were drawn to one another partly because each came from a homogeneous environment and found the other exotic: she’s from a lower-middle-class WASP suburb in New Jersey, he’s from an upper-middle-class, largely Jewish suburb of New York City. (Jamie addresses their differences in one of his first numbers, the unsubtle, borderline embarrassing “Shiksa Goddess.”) Yet both partners grow more tired of the relationship the more comfortable they become in multicultural Manhattan. Kendrick and Jordan seem too squeaky-clean to convey the full weight of the characters’ psychological baggage, yet LaGravenese’s balanced, unpretentious direction allows the material to resonate all the same.