The Last Five Years and Structural Suspense

So far during Spring Into Suspense, we've focused a lot on horror, thrillers, and crime dramas. Naturally, these are not the only genres that benefit from suspense. Even comedies can riff on the uncertainty of what will happen next, though the payoff is very different The stakes in suspense do not even have to be large or linear. Suspense can come from the events that define individual lives: love, loss, success, and failure.

In the intimate two-person musical The Last Five Years, you know how the story ends before it even begins. Cathy sits alone onstage and sings "Still Hurting" about the end of her marriage. Instead of lingering on Cathy's emotional state in the present, the show jumps to the beginning of the relationship as Jamie declares his love for "Shiksa Goddess" Cathy after their first meeting.

Suspense is created immediately as we don't know when the two characters will finally interact in a meaningful way with each other onstage. If she's going backward in time and he's going forward, they're bound to intersect on the same moment. What will it be? The characters can interact onstage, but the songs are all solo until their memories line up at the same time in the same place.

The Last Five YearsThe draw of The Last Five Years has always been the stunning music. Writer/composer Jason Robert Brown crafted a series of 13 songs that create evocative and relatable images. You might never have done summer stock theater in Ohio, but you've probably had a disappointing job before. You may have never landed a book deal, but you've probably had good news after falling in love. Brown creates a strong sense of believability through the score that turns the semi-autobiographical tale into something far more universal.

The Last Five Years is not a perfect show. It is incredibly difficult to stage. The focus on the individual characters in their individual moments at the expense of interaction demands two phenomenal actors and a keen eye for stagecraft to pull off. The two leads are terribly flawed characters, making it harder and harder to root for a happy ending whether it's in the past or the present. It's also a slight show, an experiment in form over function. The most beautiful music in the world cannot cover for a light narrative. Just ask the cast, crew, creative team, and producers of The Grass Harp on Broadway about that.

The Last Five Years RevivalAnd yet, if you allow yourself to be swayed by the unusual conceit for suspense, seeing The Last Five Years live and in person can be a thrilling experience. There is something beautiful and mesmerizing about this score performed by just the right cast. The honesty of the emotions can cover for a whole lot of flaws with something this beautiful.

The show will never appeal to everyone and critics will never be kind to it. The Off-Broadway revival happening right now confirms it. I fear for the inevitable critical drubbing of the feature film adaptation starring Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan because the screenplay calls for all of the songs to be sung just as they are onstage: alone and isolated from the relationship even if the other person is in the scene. It's the greatest strength and the greatest flaw of a show that hinges on not knowing when the two characters will finally meet in song.

Thoughts on The Last Five Years? Share them below.

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