Filichia Features: Reflections on The Last Five Years

Filichia Features: Reflections on The Last Five Years

Last week, we talked about I Do! I Do! – a sweet musical about a marriage that lasted 50 years.

But Michael and Agnes were married circa 1900 – more than 100 years ago. I Do! I Do! opened in 1966 – almost 50 years ago. Both of those eras saw plenty of real-life couples celebrating golden anniversaries.

For better or worse, for richer or poorer, the average marriage today (according to statistics) doesn’t make it to an 8th anniversary.

Certainly Jamie Wellerstein and Catherine Hiatt didn’t. The two, as shown in Jason Robert Brown’s musical, The Last Five Years, don’t last five years.

The best Jamie and Catherine could do was reach their fourth wedding anniversary. The irony is that the traditional gift for that anniversary is flowers – which are also seen at wakes and funerals.

All right, not for Mr. Wellerstein’s family. And that’s one of the first issues that Brown tackles in this 90-minute two-character mini-masterpiece. Jamie specifically mentions a dozen Jewish women he’s dated – as well as having “Shabbas dinners on Friday nights with ev’ry Shapiro in Washington Heights.” But now he’s in love with Catherine, a “Shiksa Goddess,” as his first song goes.

However, it’s not the first song of the musical. Before Wellerstein warbles a note, we hear from Catherine, who’s utterly miserable. “Jamie is over and Jamie is gone” is the first line of the show. Her song is called “Still Hurting.” What gives?

There have been so many musicals about relationships that Brown decided to structure his differently. So we first see Catherine at the END of her five years with Jamie – and we first see Jamie at the BEGINNING of his five years with Catherine. She keeps moving back in time while he keeps moving forward.

The timeline does allow them to play one scene together – their marriage scene – smack dab in the middle of the show. The metaphor is that they’re never ever otherwise in the same place in their lives.

To be sure, Michael and Agnes in have their ups and downs, too. But their issue is the boredom that creeps into a marriage at a petty pace from day to day. Michael, a successful novelist, meets a female admirer and ALMOST goes off with her. He and Agnes weather that storm (during the intermission!) and live happily ever after.

But Agnes, as was most often the case in the early part of the 20th century, was a housewife and mother. Catherine, however, is a 21st century woman who wants a career. Unfortunately, the one she wants is one of the hardest at which to succeed: acting. So we eventually hear Catherine singing about “A Summer in Ohio” in which she’s performing in stock “with a gay midget named Karl playing Tevye and Porgy.”

One of the most poignant moments in the musical occurs not in song, but in a phone call Catherine makes to her agent. She can tell that he doesn’t even want to take the call. He lets her know that he’s doing her a big favor in giving her even a few seconds of his time. Still, she plows on, asking if he’s read the Ohio reviews that she sent him. When he says he doesn’t remember getting them, she’s willing to send him a new set – which he discourages. The only concession he’ll give is seeing her in a show – if she can get cast in one in New York. But how can she if he isn’t sending her out on New York auditions? In short, he doesn’t believe in her.

Photos from The Last Five Years on MTIShowSpace.

Contrast this with the phone call we hear budding novelist Jamie make to his agent. She’s more than anxious to take his call because she’s read what he’s written and she’s mighty impressed. The agent insists that he call her by her first name, and asks him if he’s really on 23 years old. His novel is that good.

Indeed it is. As Catherine sings, “I saw your book at a Borders in Kentucky.” (See how quickly lyrics can date? Anyone interested in producing The Last Five Years could substitute the word “bookstore” for Borders.)

Would that Catherine’s problems could be solved as easily, As Jamie’s career skyrockets, hers never starts. What’s more, as Jamie sings in “A Miracle Would Happen,” “The minute you get married, every other woman in the world suddenly finds you attractive.” And while the issue of infidelity shows up here as it does in I Do! I Do! the real problem here is how a person who’s successful copes with one who isn’t – and vice versa.

In the last five weeks, I’ve attended two productions of The Last Five Years. Both were unlike any of the five I had attended before.

The one at the Women’s Theater Company in Parsippany, New Jersey purposely hired performers who were much older than Brown wrote Jamie and Catherine. That didn’t ultimately matter, for the feeling came across that here were two people who, later on in their lives, were ruminating on an earlier romantic history. And which of us has not done that?

So you don’t have two twenty-somethings in your company and still would like to do the show? Consider giving the roles to two of your older pros.

The production at Crossroads Theatre Company in New Brunswick, New Jersey – an African-American, Tony-winning theater -- cast a white Jamie and a black Catherine.

“Well,” said Wendy Fox, who played the latter role, “as I understand it, the work ‘shiksa’ simply means a non-Jewish girl.” She stopped to smile. “I qualify.”

Casting The Last Five Years is far more malleable than it appears at first glance. Just get your most talented male and most talented female – even if the former has had more success as Tevye and Porgy.

You may e-mail Peter at Check out his weekly column each Tuesday at and each Friday at His newest book, Broadway Musical MVPs, 1960-2010: The Most Valuable Players of the Past 50 Seasons, is now available through Applause Books and at