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The Last Five Years

The_Last_Five_Years_posterOK, musicals aren’t for everyone. But I daresay that Presbyterians have more interest in music than most. For one thing, our worship services encourage everyone to sing hymns. (And we just published a new denominational hymnal.) There are plenty of people in our surrounding culture who haven’t sung anything for years, much less every week. And for those of us who have sung in church choirs all our lives, well, the music of the anthems runs through our heads constantly, which isn’t a bad thing at all. It’s like a part of our spirits is always at song, like a soundtrack in the background of our consciousness. Yes, we’re the type of people who have more inherent interest in musicals than most moviegoers.

That said, there’s a lot to appreciate about “The Last Five Years,” especially for music lovers. The singing is practically nonstop. There’s only a little dialogue in between. It’s the complete history of a five-year relationship, from meeting each other to breakup, with the charming wedding in the middle. The uniqueness here is that it’s told from two perspectives, one going forward in the five years, the other going backwards.

So we begin with Cathy (Anna Kendrick) being enormously sad, and crying even while she’s singing “I’m Hurting,” because she’s just read the breakup note from Jamie (Jeremy Jordan). But we don’t stay on that morose theme for long. Immediately following is Jamie being ecstatic about meeting this wonderful girl named Cathy. And so, for the rest of the movie, we get the two points of view at crosscurrents: Cathy from the end toward the beginning, and Jamie from the beginning to the end.

“The Last Five Years” began life as an off-Broadway musical, written by the Tony-award-winning Jason Robert Brown. The orchestration, heavy on the violas and light on the percussion, is just beautiful and never interferes with the singers. Both Ms. Kendrick and Mr. Jordan have lovely, clear voices and are fine actors. This is always a delicate balance when casting a musical because oftentimes the best actors can’t sing a lick. But there’s not only sufficient talent from both main actors, there’s also a nice chemistry between them. They’re believable in all the stages, from quick, exultant infatuation to slow, painful estrangement. Of course it doesn’t help that his career as a writer took off like a rocket, and her career as an actress ran out of steam in a summer theater camp.  It’s difficult to overcome that kind of career tension in any relationship, much less when both careers depend rather exclusively on popular success and one is simply more successful than the other.

But of course there are other tensions: She has a tendency to immerse herself in paralyzing self-doubt, which he can deliver her from with soaring encouragement, but of course imparting that level of energy is a lot of work. For his part, his great success, natural charm and native good looks have combined to make him the target of many wanton women who are quite willing to throw themselves at him, ring or not. It’s hard for insecure Cathy to disappear in his big shadow, but then, her insistence on pursuing her own course means that she’s not around to protect her home turf.

Yes, we bounce around with many mood swings, which mostly holds the viewer’s interest despite watching what is, basically, a two-person musical play. No, musicals aren’t for everyone, and this particular one is more quirky than most. But its uniqueness lends it a certain charm that will enchant those of us who love all sorts of music, but especially the heartfelt kind.

RONALD P. SALFEN is the parish associate at Woodhaven Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.