Skip to main content

"See, I'm Smiling": THE LAST FIVE YEARS from stage to screen

Jeremy Jordan & Anna Kendrick, The Last Five Years

When I wrote my review of Into the Woods, I thought a lot about adapting stage shows to film – and whether or not the musical genre, in particular, is next-to-impossible to translate to the big screen. If something is written with the stage in mind, sometimes it can be hard to open it up on film – and sometimes opening it up breaks the fragile reality created on stage.

Stage plays can suffer the move from stage to screen because plays are often static – a couple of scene changes or a small number of fixed sets. August: Osage County presented a large ensemble family drama on one set, but the film insisted on opening things up – and an odd tonal shift. God of Carnage benefited from the claustrophobia of one set; a film in one location is anathema to the form, but then the tension of the story can be lost.

Musicals, by their very nature, are theatrical. Singing the story isn’t natural, but it’s no more odd on stage than minimalist sets or a curtain or seeing a show in the round. This is not to say musicals can’t work on film, but as musicals have evolved, they are playing more and more with stage conventions – making the translation to film much more difficult.

The film version of Into the Woods struggled with a massive change in tone from Act 1 to Act 2. The film eschews the act break, obviously, but into trying to streamline the two parts into one whole, the shift is jarring – it doesn’t feel like a new chapter, it feels like a sudden left turn. Even some of the humour that works so beautifully on stage seemed to be missing in the film – a lot of the time it just felt like a joke played on stage just wouldn’t work the same in close up on a giant screen.

Today I watched the film version of another of my favourite musicals, The Last Five Years. In most ways, it survives the move from the stage to cinema. In many ways, it elevates the material – making a very rich film, indeed. 

Like Into the Woods, I’ve seen three productions of The Last Five Years – though I missed the Off-Broadway revival, and all three versions I’ve seen have been from amateur theatre companies. Though with varying definitions of what constitutes amateur. Just quickly: one production had a great Jamie, one production had a great Cathy and one production had an awful director. If we take it as written that Jason Robert Brown’s book, lyrics and score are stunning – and they really are – the show obviously relies on the other three pieces for it to work.

The Last Five Years is the story of Jamie and Cathy – their five year relationship, from beginning to end. Cathy’s songs tell their relationship from end to beginning. Alternating between Cathy’s songs are Jamie’s, which tell their relationship from beginning to end. They meet at the middle, when Jamie proposes and the two get married.

The film doesn’t struggle with the theatrical conceit of dual timelines, nor does it try to explain it. It just is how it is. It took me a few times of listening to the original Off-Broadway score to really appreciate how well-structured the show is and how everything fits chronologically. And when you have time and the inclination to think about it, it works – but the film (and the best stage productions) knows that you don’t need to understand how it all fits together, to realise it’s just about how these two characters are going in different directions.

On stage, the two actors are rarely on stage together. In the film, they are often singing to each other. My fear was that where the stage show isolates the two characters, seeing them together might rob the story of its power. It’s almost the opposite; the way the scenes are staged, we still see how isolated the characters become to each other, even when they are in the same room. There are scenes where it’s even more powerful than the stage version, because we can see how Cathy and Jamie really aren’t listening to each other.

In looking at Into the Woods, I was struck by the fact the film had some very well-staged songs – and some that were awful. Many of them were pedestrian. They might have been well sung, but they didn’t necessarily feel like great moments of film. Into the Woods might have been opened up, but it doesn’t transcend its stage origins.

The Last Five Years feels like one coherent piece. There are a couple of songs where I think the staging gets in the way, but most of them are strong – and the use of film language by director Richard LaGravenese, elevates the whole piece. 

Where minimalism works on stage, the fact that the director puts the show solidly into reality is a bonus. Where Cathy writes letters from Ohio in the theatre, in the film, she and Jamie Skype. This is partly due to the change in time since the show was first produced in 2002. But obviously Skype is much more visual. (There are a couple important letters still in the film – one of which bookends the film, the other appears as a post-it note.)

A lot of film musicals seems to fetishise the singing, over making it visually interesting. The film version of Les Miserables took this to the extreme – live singing on set, extreme close-ups on mouths. LaGravenese knows that we can listen to the lyrics, without having to see the actors mouth it. While I think the song “Shiksa Goddess” is a little bit too over-cooked with visual flair, remembering that we are watching actors means that Jamie can interact with Cathy without being bound by the fact the next lyric is coming along.

This happens throughout the film. LaGravenese isn’t worried about the audience, he trusts them. In some ways, because we are seeing things happening, we don’t need to hear every lyric. It’s fun to hear Cathy think/sing “why is the director staring at his crotch” – and this is one of those times where it’s also funny to see it. But early in the film when Cathy sings about “sitting on this pier”, it seems oddly heavy-handed to actually have them sitting on the pier.

Some lyrics have been changed because the references are dated. Some have been changed just to excise a few uses of the word “fuck”. On stage, there is very little dialogue. On film, there’s still very little dialogue – but the additional dialogue fits with the piece and most times even enhances it. Perhaps allowing LaGravenese to script the film meant he could break it open in a way that composer and creator Jason Robert Brown might not have been able to; sometimes you’re too close to your original conception. And Brown directed the recent Off-Broadway revival, so I’m glad the film got fresh eyes that enhanced the piece.

I haven’t even talked about the actors yet. And where to begin? The thing about a two-hander stage show is that both characters need to be equally strong and both actors up to the challenge. And a match for each other. The thing about the story of The Last Five Years is that every time I see it or listen to the score, I appreciate different things about each character. If you wanted to particularly analyse whether Jamie or Cathy is most at fault of their relationship breakdown, I could give you a dozen reasons from both sides of the arguement. Sometimes I come away thinking Jamie is the problem. Sometimes I think it’s Cathy. Seeing it on stage, your perception could change every night. Film seems like it might be a bit more fixed.

I’ve only watched the film once so far, but I cannot imagine a more perfect match than Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan. I went in expecting that Kendrick would be adorable and Jordan would be a bit jerky – because those are the parts I have seen them play so well before. I was worried that I would automatically side with Cathy over Jamie. And while who is at fault isn’t actually the point of the story, it’s part of what makes the show so rich. Sometimes you sympathise with him more than her. Or her over him.

A lot of people will talk about Kendrick claiming the mantle she has been working toward her entire career. And they aren’t wrong. She gives a layered performance in Cathy that is quite stunning. Sure, she relies on her charm and cheeriness in a few scenes, but there are dramatic depths here that I never expected to see. Not that I didn’t expect her to be a great Cathy, but she found moments that I had never seen in the character before. It may not be surprising that Kendrick shone, but it is surprising that she has made Cathy her own. This is a performance for the ages.

But the whole thing cannot hold together without an equally stunning performance from Jordan. If Kendrick claims a mantle she’s been striving toward, Jordan strides in and takes the seat alongside her. Not that he does it effortlessly. Not that the jerky self-confidence he’s shown in other roles allows him to slide easily into the role of Jamie. The character is I think harder to pin down; he shifts all over the place. Jordan does everything he’s supposed to and then does more. He’s a revelation, particularly with the song “Nobody Needs to Know” – it’s devastating.

I could probably break down this film from scene to scene, moment to moment and talk about all the choices they made – the director and his two stars. I could talk about costumes and sets. I could talk about musical orchestration and sound design. (Seriously, one of the great moments is when Cathy snaps her compact shut, just before one audition – another moment where the sounds of reality creep in, where in lesser hands we would have only focused on the song she was singing and the music underneath.)

Here’s the thing – if there’s a particularly high degree of difficulty in moving a stage musical to film, that’s probably more likely to happen with a two-act blockbuster than it is a two-hand, one-act chamber piece. The Last Five Years has all the songs from the stage show and it still runs only 90 minutes. There’s no “unnatural” break to fix or forget. There are two characters and their two stories and five years of their lives.

If Jamie is “Moving Too Fast” and Cathy is “Climbing Up Hill,” the film is neither - effortlessly bringing us into their world.

If Into the Woods was not good and not bad, but just nice, The Last Five Years broke my heart but kept me happy. See, I’m smiling.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Careful the things you say... Joe Wright’s HANNA & the combination of genres

Once upon a time... I tried to write a film script that melded noir and Grimm’s fairytales, where the femme fatale , clad in a slinky red dress, was also (in a way) Little Red Riding Hood. Where the lover of a hit man discovered his true identity from something hidden under his mattress. Evil (step)mothers, adopted children, hunters, princesses and family fortunes. Noir and fairytales have a lot in common and yet... I had real trouble finding the right tone for the piece. And, in the end, my script read too much like I was trying to get the concept to work, rather than telling a compelling story. Saoirse Ronan as Hanna Joe Wright’s film HANNA , screenplay by Seth Lockhead and David Farr, finds the perfect balance between a high tension thriller and a fairytale coming-of-age story. And travels further into the story of this mysterious girl than the trailer suggests. Going in, I was worried this might be too close to Leon or La Femme Nikita – the original films of which I t

REVIEW: And Then She Became A Chair by Michelle Myers

  Michelle Myers in And Then She Became A Chair A woman emerges from the darkness, head covered, moving slowly, weighted bags are attached to her dress and drag along the ground behind her. She is in a waiting room. A doctor’s office. A hospice. Inside a commercial begging her to start a new life in Queensland. This is purgatory. Michelle Myer’s one-woman performance, And Then She Became A Chair , is an unsettling, confronting and poetic study in grief. We watch as a woman deals with the inevitable death of her mother, remembering absurd moments of her life, of their lives, in the years, weeks and days leading up to… C.S. Lewis wrote in A Grief Observed , a reflection on the passing of his wife, “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.” And it’s this observation that Michelle explores in this work – grief being the fear of loss, the fear of the unknown and the fear of what comes next. It’s interesting that the first work of theatre I have seen this year is focused so mu

You are far away: Agent Cooper and his troubling return to Twin Peaks

“What year is this?” Dale Cooper asks in the final scene of Twin Peaks: The Return , the last of many unanswered questions left as the 18-part feature film concluded a week ago. It’s far from the first time we’ve seen someone who looks like Dale Cooper lost for answers over recent months. But it might be the first time we have definitive proof that he’s in over his head. Mr C, Dale Cooper’s doppelganger, who was first seen in the original series’ finale back in 1991, returned to the town of Twin Peaks with a goal in mind. Mr C was flexible, though. He had to be; he’d set so many things in motion over twenty-five years, if he’d remained fixated, he would never have come as far as he did. Dougie, Dale Cooper’s tulpa – created by and from Mr C, wandered aimlessly through life, but slowly made every life he touched better. Plans change and Dougie changed with them. Slowly but surely, Dougie pieced together Cooper’s past life and became richer for it. Agent Cooper, th

Earth’s Mightiest Heroes: THE AVENGERS assemble on the big screen

I like superheroes. I grew up with reruns of the 1960s Batman TV series. The Superman films were released when I was really young. The Amazing Spider-Man , Wonder Woman and The Incredible Hulk were nighttime TV shows. And one of the defining motion picture releases of my teenage years was Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989. I was never a big comic book reader as a kid – I’ve probably read more comic books, uh, graphic novels in the last ten years than any time before that. But superheroes were always very cool. And Burton’s Batman took my favourite superhero very seriously. Well, until Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins appeared – taking it ultra-seriously and much darker than I’d ever hoped for. As a non-comic reader, I find it hard to align myself as a DC ( Batman , Superman , Wonder Woman ) or Marvel Universe ( Spider-Man , X-Men , The Avengers and its consitutent parts) person. They appeal to different parts of my brain. In effect, DC’s superheroes are often lone warrior

Seeing It Again Through New Eyes: Watching Reaction Videos on YouTube

SesskaSays reacts to the Eleventh Doctor's departure on Doctor Who One of the things I’ve missed during lockdown is watching television with other people. I have some close friends that would regularly get together to watch shows, so we could talk through whatever the hell happened on Westworld or unpack everything we feel watching June suffer over and over again on The Handmaid’s Tale . I’m used to watching television alone, too, but there’s nothing quite like having a helping hand or a shoulder to cry on. One of the reasons or excuses I have for watching Twin Peaks countless times is that, over the years, I have introduced a lot of people to the show. I re-watch it because I love it, but I also sit there waiting for their reactions. To the end of season one or the reveal of who killed Laura Palmer. Or the season two finale. And, more recently, to see how they process Part 8 of Twin Peaks: The Return . Back in 2013, after the Game of Thrones episode “The Rains of Castamere”

Carrie Fisher: No More Postcards

Two Princess Leias, a medal and some broken jewellry Did I ever tell you about the time Carrie Fisher kissed me on the cheek? Stick around, I’ll tell it again soon. Carrie Fisher was Princess Leia; no getting past that. Except, of course, she did. And then she stepped right back into being her last year. She was the right person to play Leia because she was the right age at the time and she is part of Hollywood royalty. She was also the right person to have been Leia in retrospect, too. Can you imagine anyone else describing Jabba the Hutt as a “giant saliva testicle”? Anyone else who would bring an audience member up on stage to mount a Leia “sex doll” and whip it away before they get close enough to fulfil their childhood fantasy? Actors, even those of Star Wars­­­ -level fame, go in and out of the spotlight. Oh, you could spot Fisher on screen in the 1980s and 90s, but much of her hard work went on behind the scenes, as a script writer and script doctor. Hook , Sist

Colder by Lachlan Philpott - Red Stitch

Colder Photo: Teresa Noble I’m there. I’m sitting there in the dark. Sitting there in the dark watching a play by Lachlan Philpott at Red Stitch. A child has gone missing at Disneyland but nothing evokes Disneyland for me, not even the actors wearing mouse ears. Especially not the actors wearing mouse ears and affecting exaggerated American accents. I want to feel what the mother is feeling, while officious behind-the-scenes Disney workers assure her everything is going to be fine. I want a sense of her being frantic and frustrated. But I don’t get this sense because the language of the play is putting me at a distance. The expository monologues don’t paint a picture or flesh out a world beyond the very basic (“padded concrete, padded seats”) and the facile (“padded people”). This choral arrangement of voices is not singing. Eight-year-old David remains missing all day and we learn that his single mother has felt separate from him ever since. We ar

Walking out... I couldn't do it, could you?

Every so often, I think about walking out of a play, but I can't. I've never done it and I don't think I ever could. I've never walked out of a film, either. It's not in my nature. In the end, I'd rather suffer through the entire thing so I can criticise the entire play, rather than leave halfway and never know if it got any better or any worse. This has come to mind now, not because I wanted to walk out of Terence Malick's big budget experimental film The Tree of Life , but because apparently walk outs are becoming a phenomenon with that particular movie. And in a packed theatre at Cinema Nova last night, the walk outs were notable by their absense when the lights came up at the end. It certainly won't be to everyone's taste. It's very much an impressionistic film that explores grand ideas through mood and beauty, rather than telling a coherent narrative. But, even those moments in the film that were the most challenging on a "need for

REVIEW: SLUT by Patricia Cornelius

Laura Jane Turner in SLUT  by Patricia Cornelius A man is dead, we’re told. A good man. A man with a job. Not a drunk. Not homeless. He’s a hero really. Just wanted to help Lolita and now he’s dead. We’re told this story – this anecdote – by a trio of young women, friends of Lolita, who have known her from a very young age. In fact, there’s some question about who knew her better and who knew her the longest. Because the better they knew Lolita, the better they might understand her. And the more they understand her, the more righteously they can pass judgement. Lolita was a carefree child. Used to love riding a bike. Ride it fast. Feel the ache in her legs and sweat on her face. All she had to worry about was staying on the bike and enjoying her lovely, lovely life. She stopped riding bikes when she was nine-years-old. Her friends tell us that everything changed for Lolita when she turned eight and grew breasts. Huge ones. When she was eight years old. A child with

Streaming/Theatre: Thoughts and feelings on missing an art form

Gillian Anderson in A Streetcar Named Desire at the Young Vic in 2016 I miss theatre. I miss a lot of things but theatre was a weekly fixture in my life. I write plays and I review plays and even if I wasn’t reviewing, watching theatre was always an opportunity to learn more about how theatre worked. And to be entertained. The experience of theatre is ephemeral. A play changes every night. It’s living and breathing. And once it’s gone, it’s gone. And then it turned out the existence of theatre is ephemeral, too. And within a week in March, my thoughts turned from “should I be sitting in a large audience” to “wow, theatres are all closed, I wonder how long this will last”. At the start of the pandemic, I made a pretty conscious decision that I would take time away from playwriting. The world had changed so suddenly and so had my daily life and trying to find the passion and energy for creativity seemed like too much of an extra burden. Fuck all this talk of S