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"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.

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