Jeremy Jordan and Anna Kendrick in The Last Five Years.
Jeremy Jordan and Anna Kendrick in The Last Five Years.
Let's get weepy, people. Seriously, seriously weepy. And ... I mean, spoiler alert, obviously. But this show and movie sort of spoils itself structurally, so.
The Last Five Years, from composer and playwright Jason Robert Brown, began as a stage musical in 2001 in Chicago, then opened as an Off-Broadway production in 2002. Earlier this year, it was released as a film starring Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan, and for the purposes of this piece, we're going to use that production as the point of reference, both because that's how I first got to know the show (though I've listened since to the cast album) and because it's the easily accessible version for those of you who think, "It's been too long since I sobbed uncontrollably into a dishtowel because mere tissues were no match for this story of love found and lost."
The film is out on DVD and it's streaming on various video on demand providers, and because it's almost devoid of dialogue and made up only of a series of songs, you can always listen to the music if you prefer your turmoil to go into your ear holes only.
The plot is this: Jamie is an aspiring novelist and Cathy is an aspiring stage actress. They meet, they fall in love, they get married, he becomes hugely successful, she doesn't, they drift, he cheats, and they break up. The way the show is structured, they alternate songs, with hers going backwards in time from the end of the relationship to the beginning and his going beginning to end. They cross in the middle at their wedding. It's really sad. I mean, at times it's also exuberant and joyful, but at its soul, it's really sad.
Here, then, are the 14 songs on the film soundtrack, in reverse order of sadness, with the least devastating at the beginning and the most devastating at the end, because what is this about if not building the devastation?
14. "Shiksa Goddess."
When It Happens: You do not have to use your most Sherlockian detective skills to figure out from the title that this song is set early in the relationship and involves Jamie joyfully celebrating the chance to date a girl who isn't Jewish.
How Sad It Is: While that sounds like (and is) a weird premise, the actual function of the song is to demonstrate three things. First is that Jamie feels like at first sight, she might be too hot for him, which isn't all that plausible when it comes to Jeremy Jordan, but whatever, welcome to Hollywood. Second, because one thread that runs through the show is the way things that seem wonderful about a person at the beginning of a relationship can seem monstrous later, this is the song where Jamie flatly states that any quality she has is fine with him ("If you drove an RV, that wouldn't matter/if you liked to drink blood, I'd think it's cute"). This song is fevered, but it's not really sad. I do not cry.
13. "The Schmuel Song."
When It Happens: When things are still pretty good between them, but before they're married, when Jamie's book is already getting attention but Cathy is working in a bar and not doing much with her acting, as a result of which she's kind of pouting around. (Remember: in the movie. In the show, you don't necessarily see what she's doing.) It's essentially an extended pep talk, sung by Jamie, in the form of a story about a tailor.
How Sad It Is: Weeeeeeell, this song is mostly sad because you already know when you hear it that he will eventually leave her, and here is where you see him at his most devoted and impassioned, nudging her to have a little self-confidence and maybe a little less self-pity, not that he would say that at this point. It contains perhaps my favorite of Brown's little surprising, simple-but-gorgeous melodic baubles on the phrase about a woman ending up with a man described as one "who only one day before had knocked on her kitchen door." People who do their crying at the movie are often, I find, more sympathetic to Cathy than Jamie, while that's a bit less true with people who work with the stage show or its cast album. But this is where I think you can see that his love for her is genuine (and doomed) and he's capable of going to a lot of effort on her behalf (in vain). Not too sobby.
12. "A Summer In Ohio."
When It Happens: Right after they're married, Cathy spends a summer doing theater in Ohio, where she's in a variety of productions (the film version has a ton of fun with Kendrick's costumes in this sequence). She playfully, lovingly, lustfully addresses Jamie on Skype in the film and by letter in the show.
How Sad It Is: This number is so upbeat and so happy that you don't even have time to think about the fact that back at home, he's already finding it difficult not to stare at other women (we'll get to it). What you get is her funny storytelling about her roommates ("a summer in Ohio where I'm sharing a room with a former stripper and her snake — Wayne"). But my favorite stretch involves her recounting a visit to Target (it's Borders in the show, but, erm) where she sees Jamie's book and not only stares at his picture, but buys the book. Kendrick sells the heck out of this very Sutton-Fostery confection, and if the last one showed that Jamie really loved her, the story about the book demonstrates that if she ever grows to resent his career, she didn't always — she was proud of him. [Special note: This is my favorite one to sing in the car.]
But, one of the things that eventually becomes so sad about this show is seeing people joyfully singing the same sentiments that you know will bite them down the line. There's a moment here when, late in the song, Cathy sings, "I tell the stars each night, 'Look at me, look at him — son of a bitch, I guess I'm doing something right," and then adds, "I finally got something right." Hrmph. That is perhaps not the way you want to think about being married, pumpkin. Let me give you a hug. Slight choking up here.
11. "Moving Too Fast."
When It Happens: This is Jamie's song about the first flush of success in his career, just as he and Cathy are getting ready to move in together.
How Sad It Is: Stylistically, this is one of those songs that shows up early in a musical about the beginning of a journey — it's pretty much "We're Off To See The Wizard" or, of course, "Ease On Down The Road." It sounds like it could come from any of a whole group of rock-ish musicals from the '90s and the oughts, with all the sometimes questionable uses of electric guitar that implies.
But as with most of the songs set early in this relationship, it is studded with lines that hint at embryonic versions of problems to come ("I found a woman I love/and I found an agent who loves me," say what, there, dudebro?). And perhaps most unsettling, you hear this song in the show not long after "Still Hurting," the incredibly sad opener Cathy sings when the relationship is over, and it borrows that melody, appropriating it for a bridge about ambition and musically whispering in your ear that all that is sad is also happy and all that is happy is also sad, which is what they're going to tell you with increasingly overwhelming gobs of feeling for about 12 more songs.
10. "A Miracle Would Happen"/"When You Come Home To Me."
When It Happens: Hey, remember how Cathy is loving being married and Jamie is having issues with monogamy? This is that song. In the movie, they surround him with dudes in a bar to whom he is making this lament that he wishes other women would please stop existing so he isn't tempted by them, which I would argue makes it seem much worse. When I just listen to the music, I imagine it as confessional.
How Sad It Is: It's sad because it's the beginning of a slide into cheating that's eventually going to make him really, really unhappy as well as the first time you see how completely disoriented he is by fame, which is also going to be a problem. All the sadness is in the foreshadowing. And he's interrupted part of the way through by the sound of Cathy off on an audition, singing a sweet little tune about waiting to see her beloved again. One of the great things about this show is its variety of little songs — rock-flavored wannabe jams, old-fashioned show tunes, pop-flavored twinkles. But this is the place in the relationship where it's cracking, and where they're not really talking about why and how it's cracking, which perhaps is the more ominous issue. "When finally you come hooooome to meeeee." Sniffle.
9. "Nobody Needs To Know."
When It Happens: This is the song Jamie sings about the fact that he's cheating on his wife, right before he decides to leave.
How Sad It Is: It's overtly a very sad song about how terrible he feels and how terrible he has felt, but musically, it leaves me weirdly cold. It confesses to self-sabotage ("We build a treehouse, I keep it from shaking/little more glue every time that it breaks/perfectly balanced, and then I start making the conscious, deliberate mistakes"), though, and it contains some interesting information about how much he resents Cathy's overwhelming need for absolute emotional availability ("All that I ask for is one little corner/one private room at the back of my heart/tell her I found one, she sends out battalions to claim it and blow it apart"). More than anything else in the show, it probably gets at what's really driving his alienation from the marriage: she's a "we'll be one person!" person, and he's an "I still need to be a separate person" person. And, of course, he's addressing that fact in a not-so-great way. Jerk. Snorfle.
8. "Climbing Uphill."
When It Happens: Before they're married, perhaps just before "The Schmuel Song" in the chronology, Cathy sings this song about the experience of auditioning over and over again unsuccessfully.
How Sad It Is: If the internet were into The Last Five Years the way it was into True Detective, there would be a billion comment threads about the decision to change the opening lyric "I'm climbing uphill, daddy" to "I'm climbing uphill, Jamie." This is a fairly momentous change, in all honesty, as it changes what I read as the show's implication that Cathy is opening up to her parents instead of her husband about her frustrations (which feeds into a sort of sense that she's a bit ... needy and not fully grown up) into an implication in the film that she's being very open with Jamie about how she feels — which he will later claim she doesn't do. There are a few strong thumbs on the scale of the movie that seem to me designed to build sympathy for her at his expense, and this is one of them.
With that said, my biggest laugh in the movie comes in a segment of the song where Cathy is singing her internal monologue over her audition song (it's shortly after "Why is the director staring at his crotch?/Why is that man staring at my resume? Don't stare at my resume, I made up half of my resume/Look at me, stop looking at that, look at me/no, not at my shoes, don't look at my shoes, I hate these stupid shoes"). It's a little joke that's about Linda Blair in the show and a different celebrity in the movie.
You get a lot of Cathy's battle here — with self-doubt, with self-pity, with resentment — there's a mention of needing to get out of the house while Jamie is writing, in which she sarcastically refers to herself as "obviously such a horrible annoying distraction to him" and asks, "What's he gonna be like when we have kids?" She will marry him anyway, of course. Single tear.
7. "The Next Ten Minutes."
When it happens: This is the proposal and wedding, where they sing together, crossing over as she moves backwards in time and he moves forward.
How Sad It Is: Well, let's get sad for a moment, shall we? This is where this film indulges one of its most poignant conceits, which is that relationships often find people in very different places, looking for the fleeting moments in which they can get into the same emotional space. They are floating past each other, stopping just long enough to get married — and they are not the only ones to ever do essentially that very thing. They floated up, they will float away, but in the middle, they are so close to being in the same place, so close. "I want to be your wife/I want to bear your child," she sings, then says, "I want to die knowing I had a long, full life in your arms." Everybody means well. Everybody thinks it's going to stick. They want to be together, as they promise each other, "Till there's no one left who has ever known us apart." Gimme that hanky.
6. "See I'm Smiling."
When It Happens: This is their last fight; it is Cathy narrating the last thing that happens before he leaves her.
How Sad It Is: First of all, you have to deduct five points from this song's score on any scale for including an unironic use of the phrase "to and fro." I mean.
But as a song, it begins cheerfully as Cathy talks about being glad that he's come to visit her in Ohio, chattering on about how things are going to be all right now, until she finds out that he has to go back to New York that same night for a book party, at which point she blows up. In addition to the fact that this is just generally sad in that their relationship is degenerating at a rapid rate, you get a smidge here of the fact that her approach is to paper things over as quickly as possible while she seethes with rage inside — rage that's about a millimeter beneath the surface, ready to pop out like a dragon out of a cave the minute he tells her he's leaving. And she may be right that at this point, he prefers his friends and his life in New York to hanging out in Ohio seeing her perform.
A lot of these songs have buried in them little Easter eggs of devastation that emerge with a certain sense of ... well, whatever the anguished version of whimsy is. Pay attention here to the anger with which she accuses him of leaving because he's unable to "spend a single day that's not about you, you, and nothing but you, miles and piles of you." You'll want to hang on to that and cry more about it later.
5. "I'm A Part Of That."
When It Happens: When they're married, as he's becoming famous, as she's feeling left behind. In the movie, they set this at a party where she feels ignored as people flit around him.
How Sad It Is: Well, this is another one of the time bomb songs, where it might seem lovely and warm if you didn't know they were going down. She's singing about the intoxication of being around creative people, really, which is certainly a very real thing. But her soaring love song finds her romanticizing her sense of being fenced in by how much she loves him: "He smiles, and where else can I go?" "He smiles, and nothing else makes sense." These are not necessarily great things, but boy, they sound good when you're in your early twenties and you're really in love. [Wait, this is my favorite one to sing in the car.]
4. "I Can Do Better Than That."
When It Happens: This is Cathy singing about the very beginning of the relationship, inviting him to move in with her just as she takes him to meet her parents.
How Sad It Is: This high placement will be a controversial choice; not everybody finds this song to be as sad as I do. But for me, this upbeat number is where Cathy is laying out her weird ideas about relationships — she's very dismissive, as many musical theater characters are, of people who live boring, regular lives. She wants more for herself, sort of like Pippin does when he almost sets himself on fire just so he won't be ordinary. It's a perfectly expected way for her to feel, and she's incredibly excited about it, and it's going to make her life worse.
And this is why you remembered her angrily spitting out that line about "miles and piles of you": here, part of her declaration of overwhelming love says, "I want you and you and nothing but you, miles and piles of you." See, the same person who makes you feel so passionate and so turned on that you just want to think about him all the time will later be the person who you later find you don't actually want to be in such a lopsided relationship with. You know, after you've already married him. There's also, at the very end, an orchestral salute to the melody of "Still Hurting," because that melody is a weed that's growing in every plot where these people are trying to get flowers going.
3. "If I Didn't Believe In You."
When It Happens: After they've been married for a bit and he's become very successful, she refuses to go to a publishing industry party with him and he both reaffirms that he loves her and has faith in her and obliquely tells her that if she's going to sit around doing nothing, he's not there for that.
How Sad It Is: It takes a while to hear anything in this song except for this gentle, pleading melody and the lyric that has "Schmuel Song" echoes in parts of its message of encouragement: "If I didn't think you could do anything you ever wanted to/if I wasn't certain that you'd pull through somehow/the fact of the matter is, Cathy, I wouldn't be standing here now." But the more you listen to it, the more you hear the other thing he's saying, which is basically "If you're going to lie around and be angry and not do anything, that's not the marriage I wanted." To-wit: "If I didn't believe in you, I wouldn't have loved you at all."
More to the point, though, he goes right for the heart with this line right here: "I will not fail so you can be comfortable, Cathy/I will not lose because you can't win." You can argue back and forth all day about whether she resents his success in fact, but he certainly believes she does, and there's no question that unequal levels of professional success have been known to level marriages. This is kind of a terrible thing to say, though, and in the movie, you will hate him for it because they stick her in the foreground of the shot looking like he just pulled out her pancreas through her nose.
As he puts it in another moment, "If I'm cheering on your side, Cathy, why can't you support mine?/Why do I have to feel I've committed some felony doing what I always swore I would do?" It's a fair point. They're both unhappy. IT'S SO SAD YOU GUYS, BOO HOO.
2. "Still Hurting."
When It Happens: This might be the saddest beginning of a musical you'll ever hear in your life, particularly when it isn't a sad person who will become happier later. No, this is the end of the story, with a wrecked Cathy reading Jamie's note saying that he's leaving. This is where you're going to leave her. Really.
How Sad It Is: Everything she says sounds completely relatable, believable, understandable, in part because you don't know anything else but what she tells you. She literally declares herself blameless ("Jamie is over and where can I turn?/Covered with scars I did nothing to earn"), but it doesn't instantly seem suspect because nobody has yet laid out the complex ways people do damage to each other. She also believes Jamie has left her lightly ("Jamie is probably feeling just fine"), which is part of a sense she has that her feelings are more and bigger than everyone else's feelings.
But in any good musical, it's not just the things being said that are sad; it comes right out of the music. Particularly once you've seen the story all the way through, this will knock you on your crying behind from the opening notes — a sad, tidy, gorgeous little waltz melody played here on the piano, sounding like it should play over film of a small child making two dolls dance together. Once you hear that theme here at the top of the show, you will hear it two more times: once at the wedding in "The Next Ten Minutes" with a swoony orchestral arrangement, and once at the very end of the show, when you will learn it has words and is the world's saddest and most resigned goodbye. And you will hear the four-note sigh that follows several more times, too. One of the treacherous musical tricks of The Last Five Years is its tendency to repeat, to circle back around on itself as these people return sweetly and inevitably and sadly to all the tunes they've been singing from the beginning.
Let's share a choked sob.
1. "Goodbye Until Tomorrow/I Could Never Rescue You."
When It Happens: At the very end of the show, Cathy is at the beginning of the relationship and Jamie is at the end, so you see her in the morning after their first night together, and simultaneously, you see him leaving with his suitcase. "Goodbye Until Tomorrow," as you can imagine, is her saying goodbye for the moment, and "I Could Never Rescue You" is him saying goodbye for ... good.
How Sad It Is: In the larger world of people who love this show, whether this song or "Still Hurting" is sadder is a good candidate for a sort of Beatles/Stones argument, I suppose. You could go either way. I mean, which is sadder: Anna Kendrick crying real tears of real misery (she's so good in this movie, you guys) or Anna Kendrick blissfully happy, with no idea how things are going to turn out, followed by Jeremy Jordan — who clarifies for you that Jamie does not feel fine at all — miserably dragging his sad little rolly bag away from their house, definitely destined for divorce but also working against the odds to avoid turning out like kind of an ass?
In the end, what pushes this one over the finish line by a nose is the fact that that waltzy melody returns. It's turned up already as a melancholy little ditty and as a luscious wedding theme; here, it becomes a lament like the music from a silent film death scene, and it becomes a song that he sings about having to leave. So we return to the beginning of the story, and she will soon come home and find the note, and in theory you could watch this movie on an endless loop of agony and just cry and cry and cry because everything is terrible and why even bother and I need to lie down.