The Station Theatre is capping off their summer season with Jason Robert Brown's hit musical from 2001. It's been a rather popular title since it's debut and has continued to hold name recognition in younger generations of musical lovers through its film depiction. The 2014 film The Last Five Years stars '10s movie musical queen Anna Kendrick as Cathy and popular stage-turned-screen actor Jeremy Jordan as Jamie.
A contemporary two-person musical, The Last Five Years follows a pair of young artists over the course of their relationship. Cathy, an aspiring actor, tells her side of the narrative backwards, from the couple’s ultimate falling out to their first date five years earlier. Jamie, a novelist, begins his story with his first glimpse of Cathy, moving forward to the day he leaves their apartment for the last time. The two alternate songs, moving past one another in time, gradually revealing the depth of their love, passion, and failings.
I had the pleasure of chatting with Chelsea Collier, who is currently directing the Station Theatre's upcoming production of The Last Five Years.
Smile Politely: The Last Five Years. What made you choose this show?
Chelsea Collier: I first heard it eleven years ago and I don’t think I’ve ever entirely stopped thinking about it so it’s always been on my bucket list for wanting to direct it. When I first came and saw a show here at the Station I thought this was the perfect space for that show. It seemed so strange to me that they had never done it. Bryan Goode, who is in the cast as one of the two Jamies, and I joked around and he said “You should submit something to Station!” and I said I had always wanted to do The Last Five Years and he said [deeply with enthusiasm] “you should do it!” So he really talked me into submitting.
SP: Can you tell us a little bit about the story?
Collier: It’s the story of a romance between two artists over the course of five years. You’ve got Cathy, who is an aspiring actor, and Jamie, who is a novelist. Jason Robert Brown, the composer and lyricist, created this interesting structure where Cathy tells her story from the end of the relationship back to the beginning and Jamie tells his from the first time he sees Cathy to the end of the relationship. So they meet in the middle briefly but they alternate songs, they’re very rarely in the same place and time.
SP: I know that readers might be familiar with the film. I'm wondering, have you seen it?
Collier: I actually made a point not to see the film. I wanted to and when it came out I was desperate to see it, but for some reason I missed it. I think it was in theatres locally for a week. Then I thought “I should rent it, I should watch it” and then it kinda never happened. It was on Netflix and I found out I was going to be directing it here and thought, “okay, now I don’t want to watch it because then I’m going to get all these ideas such as “I should do it that way.” If I can, I try to avoid seeing too many other interpretations of something.
SP: I was going to ask how the stage production differs, but perhaps you don’t know.
Collier: I do know a bit because several of my cast members have seen it. They’re always like, “this is so different from the movie!” I think the big difference they’ve pointed out to me is that in the film, you do see Cathy and Jamie’s life together. Whereas the stage version they’re really separated in time. I made the choice in one of the songs that doesn’t usually include Cathy to stage it with her, but otherwise they are not meant to be onstage together at the same time.
SP: Is there a specific reason why you chose that?
Collier: It’s The Schmuel Song, which is a Christmas song. Jamie and Cathy have been together at a couple of years this point and he’s giving her Christmas present and to set it up, he tells her this story he’s created. In the staging she’s not supposed to be there, but as we were talking about it, it’s always seemed like kind of a strange thing that you don’t get a sense on how Cathy felt about this gift. It’s clearly a big, grand gesture of a gift and Jamie’s coming at it from a place of feeling generous and wanting her to be happy, but in conversation with the cast we’ve thought, “is this what Cathy really wanted?” The more we talked about it, the more it seemed like a fundamental mismatch of love languages. With the five love languages, Jamie seems like the one who wants to give you things and ‘I want to do things for you,’ and Cathy is more of the type of ‘I want quality time with you.’ So there’s a little bit of a disconnect.
Bryan Goode and Mariana Seda
SP: I know you did mention your cast, you are working with two casts which is not typical of the Station as far as I’m aware, but very interesting and makes sense considering how long of a show and how vocally demanding this show is. I was wondering what is a typical day of rehearsal like with two casts?
Collier: Early in the process we split it out so we had both Cathys on a given day or both Jamies on a given day and we’d work through their music. As we went further, we started separating out and were doing more solo work with them. It helps that, again, they’re rarely onstage together. Then as we got closer and closer and started working on staging -- the early rehearsals were at my house -- so, we would have the keyboard set up in my kitchen and I’d sit by the wall saying, “okay, so this is your stage left and stage right and go!” I would alternate which of the casts were called, or I would alternate ladies and gentlemen. We did have an interesting thing because of conflicts, where there were a couple rehearsals that had a Jamie and a Cathy who are not paired together in the show. But we’re gonna work with it anyway since the blocking is the same.
SP: Going off of that, what are some key similarities and differences between casts? We’re seeing the same show, but we’re not seeing the same show.
Collier: There are some physical differences between the two casts in terms of general height, appearance, age. We kind of leaned into those when we were making some choices. There were a lot of jokes like, “are you team Jamie or team Cathy?” or “who is at fault for the breakdown of the relationship?” and generally we’re in agreement across the board that neither person is blameless. But, there were definitely places where we would David French is playing Jamie a little bit colder, a little bit more distance, a little bit more of a disconnect from Cathy, more ambitious where Bryan’s Jamie is genuine, has a little more of a softer take to him. The women are accordingly balanced to that. Mariana Seda in some of her songs comes across a little more biting and sarcastic whereas with Jenna [Kohn], we’ve played into the fact that she’s the youngest person in the cast. She’s 20, and we’re leaning on that heavy so everything is very optimistic, hopeful. There’s a lot of vulnerability there.
David French and Jenna Kohn
SP: Every time one walks into the Station Theatre they always get a different energy based on the show that currently in house. What is the atmosphere you want The Last Five Years to create?
Collier: The whole thing is this relationship and the way the songs are written is very conversational so I want it to feel very intimate, very connected, as though these are people that you’re friends with, or family even, that are telling you their troubles or telling you about this great thing that’s happening to them. With the set we’re trying to keep it very simple. It’s mostly black space and we’ve done cast photos of the couples to sort of represent the five years of Jamie’s and Cathy’s relationship as a sort of constant reminder behind them that this is two people’s lives together that have broken apart. We’re getting both sides of the story, and I feel it’s important to remember that they were a unit and a couple that presented to the world this pairing that’s now come apart. It’s a little bit Facebook. [Laughing]. Right? It’s what you put out there. You put out your best. You show people what’s going good and “look we’re so happy!” and all these photos show them in a really good place but under the surface, the solo moments are really honest and painful in a lot of cases.
SP: Absolutely. Is there anything else that you would like C-U to know before they come see your show? Or anything else you’d like to speak on?
Collier: I would encourage people not only to see the show, but see both casts because it is going to be really different and all four of my actors are so talented. I always think of it being a relatable show. Everybody has had a relationship with really high highs and the really lows and struggle to make something work when maybe it was never set up to work right. I feel like everybody comes out of it seeing themselves in both characters.
SP: Very reflective. And it’s great that it’s telling both sides of the story.
Collier: That’s been fun too. I’m using a lot of black and white in the set because I think there’s this idea that when you’re telling a story, when you’re crafting your story, it’s like this is black and white, this is the truth. But that’s just one person’s side of it. Bouncing back and forth between these two sides, you see where things are at an imbalance and coloring and reflecting on it through the lens of their own experiences and their own emotions.
The Last Five Years
The Celebration Company at the Station Theatre
223 N. Broadway Ave, Urbana
August 1st through 17th at 7:30 pm, August 11th at 3:00 pm
Bryan Goode and Mariana Seda perform on even-numbered dates
David French and Jenna Kohn perform on odd-numbered dates
Get tickets online here
Photos by Jesse Folks