One of the curses of the Internet age is that we become hyper-aware of the physical distance between us and all the cool people who’s company we enjoy.
One of it’s blessings is that we can still engage with them.
For instance, if it wasn’t for Facebook, I probably would have lost touch with Oregon-based writer Suzi Steffen after we both participated in a USC-Annenberg arts journalism program in L.A.
Here’s our latest back and forth after she posted wanting to talk about Jason Robert Brown’s “The Last Five Years.”
SUZI: I’m slightly obsessed with deconstructing all of the lyrics and the emotions and the FEELINGS of the musical “The Last Five Years.” Like, we saw it three years ago? But every time I listen to it I have more thoughts. Or maybe they’re the same thoughts and I have it again, IDK. Who wants to talk about Cathy and Jamie?
LOU: Heard it recently with two women (playing both as women–don’t tell JRB). Seeing it with two women playing the characters as women was REALLY interesting. And, if it matters, I saw the original off-Broadway production as well. Plus, of course, hearing 400 people singing songs from it at auditions and open mic nights.
SUZI: OK SO do you think the entire thing is what Jamie is imagining Cathy is thinking? I mean in a very real sense, it obviously is, since JRB wrote it, but in the world of the musical itself, I thought maybe it’s Jamie closing the door and then thinking about what he thought she might be thinking, what he conceived her as thinking/saying the entire time.
LOU: That doesn’t wring true to me because I think by the end of it he has rationalized the downfall of the relationship and the breakup. I don’t think he’d be empathetic enough to put that first song in her.
SUZI: The interesting thing to me is that Jamie comes off as a real piece of crap in the second half – well, he does in “Shiksa Goddess” too, a song that makes me gasp with anger pretty much every time. He’s so obsessed with the kind of woman who’s “out of his league” or whatever, from then on. The utter dissing of Jewish women in that song – it comes back to bite him, of course. I’d say Cathy was supposed to be Catholic from the story about her friends getting married and the “Crucifix on the wall.” I am so damn fascinated by this musical and how much it doesn’t say, how much it refers to – like “not another shrink, not another compromise” – when did they, or she, go to therapy? When did he compromise? When Cathy goes from (in chronological, not musical, order) “I can do better than that” to “I want to bear your child,” I’m like, Oh shit, Cathy. WHAT HAPPENED?
LOU: One of the things I actually like about it is that all of those blanks aren’t filled in. Maybe it’s because I tend to write like that. I don’t want all of the threads neatly tied together. Those gaps create a distance between them that makes you wonder what is her perception and what’s his perception. I buy into the idea that when he is singing, he is trying to be honest and while she is singing, she is trying to be honest. The game for the audience is trying to merge those two. It’s easy to buy with two women (except for Shiksa Goddess, which rings even falser in that format) because the obvious gender dynamic is gone and he no longer has the implied “well, that’s how guys are” imprint.
SUZI: My mind is so blown by that idea. I’d enjoy seeing it!
LOU: Do you see what I mean about how that allows for the characters rather than their genders to come forward more?
SUZI: Absolutely. And makes it more about fame. I don’t know many lesbians who’d call another women “a pair of breasts,” though.
LOU: None that I know. To your previous point, I think that’s key with Cathy. Her lack of self-confidence (and, perhaps, talent)–accentuated by his success–makes her ready to bail on career and jump into mom-hood. But she shows that she’s no fully committed to being the wind beneath his wings (god, I hate that phrase but I used it so there). Perhaps Jamie is right in saying “I won’t fail because you can’t win”–as harsh as that is. Of course, there’s plenty of evidence that Jamie’s support for her is based on his early infatuation and not true partnership. And, of course, the reality is that Jamie’s second novel is going to suck out loud and the press (what little there is) will trash it. He’ll get a teaching job at a community college and get fired after fraternizing with a student and then will romanticize the relationship with Cathy, try to friend her on Facebook and become way too wrapped up in following her posts. He’ll coordinate a time to “accidentally” run into her in Central Park and even though she blows him off he will read into it that there’s still hope for their relationship. The third novel won’t sell and he’ll blame it on the fact that he editor left the publishing house. When his agent drops him, he won’t tell anyone. He’ll then try to write a musical and believe that, by showing some of his flaws, that he’s writing a balanced look at their thinly fictionalized relationship.
SUZI: If only. So the chronology isn’t absolutely clear, but I think Jamie used Cathy as his muse for the first book, and then he needed more and more infusions of, uh, muse-dom from various women (including his agent! which of course I think because of the movie) to get his second book done.
LOU: Well, I don’t think HE saw it that way. But, from the outside, yes.
SUZI: I really like the Schmuel song aside from the idea – such a Jamie idea! – that if you make the “perfect” piece of art, you’ll be able to marry the “perfect” woman.
LOU: “I always get lost in the Schmuel song–every time. It fails for me as storytelling and as character building. Or maybe I’m just an idiot. I still couldn’t tell you what happens in it.
SUZI: Schmuel has been working his fingers to the bone for 41 years and his magic clock is like “dude lemme grant a couple of wishes for ya” and now it’s 41 years earlier and in Odessa instead of Klimovich, and he’s married to the young woman he … IDK, wasn’t good enough before? The movie has its (many) flaws, but it really brings out what inspires Jamie to sing that song – his process of creation in the moment. HOWEVER, that part also confuses me because I think Cathy is, at that point, designing costumes? and also working at a bar? as a temp? but she wants to be an actor?
LOU: That goes back to the “does she actually have talent” question. Which is why I think the piece works better if both actors are a bit older. When sung by an early 20s actress, there still seems to be hope–especially if the actress isn’t committed to Cathy’s weaknesses and would rather show off her own strength. Make her nearly a decade older and, given the sexism of the biz and the attitude toward actresses NOT in their early 20s and there’s a greater sense of her believing she has missed the boat. Which, to me, makes her more believable and more interesting. Side note: Can we have more of these conversations and can I lift them and run them on my blog?
SUZI: 1. Yes, older Cathy is better – a young one wouldn’t work so well. Say she’s 26 when they meet, and he’s 23. I think she has enough talent for summer stock! Which I feel like is only a failure from the Broadway POV. Older Cathy makes the “younger than me who have already been to the gym” line work better. 2. Yes, more of these convos!