Jason Robert Brown didn’t need unlimited time for Monday’s one-night-only concert performance of The Last Five Years with Cynthia Erivo and Joshua Henry to come together — but it did take a few other concerts and a little Twitter magic to make it happen.
Erivo first worked with Brown when she sang the time-bending musical’s “I Can Do Better Than That” last year at a concert in London — a song that’s since become a part of her repertoire which she most recently performed with Brown at last weekend’s Elsie Fest. Henry performed in a concert production of Brown’s Parade in 2014, and both have appeared at his monthly SubCulture residency in downtown New York. More recently, someone suggested on Twitter that Brown do The Last Five Years with Erivo and Henry as the show’s two stars — he tweeted back and included them, everyone said they’d be game — so when it came time for Brown to plan his September SubCulture show, the seeds for the idea had already been planted.
“It was a perfect confluence of all the events. It’s a work of mine that I am very proud of and I love putting out into the world, being performed by two of the most talented people on the planet Earth, and for a cause that means so much to me,” he told EW. “And so it all just fell into place, and what could be better than that?”
The Last Five Years tells the story of hotshot novelist Jamie (Henry) and aspiring actress Cathy (Erivo) as they fall in love and their relationship later falls apart — but it’s told in alternating perspectives, with Jamie working from beginning to end while Cathy does the opposite. The packed star power of the Tony-winning The Color Purple star and the Tony-nominated actor (and incoming Aaron Burr in the Chicago cast of Hamilton) meant that tickets sold out quickly, and the production has also gained attention for being the first major staging of the musical to feature two black actors — a fact that won’t change the staging or the characters, but one that Brown says still feels significant.
“Not changing the story is part of the point, which is to say that great actors will have a valid take on material. It’s not that I’m even asking anyone to believe that Joshua Henry is a nice Jewish boy from Rockland County but what Joshua can bring to that part is immensely substantial, and that’s what my job is as a director — to make sure he brings all of his truth to that role without compromising the writing,” the composer, who is directing, conducting, and produding the concert, explained. “If they weren’t the most talented actors in the world, then you’d be like oh, it’s gimmicky. But in this case it’s not gimmicky, because who doesn’t want to see these actors take on this material?”
Henry added, “I think that it’s great that Jason is doing this with Cynthia and I, so I think it’s great that two actors of color get to do to this. It’s a testament to the material, and that it can live through many different people’s eyes and voices but I want to applaud Jason Robert Brown for making it happen.”
The show is also benefitting a cause that Brown is passionate about. All proceeds are going to The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a national organization committed to cutting the number of U.S. gun deaths in half by 2025 though “sensible policies that keep guns out of dangerous hands.” Brown said that with this being an election year, he wanted to do something that could help make a difference.
“I’m a parent, I’ve got two daughters, and to get through Newtown was about all I could do to survive and get through that, and then every time it happens again it is so hard on me and is so exhausting,” Brown said, “And I feel so helpless because the politics in New York are not the issue, everybody here supports sensible gun control laws … so it’s not like I can go out canvas in my community to try and get the leaders elected who are going to support the things I do — I already did that, that’s done. And I can’t do anything about people in Alabama or Mississippi, but who can is the Brady Campaign, and that’s what they do. So I feel like, good, I can support this organization that can really get out there and do that work.”
Erivo echoed his sentiments in a separate interview. “I think that now more than ever, just because of how much has gone on when it comes to gun violence, it’s time for us to raise awareness and do our best to help in any way we can,” she said.
As rehearsals began last month, just after the concert performance was announced, both were thrilled to be working with Brown and to dive into the challenges of playing Jamie and Cathy. “The music itself is quite challenging so I want to see how I’m able to adapt his music for my voice, so I know that some of it works and I know there are also other things that I haven’t tried, so I don’t know how it will sound or how I’ll interpret it,” Erivo said. “I think the wonderful thing about playing Cathy is, she’s a real woman who is going through something and I like the idea of being able to put that in real life, to show that woman can be any woman, every woman, anywhere.”
For Henry, he said, “I’m still learning it, I’m still finding out how Jamie navigates this five-year relationship, but fortunately I have Jason — I’ve been rehearsing with him a bunch recently and he has given me first hand of how it went on, the emotional turns, the highs and lows, and that’s been really helpful to have.”
“What makes the show work is that it’s very human, and so I tend to really focus on why every line is there and why they react to each other the way they do and why they act towards each other the way that they do, and so that’s a lot of my focus is — in spite of the fact that the two of them are never really interacting in real time, the songs are written so that they’re always interacting and you have to be able to imagine your partner on the stage with you at the moment you’re doing it,” Brown explained. “So it’s a lot of work about trying to imagine what that other person is doing when you’re singing your song, how is that working, and when you’ve got actors like Cynthia and Joshua they’re so facile at being able to just draw up what that is. For me, I just have to make sure that the image they’re drawing up is always consistent with who that other actor really is going to be in this case. So it’s a puzzle, but it’s a puzzle I love.”
And while it’s one night only, Henry is already hopeful about the potential for more.
“From what I understand, the tickets sold out in about, like, an hour, which is really fast. This is something that, I hope it comes out well, I trust that it will, it’s an honor to do it and I hope we get to do it again! I hope we get to do it again in a bigger way. I think that would be an amazing thing.”