Jason Robert Brown’s chamber musical The Last Five Years is a song cycle depicting the rise and fall of a marriage, as seen in two time frames at once. In alternating solo numbers, we hear both sides of the story; however, the numbers belonging to Jamie (played by Norbert Leo Butz) begin at the beginning and follow the romance through love, marriage, disillusionment, and divorce. The songs for Cathy (played by Sherie Rene Scott), start on the day she moves out after five years of marriage, and move backwards, to their first meeting. The couple meets only once, in the middle, for a number on their wedding day. Thanks to this device, Brown is able to provide a close-up and sympathetic examination of the yearnings, conflicts, and neuroses that bring two people together and drive them apart.
Chicago production photo: Beowulf Boritt
This thematic concern with the effects of time has provided set designer Beowulf Boritt with rich material to work with, and his set for The Last Five Years is among the most distinctive of the season. The dominant piece of scenery is located at stage right—a large circular patio, arranged with seats, then stood on its side. Clearly the site of Jamie and Cathy’s wedding, it provides a sad monument to the unfulfilled promises of their relationship. The center of the patio serves as a screen for the projection of a clock, which is seen at certain moments; also, the center of the patio opens up at the end of the show to reveal the show’s band.
Otherwise, the look of The Last Five Years is rather spare. At stage left, there’s a collage of packed boxes, which represents Jamie and Cathy’s belongings on the day she moves out. A turntable at stage center occasionally reveals small set pieces—for example, in the number "I Can Do Better Than That," sung when Jamie and Cathy are driving, a series of toy-sized cars roll out to suggest their road trip. The overall effect is of a landscape of regret or a collage made from the leftovers of the Jamie-Cathy relationship.
Boritt has been with the project from the beginning, having designed its initial engagement at the Northlight Theatre in Chicago, then to its New York debut in a commercial production at the Minetta Lane Theatre. When he began working on the show, he says, "I had a CD with five songs, and a script. I knew there’d be a wedding scene. Jason Brown knew what the structure would be, and the songs came in as we worked." Working with director Daisy Prince, Boritt contemplated several different visual ideas—including a road map, or the extensive use of supertitles—that might help illuminate the show’s original conceit. He adds that Prince played a crucial role in shaping the show and its look. "She is a truly amazing director," he says.
"At some point, we realized that the wedding is the central event," he contiunes, "so I proposed a wedding set into which the other scenic pieces could drop." From there, it was one simple step to upending the wedding set and adding a turntable. (The wedding unit was a logical response to Northlight’s rather deep stage—it helped focus the action downstage, near the audience, and it fit well on the oddly configured Minetta Lane stage as well). Other ideas came and went, some of them getting discarded during the preview period in New York, including a series of road signs used during "I Can Do Better Than That" and a neon bar sign, among others. Ultimately, each scene has what Boritt calls "one iconic piece of furniture," such as a table or chair, to help locate the action.
New York production photo: Beowulf Boritt
In terms of construction, the wedding unit provided the biggest challenge. It was, the designer says, "an aluminum superstructure, with plywood. The marble floor is really masonite, covered with scrim, then painted to look like marble." The chairs on the set remain in place thanks to "little locks from Ikea"; they were placed on the set by stagehands working off of a Genie Lift. The soundproofed room located behind the wedding unit, in which the band is found, was built "with fiberglass insulation and acoustic planes above. There’s homosote, carpeting, and fiberglass on the floor. It’s a quiet little hideaway," the designer adds. Boritt consulted with sound designer Duncan Edwards on this part of the design. Brown, who also conducted, was linked to the onstage action by a video feed.
The setting was built by Centerline Studios—with additional scenery built by Robbie Hayes and Pam LaBrosse. The automation of the turntable was done by Hudson Scenic, a distinct improvement, over the Northlight production where, he says, the automation was controlled by "a hardworking little girl on a bicycle." Other scenery personnel included production managers Kai Brothers and Bridget Markov, production carpenter Aaron Verdery, charge scenic artist Jenny Stanjeski, production props supervisor Tessa Dunning, deck supervisor Robert Hendren, deck crew Jason Bannon, production stage manager Patty Lyons, and assistant stage manager Dan Da Silva. Christine Binder was the lighting designer.
Boritt is also the production’s costume designer, providing a varied series of casual contemporary looks for Jamie and Cathy. "The concept," he says, "was to get modern clothes that looked as "normal" as possible—to abstract them in their reality so we'd tune them out and not be bothered by their almost never changing. We worried that lots of costume changes would be distracting." Some dresses were built by Kaye Grunder.
Boritt is not one to sit at home with nothing to do, but this spring, he has been particularly busy. In addition to The Last Five Years, his projects included The Golem for Manhattan Ensemble Theatre, Romeo and Juliet and Much Ado About Nothing, in repertory for the Pearl Theatre, and another Romeo and Juliet for Theatreworks USA. Looking to the future, his projects include a "bizarre, post-9/11" production of The Sound of Music for the Hangar Theatre in Ithaca, a new Off Broadway play titled One Day on Wall Street, and a new Christmas Carol for Trinity Rep in Providence, RI.
The Last Five Years, which opened in March, garnered mixed reviews and is scheduled to close on May 5. Look for it to find popularity in regional and stock theatres over the next few seasons. Indeed it was nominated for several Drama Desk Awards, including outstanding musical, actor in a musical, actress in a musical, music, lyrics, orchestrations, and for scenery by Beowulf Boritt.