When most people consider musical theater (if they do at all), they’ll think of jazz hands, kick lines, and show-stopping numbers, or at least a certain old-fashioned sincerity. Since Chicago made movie musicals “cool” again back in 2002, Hollywood has been trying to revive the genre with overly earnest big-budget musicals set anywhere from 19th-century France to 1960s Baltimore. But by zooming in on the intricacies of one failed relationship, Richard LaGravenese’s micro-budgeted two-hander The Last Five Years is the first movie musical since then to shake up the status quo. To make the genre relevant, Hollywood would be smart to turn its eye toward Broadway’s more complicated, intimate source material.
With a score written by Jason Robert Brown, The Last Five Years tracks the failed relationship between successful author Jamie (Jeremy Jordan) and struggling actress Cathy (Anna Kendrick). She tells her story backward while he moves forward in time, but aside from that temporal gimmick, the show is a pared-down relationship drama. The film rests squarely on the shoulders of its stars, and though Jordan is not quite up for the challenge, Kendrick turns in the best performance of her career.
In the heartbreaking opening number, “Still Hurting,” Kendrick sits numbly as she contemplates her failed marriage and a song pours out of her. With no showy distractions, she sings:
Jamie is over and where can I turn?
Covered with scars I did nothing to earn
Maybe there’s somewhere a lesson to learn
But that wouldn’t change the fact
That wouldn’t speed the time
Once the foundation’s cracked
And I’m still hurting
It’s a simple summation of complex ideas delivered by a talented actress who just happens to be singing. The movie has its flaws, but the simplicity of its storytelling beautifully captures the intimacy of live theater, in which audience and actors share the same physical space.
Most of the movie musicals of the past decade have had similar moments of transcendence, like Jennifer Hudson’s “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going” in Dreamgirls or Anne Hathaway’s “I Dreamed A Dream” in Les Misérables. But there’s also a certain artifice to musical theater that can feel jarring on-screen, especially to those unfamiliar with the genre’s conventions. Swirling around Hudson and Hathaway’s honest Oscar-winning performances are flashy numbers, large ensembles, period settings, and a whole lot of unexplained singing. While The Last Five Years has plenty of the latter (it’s almost entirely sung-through), its intimate focus and contemporary setting remove a level of that musical theater falseness. Jamie and Cathy aren’t following the beats of some epic romance, they’re having sex, attending book launches, Skyping over long summers spent apart, and bitterly arguing about their differing priorities. They may be singing about their problems, but those problems are instantly relatable, which means that even if you don’t like musicals, you might like The Last Five Years simply because it feels so different from the movie musicals that have come before it.
I’m using the term “movie musical” to refer to films that use songs to further the plot or the emotional journeys of their characters, unlike “movies with music” like Ray or Pitch Perfect, which feature characters performing and which A.V. Club contributor Jesse Hassenger has eloquently written about before. After enjoying a golden era from the 1930s through the ’60s, the movie musical largely fell out of fashion until the early 2000s when the Oscar-winning hit Chicago (and to a lesser extent, Moulin Rogue!) repopularized the genre. But the best that can be said of the musicals that followed in Chicago’s wake is that they competently adapted popular material from stage to screen. Even the most critically and commercial successful of the bunch, like Dreamgirls, Hairspray, Sweeney Todd, Les Mis, and Into The Woods, feel somehow inessential. And the subpar adaptations of The Phantom Of The Opera, The Producers, Rent, Nine, Rock Of Ages, and Mamma Mia! prove that onstage popularity doesn’t guarantee on-screen success.
In many ways Hollywood learned the wrong lessons from Chicago, which took huge liberties with its source material and turned its musical numbers into fantasy sequences that juxtaposed a somber meditation on celebrity, media, and murder. While there’s been a welcome diversity of theme and subject matter in the movie musicals that followed, they’ve mostly shared an old-fashioned, sentimental quality that stands in contrast to Chicago’s pessimism. Of the recent big movie musicals only Sweeney Todd and Nine (and to a lesser extent Dreamgirls and Into The Woods) are interested in exploring the cynical flip-side of Chicago’s razzle dazzle.
Set against that backdrop of these overly earnest megamusicals, The Last Five Years feels quietly revolutionary. In place of a love-conquers-all theme, it explores the idea that love isn’t necessarily enough to save a relationship, no matter how much the people involved want it to. And while it’s unlikely the tiny release of The Last Five Years will make much of a box-office splash, producers who want to find a fresh take on the genre would be smart to start adapting other small-scale shows that have long been the bread and butter of college and community theaters. There’s a large collection of “mumblecore musicals” that are more Once than Once Upon A Mattress.
Interestingly, Kendrick’s other recent musical venture, Into The Woods, is a hybrid that relies on fairy tale mash-up fun in its first act and darker intimacy in its second. While the recent movie adaptation failed to find the right balance between the show’s two halves, another musical from composer Stephen Sondheim’s oeuvre is even more perfect for an intimate adaptation. Company is a largely plotless character study about a perpetual bachelor named Bobby and his circle of married friends. And though it premiered in 1970, its themes of isolation and modern relationships ring just as true today. Alternately funny and heartbreaking, it’s the kind of small-scale character piece that could easily attract a talented cast.
A whole slew of similar projects are just waiting to be re-imagined on-screen. Like the documentary Spellbound, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee explores the high-stakes world of elementary school spelling bees through the lens of several quirky characters; the high school melodrama Bare is ready-made for the Glee set; A New Brain is a stylized tale of one man’s brain surgery; and Next To Normal is a contemporary rock musical that examines mental illness and family conflict with a cast of only six.
These intimate shows don’t necessarily need to be contemporary. Like the original 1975 documentary and the Jessica Lange/Drew Barrymore HBO film, the Grey Gardens musical is a fantastic showcase for two women. And the operatic The Light In The Piazza (based on a 1962 movie) is a sweet ’50s romance tinged with familial drama. What those shows and others like them share is a focus on character over spectacle and an interest in exploring issues that can’t be peppered over with a song and a smile.
There’s nothing inherently bad about big musicals or their big-screen adaptations, but right now Hollywood is only focusing on stadium shows when a whole collection of excellent chamber pieces is waiting in the wings. Producers looking to modernize the genre for a 21st-century audience accustomed to prestige TV and indie dramas should think outside the box and tackle more material like The Last Five Years, which proves beautifully written small-scale drama can be just as compelling as extravagant production numbers.