In many ways, “The Last Five Years” by Jason Robert Brown is the complete opposite to the previous show I wrote about here (“Jesus Christ Superstar“). Where the latter is huge in scope, cast and sound, L5Y is possibly the closest I’ve ever come to “chamber” musical theatre. Not that it’s any less powerful: this two-hander following a relationship from beginning to end (and, indeed, from end to beginning – Kathy’s songs run in reverse-chronological order) is full of passages that are beautiful, touching, tearful and (once in a while) funny.
The instrumentation is quite unusual: violin, two cellos, piano, (electric) bass and (acoustic) guitar. As an electric guitarist for the past 25 years, and usually using the acoustic patches on my trusty Variax 300 when an acoustic sound is called for, this pushed me way outside my comfort zone… in a good way, I think. I played the show on my Takamine EG523SC jumbo, running the onboard pre-amp directly into a small powered monitor. We were in a small, 60-seat theatre so only a little filling out of the sound was necessary. A bit of EQ on the pre-amp, riding the volume control slightly between numbers, but mostly providing the dynamics entirely with my playing technique.
I played 80% of the show fingerstyle (having grown the nails on my right hand specially), which made it easier to play the spread chord voicings cleanly. Several of the strummier numbers (eg, Shiksa Goddess, See I’m Smiling etc.) I strummed with the top of my index finger nail, while for the harder-toned numbers (eg, A Miracle Would Happen, Climbing Uphill and the louder bits of Goodbye Til Tomorrow) I used a plectrum. Matching the dynamics of the rest of the band was sometimes tricky (I didn’t realise quite how much sound two cellos can make, but sometimes over-compensated with my volume control!) not least because of the small space we were working in.
The score states the (usually) unwritten law of musical theatre guitar parts: where chords are written in full voicings they are to be played precisely as written, while other sections are written with chord symbols and the player can put them wherever on the fingerboard they find easiest. I was mostly able to comply with this, but it’s well worth playing through some of the more exposed fingerstyle sections ahead of time, to be sure of getting the voicings right.
This is a show where you really need to listen and play with the other musicians. Some passages are in unison with other instruments, some are very exposed (eg, Summer in Ohio, the opening of If I Didn’t Believe in You) and some start off one way and then go the other (eg, I’m a Part of That and The Schmuel Song) where the guitar continues the “rhythm” part while the strings put in more harmonically complex bits. There were several sections where I really felt like I was acting as the “drummer”, keeping the metronomic pulse around which everyone else added the gilding… which of course made it essential that I hit the tempo required by the Musical Director (I usually did, but not always!) This was particularly true on “The Next Ten Minutes”, which mostly consisted of playing the same single note a quaver ahead of the beat in 12/8.
Is it a tough show to play? I found it difficult to get started, mainly because it’s so far out of my technical “comfort zone”. The string players also commented on how technically tricky their parts were, with plenty of complicated passages right at the top of the instrument’s range. If I’d played more fingerstyle/solo acoustic guitar over the years, I would have found the guitar part much easier. But it was very definitely worth the effort; the overall sound is beautiful, and pair that with the talented performers/production team that are attracted to JRB and we had a run of performances that I was very proud to have been involved with.
Would I do it again? Definitely… which is a good thing, because we’re looking to repeat the same production in a different town in a few months time! After that, it will probably remain on my list of shows I’d love to do again… possibly the one similarity it does have with Jesus Christ Superstar!