Friday, April 18, 2014

Why, at times, I empathize with Jamie from The Last Five Years

Hi Everyone!

It's been a while!  I spent the better parts of late February and early March month behind the wheel of a 2014 Honda Accord sedan when my 2010 version of that car was at the body shop (long story, but I have my car back now and it looks like a new car!).  I have also been driving a 2013 Volkswagen Passat 2.5SE sedan for the last week and a half as my 2002 Passat Wagon gets a new CV joint to cure an annoying shake under hard acceleration.  My goal was to write reviews of these two loaner cars, and I still intend to.  However, I am currently on a train to NYC for a couple days to see the NY Auto Show (write-up to come within a couple weeks), the Birdland Big Band (they're fantastic and a must-see for anyone in NYC during dinner hour on a Friday), and an evening Broadway show.  With this in mind, I think it's time for a musical theatre post on a topic that's been on my mind for, well, the last EIGHT years (see what I did there with that almost-pun??!!).

I spent the first part of my 2006 spring break in NYC and it was at that time that my good friend Ryan (one of the finest pianists and composers I have heard, and someone whose opinion I respect greatly) introduced me to Jason Robert Brown's cult classic two-person musical The Last Five Years.  We listened to the soundtrack in his apartment and he sent me home with a copy the next day.  What initially captivated me was the fact that the show was orchestrated for a modified string ensemble (piano, acoustic guitar, fretless bass, violin, and two celli) without drums.  It was the first time I had heard such driving music with such killer bass lines genuinely WORK without a drummer holding things together.  I was hooked.  I listened to the show in the car, in my dorm, and elsewhere over the next few months, and got to know the story pretty well, despite the interesting reverse chronology employed by Brown (the male character tells his story from beginning to end, the female character tells hers from end to beginning, and in this setting, it's a brilliant writing technique).

The story is that of two twenty-somethings in New York City desperately trying to survive professionally and romantically.  He (Jamie Wellerstein) is an up-and-coming author experiencing success after success.  She (Catherine Hiatt) is an actress who has achieved what some would view as great success (decent summer stock gigs).  Despite this, it is strongly implied that she has not had great success in NYC and that she is constantly struggling to get noticed in that scene.  In a nutshell, her successes are no match for Jamie's.

SPOILER ALERT:  They fall in love, they get married, and it doesn't work out.  Why can't they persevere?  Well, for one thing, they are young twenty-somethings in NYC who are incredibly passionate about their individual career choices.  Reconciling this reality with what a successful romantic relationship (let alone a marriage) demands proves impossible.  Long term, committed romance is not for the faint of heart, but we all knew that now, didn't we?

Okay, so whose fault is it?  Nearly everyone I have discussed this with empathizes with Cathy.  After all, here are a few things about Jamie that we learn as the show unfolds:

1.  He is a serial monogamist and a cheater.  He ends his first number (Shiksa Goddess) with the line "I could be in love with someone like you."  (Fun fact:  this is the title of the song that originally held Shiksa Goddess's place in the show.)  He also ends his penultimate number (Nobody Needs to Know) with that same line.  In Shiksa Goddess, he sings this line about Cathy.  In Nobody Needs to Know, he sings this line about Elise (his publisher, who he has just woken up next to in bed).

2.  Immediately after he marries Cathy, Jamie sings about the women he meets (and is attracted to) at parties.  He's human, he's a physical creature, and I'm not sure he can really be faulted for noticing what's out there.  That said, it is implied that what happens in this scene goes beyond simply seeing other attractive women at a party ("and of course I'm trying to show that I wasn't encouraging her, which I sorta was, and I don't want to look whipped in front of this woman, which is dumb, I shouldn't care what she thinks, since I can't f*** her anyway!).

3.  He visits Cathy in Ohio for her birthday, but leaves early and does not stay to see her show that night.  This also happens directly after he cheats on her.

4.  He breaks up with Cathy after five years (half of which was spent in marriage) by leaving her a note.

Needless to say, Jamie won't be getting husband-of-the-year anytime soon.  He was not emotionally ready to marry Cathy.  There's no argument there.  I can see why so many people are so turned off by Jamie's character and why so many people empathize with Cathy.

That said.....

While I don't condone any of Jamie's actions as described above, I absolutely can understand, and dare I say, relate to some of the frustration and emotional emptiness that he undoubtedly wrestled with.  For example:

1.  If you listen to Jamie's songs in the first half of the show, he actually IS emotionally supportive of Cathy (as he should be, but I feel that this gets overlooked).  Proof can be found in the Shmuel Song (a metaphor Jamie uses to prove to Cathy that he believes in her and feels she should go after her dreams).  I understand fully that seeing your significant other experience greater success than your own can tax and destroy even the strongest of relationships, but believing in someone else who honestly doesn't believe in himself or herself isn't easy either.  And while Cathy shows some moments of fierce determination (Climbing Uphill is an excellent example of this), it is also obvious that her self-confidence just isn't there (the insecurities she shows during the audition sequence come to mind).  Can she be faulted for this?  Not really.  Is believing in your significant other a necessity?  Absolutely.  Is it unbelievably draining to constantly be a rock of support for someone who can't believe in himself or herself?  You're damn right it is, and it makes you feel useless really, really quickly.

2.  While it is clear that Cathy is excited and happy (albeit briefly) to be married to a "rising star", I don't see much genuine happiness coming from her to him for his success.  The example that comes to mind is when she refuses to attend the party celebrating the publication of Jamie's book.  I implied earlier that a non-negotiable requirement of a committed relationship is to be your significant other's biggest cheerleader, and I can't help but get the vibe that Cathy is too caught-up in her own perceived lack of success to celebrate Jamie's successes with him.  Imagine constantly being asked at events held in your honor, or at events that you're actively participating in (a book-signing, a concert, etc.) "where's your girlfriend?"  or "where's your wife?"  It sucks.  A lot.  Writing is something sacred, and personal, for Jamie.  I can't imagine how debilitating, draining, and at times meaningless Jamie's success must have been if the person who was supposed to be his biggest cheerleader wasn't there with him.

To wrap up, do I condone Jamie's serial monogamy, his unfaithfulness, or his break-up technique?  Absolutely not.  They are signs of immaturity and proof that he "moved too fast" (see what I did there?).  However, I also feel very strongly that Cathy moved too fast as well, and that by being unable to fully love herself and believe in herself, a requirement of emotional support was placed on Jamie that, try as he did, he couldn't satisfy.  You HAVE to love yourself before you can be fully and perfectly loved by someone else.  This also prevented Cathy from feeling genuinely happy for Jamie through his successes.  Was she trying to hurt him?  No.  Was damage done by her not celebrating with him?  You bet is was.

Point being, neither of them was ready for their relationship to progress as it did.  And as much of a dick as Jamie is, there are two sides to every story.