This past Thursday night, after a nearly decade-long run at the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel, J-Town Playhouse made its final theatrical debut at this long-time venue with the opening night of The Last Five Years.
Jewlicious went behind the scenes with director Jenn Fleischer to get the inside-scoop on why she chose the show, the romantic and relational journey inherent in the plot, the “Jewish angle” and what’s it in for the audience.
Jewlicious: What drew you to choose this show in particular?
Fleischer: The Last Five Years is an incredible show. The music is amazing and the story is really personal and relevant. Jason Robert Brown is a musical genius. He has won 3 Tony Awards, and this show is particularly well crafted because he based it on his own life.
I think the realism of the characters and of their relationship – flaws and all is what makes this show truly great. It’s a two person show, which is perfect for our stage and we have had a number of people begging us to do it over the past few years so we thought now would be a good time to put it on.
It’s interesting, because many people haven’t heard of the show, but anyone that has heard of it loves it. It has almost a cult following in the theater community and I expect that many of our audience members that are introduced to it over our run of performances will come to fall in love with it to and count it among their favorites.
Jewlicious: So the show is about relationships. What’s the approach in The Last Five Years? Romantic, feel-good, irony, something else?
Fleischer: Everyone wants to talk about relationships, and this show doesn’t hold back. It’s not a fairy tale. It tells the story of the 5 year relationship between wannabe actress Cathy (played by Miri Fraenkel) and writer Jamie (played by Jared Michaud) from its beginning all the way to end, and their story doesn’t really have a happy ending.
It’s crazy because the story is pretty ordinary. It’s about a couple who loves each other and fights, and makes up. There is no great adventure, except for that of life itself. I think a lot of musicals try and resolve themselves with the happy ending, but that isn’t reality. We’ve all had those relationships that we let go on too long. We’ve all dated the guy that wasn’t as supportive as he could have been. We’ve all been the one doubting the future or our own role in our partner’s life. I think that it is flaws in the characters that make them real, but also that we connect with. I think that watching a rom-com can make us feel good, but watching something like The Last Five Years hits a little deeper. You notice all the moments that make a relationship. All those moments where you feel like you are exactly where you are meant to be. Those moments where you feel so loved and safe. Those moments where you can really be yourself and be accepted. There are also those moments you wish you had handled differently. Moments you wish you could change. The moments where the cracks were formed that ultimately ended the relationship months, or even years later.
Jewlicious: It’s a two-person show, so is there a lot of back and forth between the characters’ perspectives? What’s the general format?
Fleischer: In The Last Five Years, the way it’s done is that Jamie tells his side of the story from beginning to end, but Cathy starts at the end and works her way backward. In my director’s note, I mention that this structure gives us the gift of knowing how the story ends from almost the moment we begin the show. It allows us to have the hindsight we all wish we had, to see the cracks forming in our relationships – the moments we wish we could change in order to change the outcome.
Watching as the audience, we can root for the couple and hope that this time it turns out well, or we can scream “Get out! You’re going to crash and burn!” Either way, the catharsis of being able to simultaneously live the relationship and also re-live the relationship is that you realize that you can’t change those moments, you can only watch as they pass by and internalize them. There is no perfect. There is real heartbreak and indifference. Yet, despite all of that, you wouldn’t give up those moments of honest joy, connection, and love. That was all real too even if the story doesn’t end the way you want it to. The point is to tell the story anyway.
Our musical director, Dvir Sadeh also said something similar. He said: “I’d rather think that not only the end result is important, but also the way you get there. Cathy and Jamie’s relationship has been full of so many beautiful little moments, sincere feelings, and things to be happy and thankful for. I want to believe that in the end, Cathy despite everything she went through, would not give up those five years and the experiences and insights they treasure within them. Maybe that’s also why we want to experience this journey with Jamie and Cathy again, all along, even though we already know how it will end from the beginning.”
The show keeps going back and forth between the happy moments and the ultimate betrayal at the end, though it is by no means a “heavy” show. It’s as heavy as any life is – with it’s ups and downs. There are songs that are hysterically funny and there are ones that pack a punch. But I hope that the audience leaves feeling like they have connected with these characters and that they’ve taken this journey with them, an intimate part of their relationship. Despite it being a cliche, I hope that they get a close up view and a personal connection to the idea that it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. Maybe it is a cliche for a reason because it resonates with us, and I hope our audiences leave feeling hopeful and moved by the show.
Jewlicious: In what ways do you personally connect with the show?
Fleischer: On a more personal note, I have had my share of devastating heartbreak. I really connect to Cathy in the show and I know Jamie intimately. Directing this show has been a real catharsis for me, and I think that at the end of the day, if I could go back in time and avoid the heartbreak by erasing my ex, or bailing the first time I saw the cracks start to form, I wouldn’t do it. Flaws, and betrayal, and heartbreak and all, it’s my life and my memories and I wouldn’t change them for a different outcome. They made me who I am and I wouldn’t ever want to give up the butterflies in my stomach or the moments that took my breath away in order to avoid the bad moments or the crushing end.
That was now 5 years ago for me, and it is amazing how life looks different depending on where you slice the 5 years in your own timeline. It makes me wonder where I’ll be 5 years from now.
Jewlicious: What’s the Jewish angle? Is there one?
Fleischer: The character Jamie is Jewish in the show, but Cathy is not. This dynamic is brought front and center in Jamie’s first song “Shiksa Goddess” which begins “I’m breaking my mother’s heart. The JCC of Spring Valley is shaking and crumbling to the ground and my grandfather’s rolling – rolling in his grave.” I think it’s an honest approach to secular dating in America and I think it’s an aspect of the show that most audiences don’t really get. I think that for a Jerusalem audience, the song is either going to make you laugh out loud with how relatable it is, but it also might make a few people a little angry.
I remember someone coming up to me after one of our performances of “First Date” livid that the couple was interfaith, but I think that it is something about Jewish life that we can’t ignore. In this story, Jamie has had “Shabbos dinner on Friday night with every Shapiro in Washington Heights” and has tried dating Jewish, but hasn’t found his match. Judaism is clearly important to him, but so is finding the right person – regardless of their religion. It’s an interesting and important topic.
This also comes up during a scene set on Christmas Eve. I personally remember growing up with a Christmas tree and how happy my Jewish mom was to have all the festivity and lights in the house. In the show, Jamie is excited about Christmas, but still has his Jewish heritage. He writes Cathy a little Christmas story in order to encourage her to go after her dreams, but it’s about Shmuel, the tailor of Klimovitch.
Again, I think a Jerusalem audience will be full of laughter during this one – more so than probably anywhere else in the world just because they will really connect with the Jewish part of Jamie’s character.
Check out the magic yourself and support both J-Town Playhouse and the AACI by attending this powerful production of The Last Five Years.
Tickets are available here: https://aaci-jtown.mamash.com/