Every now and then a piece of musical theatre cements itself as the one by which a generation of young theater geeks identifies with and carries an affinity for long after it has been introduced. Unlike big spectacles like Wicked or Phantom of the Opera, these shows tend to be on a smaller scale with a much more simplistic set and carried heavily by the book and song. These are the shows that find a cult following and emerge in numerous regional theaters. In the 60s it was Hair. Then A Chorus Line in the 70s, Chess in the 80s, and the 90s gave my generation its voice in Rent. Each of these shows have exploded beyond their fringe origins to become seen by millions of eyes and find their momentum via global television coverage and covers of magazines.
The Last Five Years found it’s generational following in a much more modern way. Jason Robert Brown’s unconventional story about the marriage of two young New York artists found its legs in a more viral method. It never bowed on a Broadway stage nor graced the cover of Time magazine but thanks to the advent of instant messaging, newsgroups, and America Online (yes, AOL) word of the Drama Desk Award winning Off-Broadway show began to spread and take its hold on young theater goers around the globe with productions landing in Asia, Australia, and Europe and most recently on the big screen starring Academy Award nominee Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan.
Told in opposing chronological order, The Last Five Years introduces us to Cathy (Margo Seibert) just as she has separated from her husband Jamie (Zak Resnick). We meet Jamie, however, as the pair are meeting for the first time. Her story is told in reverse while his timeline is moving forward. It’s a concept that can initially sound confusing but actually works to isolate the individual characters story. I was given the chance to sit with the cast and director (Michael Berresse) behind the American Conservatory Theater’s upcoming production of The Last Five Years as they were rehearsing for their May 11 – June 5 run at the A.C.T.’s Geary Theater (415 Geary Street.)
So I understand you are just learning about San Francisco.
<Margo> Yeah, we arrived a week ago yesterday?
<Zak> Yep. And we’ve had one day off from rehearsal. So, we’ve only had one day to explore.
What did you do on your day off?
<Michael> They spent it together.
<Margo> We walked to the Painted Ladies from Nob Hill. From there we went to the Mission District down Valencia and Mission.
You guys know the areas already! Pretty good!
<Zak> We went to Gracias Madre. I loved it in LA I was glad to see it was here.
<Margo> Then we went to Smitten Ice Cream. Really good! Then we realized we weren’t too far from home.
<Zak> We were gonna walk somewhere and take a cab back but just decided to walk everywhere.
<Margo> This guy on the hills. It’s amazing to watch this guy on hills.
Good or bad?
<Margo> <laughing> I kick it’s butt.
<Zak> She kicks my butt. <laughing> I have killer shin splints! This weekend we’re gonna walk the Wharf and the Marina and end up at the bridge.
<Margo> What that area called?
<Zak> C-3PO (Presidio)
<Michael> He’s already renamed most of the districts of San Francisco.
<Zak> We took pictures in the Embragadocio (Embarcadero)
<Michael> They are looking forward to visiting C-3PO.
Given that the Presidio is where Lucas Arts is you won’t be far. Maybe you will run into him there.
<Zak> Aw, shit! I didn’t even know that!
<Margo> We just saw the Golden Gate Bridge for the first time. It does exist!
The A.C.T. presented The Last Five Years in a concert form a year ago. What was it that inspired them to do a fully realized staging of this show? <Michael Berresse> My understanding is that the concert was such a great success and they were a bit surprised. Not so much at the quality of the show but I didn’t think they understood that there was such a cult following of the music and the material. It sold very well and they were like, ‘You know, we love it and we only got to do it for 3 nights in a staged concert version. It would be exciting to do a fully staged version of the show.”
How did this project land in your lap to direct? <Michael> Carey Perloff, the Artistic Director here knows me as an actor and a director. I acted in The Normal Heart here three seasons ago.
Which had me bawling for 2 hours afterward.
<Michael> I’m sorry and I’m not sorry. <laughing> It was super intense. Carey also knows me as a director who takes challenging structural material. I’ve done a lot of that in my directorial career. I also directed “Now Hear This” which was a memory trigger play that was like an adventure in a museum that triggered early life memory. It was constantly back and forth and overlapping worlds. And sort of a time-travely adventure. When Carey was looking at this I think she saw the complexity in how Cathy’s story is told in reverse and Jamie’s story is told in forward progression.
What were you looking for as you were casting this two-person show? <Michael> My goal in casting was to find two people that I thought were really going to be able to bring the kind of complexity and humanity, on both sides of the coin, to each of the characters. I hired Margo to do Next to Normal a couple of years ago. She was Natalie in that and she was extraordinary. I immediately thought of her when I thought about this character. Thankfully I got her between gigs. <laughing>
Well, you Margo just came off of Rocky on Broadway. You’re the original Adrian! That’s a pretty big get! <Michael> It’s a very big get! Both of them are. Zak and I had worked together as actors on something. Was it 4 years ago?
<Zak> A Hell of a long time ago. Four or 5 years.
<Michael> We did a workshop of a show called The Blue Flower. But I had always been a fan of his and he had done a demo recording for something Jeffrey (Michael’s partner Jeff Bowen) was working on and he also sang in a concert of Jeffrey’s musical last fall. I talked to you afterwards in the lobby.
<Zak> I didn’t think you remembered that conversation.
<Michael> Of course I did.
<Zak> And you didn’t really say anything. You were like, ‘I have something I want to talk to you about’. And then I was just left hanging.
<Michael> What I’ve never said to either one of you is that before we went into the casting process I said, ‘In a perfect world this is what would happen”. Fast forward through an entire casting process in New York. Lots of people coming through. We could have just completely ignored the casting process altogether.
Being artists how do you approach a character who is a young artist themselves? Do you coddle them? How do you give them their own personality without putting too much of yourself in there? How do you respect it without diluting it? <Margo> I will say that Michaels take on the material is why I am here. I respect that he wants Cathy to be well rounded and not potentially portrayed as pathetic. While I may not still be in my 20’s anymore but at the same time I think those same feelings and anxieties and moments where you keep reevaluating your career. It was amazing to walk in to the audition and be able to sing a song exactly about that. It’s not the beginning of my career but it’s all cyclical. I have to find a lot of ways to bring myself into Cathy. My personal experience as Margo is different than Cathy but there are moments where I tell myself that it’s imperative that I get this job or that job.
How about yourself with Jamie. He isn’t an actor but he is a writer. There’s obvious artistic parallels there.
<Zak> The last couple roles that I’ve played have been so far from myself as a person that this immediately feels so much like me.
Is that liberating or scarier? <Zak> A little of both. I think it’s always good being cast in the role for a reason so you can bring part of yourself into it. I think because it’s a little close to home it can become a trap too. There are a lot of things about Jamie that aren’t like me. It’s an ever evolving process.
Given the cult following of the show itself, there will be quite a number of people that are familiar with it. As a director what are you trying to do to either make them feel at home and comfortable with what they know or are you hoping they see something new that they didn’t notice before? <Michael> I always consider the audiences experience, of course, because I’m an audience member. Even as a director. I’m also super sensitive to Margo and Zak’s process because I’m also an actor. As we go through I live it from the inside and from the outside. My vision for the show or my version of the show is that I really want, more than anything else, my experience in my own life is if you have the courage and the opportunity to meet someone, to fall in love with someone, and to spend time with someone no matter how it resolves, that is something I’m lucky to have and I’m grateful to have.
I think all of us are lucky to find the people we can love and do love. Hurt is going to come with that. Sometimes you live together forever. Sometimes you die within an hour and a half of each other on your 99th birthday. Sometimes you don’t. For me, I wanted to make sure this story wasn’t for people to wallow in pain. I mean, they’re going to feel it. It’s devastating but at the same time it isn’t something to wallow in.