A new production brings up old memories.
By Gregory Jacobs-Roseman (Composer-Lyricist)
I was 18 years old and a freshman at Emerson College in the spring of 2002 when Jason Robert Brown taught the first songwriting class I had ever taken. I had already written my first musical by then, which I also directed and starred in for my senior project in high school one year earlier. While I had already taken some music theory classes and had been performing in musicals, choirs, and bands for years (I picked up the clarinet in 4th grade and had since learned to play saxophone, flute, and oboe, and began singing lessons in junior high when a music teacher at school singled me out and told me I had some talent in that department), I had no formal training in songwriting at the time. The musical I had written when I was 17 was a full-fledged two-act book comedy that had a pretty decent book, half-baked music, and atrocious lyrics. In short, it was a valiant effort from a high school kid with some experience in playwriting and no clue how to write a decent song. I didn’t even know what scansion or prosody were, or how to wield either one properly.
It was with this humble background that I found myself standing in the Fireplace Theater inside 69 Brimmer Street, with two other students also enrolled as composers in Jason Robert Brown’s class (the course was actually an audition technique class for actors, but there were three of us composers that met individually with Jason after class to go over weekly writing assignments). Jason sat at the piano, played through a song of mine I had brought in as a work sample for our first meeting, then turned to me, pointed at my sheet music and said: “your notation is great, but this is just wrong.”
He was referring to how I had set my lyric. The truth was the scan was totally incorrect, though at 18 no one had ever pointed something like that out to me before. In the song in question – a dissonant number entitled “Here I Sit” – I had set the word “rejoicing” on a melody and rhythm that caused the first syllable to be emphasized, like: “RE-joy-cing,” which is not how any human being who speaks English as their first language says that word. It took Jason pointing out something so simple – something so basic that it just comes to most songwriters who are not me naturally – for the proverbial light bulb to go off in my brain. I couldn’t just throw words and music together and expect everything to work. There was a craft to it. It sounds stupidly obvious now, but as a teenager it blew my mind. “Here’s what I want you to do,” Jason said to the three of us: “forget how brilliant you are. Get over how amazing you are and write a song for next week. 32 bars only. AABA structure. Music only, no lyric.” Then he pointed at me: “except you. I want you to write a lyric for yours.”
That semester my songwriting went from the work of a teenaged kid screwing around and having fun to that of a craftsman in training. I still wasn’t a remarkable songwriter by any means, but I was now thinking while I wrote, rather than just flinging notes and words onto a page. Once a week Jason and I would have a one-on-one session after class for about a half an hour to discuss the writing exercise of the week. He had me take my 32-bar song and add a trio section, an intro, then rewrite the whole thing as a ballad. He had me look at different accompaniment patterns, (“rhythmic” vs. “flowery,”) melody contours, etc. But perhaps the biggest impact that class had on me was the week he invited all of us down to New York to see the invited dress rehearsal of his new musical, which was opening soon at the Minetta Lane theater.
Jason performing "King of the World" from Songs for a New World.
I sat in the Minetta Lane theater next to Erin, another student in Jason’s class, waiting for the show to start. She was on cloud nine. “I just want to hear the opening notes from Songs” she said. “That’s all I want right now.” Then the lights went down. A solo piano played a waltz – it was reflective, like something you’d hear when you opened the dusty music box your grandmother had as a tchotchke in her apartment. Then: four simple chords. The celli and violin and bass joined in to play those four brilliant chords that are the cornerstone to the score of The Last 5 Years. On paper there’s nothing incredibly remarkable about those chords. It’s a simple progression: C -> F/A -> Bb(add2) -> C. And yet, Jason voices them in such a way so that they are instantly recognizable – especially the alto voice, which dances around that 3rd scale degree. It becomes the default melody because the soprano voice stays on the tonic throughout and the alto voice moves in mostly contrary counterpoint with the bass line, making it even more distinct, while supported by the tenor line moving in parallel 6ths (if you want me to get super nerdy and way over-analytical, I think the parallel 5ths in the motion of the bass and tenor lines in the final two chords also helps bring out the alto voice even though it’s also moving in parallel motion for those two final notes). There’s a warmth to that voicing and orchestration that just draws you in from the start, and for the next 90 minutes, I sat there watching a master class in how to construct an intimate chamber musical about what it is to love and lose.
"Still Hurting" from The Last 5 Years; those chords of which I speak are the intro.
The only problem was I didn’t fully appreciate it. I was 18 years old, after all. What had I done at that point in my life? I had never felt real love before. I had never had my heart broken. I had never even really thought about my future, professional or otherwise. I was a kid. A kid in awe of the music he was experiencing, but still a kid.
The thing about great works of art is that they affect us in ways we often don’t fully understand at the time when we first let them in. For me, The Last 5 Years was one of those pieces. I wouldn’t experience the pain of romantic heartbreak for the first time until three years later, but L5Y was the only thing I wanted to listen to during that period, because there was something so universal about the storytelling that it was the only thing with which I could identify.
And then there was this past Wednesday night when I saw L5Y again.
The Last 5 Years is back off-Broadway, in a new production directed by Jason himself 11 years after it’s first New York outing. I am happy to report that at the age of 29, being in a totally different place in my life than I was at 18, the show still holds all the emotional power it did and then some. Simply put, there are things you notice in life at 29 that you don’t notice at 18. Whether or not someone you meet at a bar or party is wearing a wedding ring, for example. The infinite future you have before you at 18 has shrunk by the time you’re 29. Your friends are all getting married. Your parents want grandchildren. It’s time to make those decisions you’re supposed to make that will dictate the course of the rest of your life. In fact, why haven’t you made them already? What exactly is wrong with you?
"What Does It Mean?" (solo version - in the show the ensemble joins in at the end) sung by Emily Afton in concert at the D-Lounge in 2010 from my musical Save The Date. I know, shameless self-promotion, but growing up is the whole theme of the musical so I felt it was apropos. I'd post a video of a song I wrote pre-Jason's class as a comparison but I don't want that awfulness on the internet for all eternity (the only good thing about having written my first musical in Delaware in 2000 is I get to control where the video content can be seen). Just know my songs were bad, and now they’re less bad.
Yes, The Last 5 Years is a story about a courtship, a marriage, and a divorce. But for me, especially after seeing this latest production, it’s also a story about the folly of youth. It’s a warning that to only see the glossy exterior – to be blinded by the promise of passion and possibility – means you may be missing the clues that not everything is as rosy as it appears. It poses the question: “how did this happen?” and attempts to deconstruct the events leading up to the loss of innocence of the two characters who rushed into adulthood with each other – who indeed were “moving too fast” to see all the warning signs along the way. It’s a look at two young human beings who want love so much – or perhaps due to what they’ve been told about getting older just believe that they’re supposed to want love so much at that point in their lives – that they find it in what turns out to be the wrong person.
I love this video for several reasons. One: Sherie is amazing. Two: look at the audience! That's what we were wearing in 2002? Yikes!
Attention to craft, storytelling, and universal themes truly do make for a musical that can stand the test of time. I still count myself as lucky to have had Jason as a mentor at such an early age. While it was only once a week for a single semester, that class put me on the path to really understanding the craft of songwriting. And as for The Last 5 Years, I’m certain that experience will stay with me forever.
GREGORY JACOBS-ROSEMAN is a composer/lyricist and theatrical sound designer currently developing Save The Date: A New Musical Comedy. www.gregjr.com
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