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Jason Robert Brown had one stipulation for his Off-Broadway musical being made into a film.
“My condition was that whatever movie we made hew as closely to the written script of the show as it could,” explains Brown, who wrote The Last 5 Years’ music and lyrics. “The very fiber of it is personal in addition to the story so I didn’t want to mess around with that.”
The cult-favorite show premiered Off-Broadway in 2002 and was revived, in a production directed by Brown, in 2013. The tuner follows the rise and fall of a five-year relationship from both sides — Jamie (Jeremy Jordan) moves forward in time while Cathy (Anna Kendrick) goes backwards. Director Richard LaGravenese maintains this structure in the film with one marked difference: both of the characters appear in each song, as opposed to onstage where they sing solo for most of the show.
While the score remains largely the same, there are some updates, both in the music and lyrics. In honor of the film’s Sh-K-Boom/Ghostlight Records soundtrack, The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Brown and LaGravenese to chart just how different each song in the film really is, complete with the original 2002 recordings — and a stream of one of the most romantic tracks from the movie-musical.
This song, in which Cathy finds the break-up note, is the same in the film, but certain changes had to be made for new actors. “Some of Anna’s keys are actually different than either Betsy [Wolfe, who played Cathy in the Off-Broadway revival in 2013] or Sherie [Rene Scott who originated the role downtown] so we had to adjust a little bit around that,” Brown explains.
As Jamie regales the lore of his ex-girlfriends, all of a sudden the film’s first fantasy sequence starts. But look closely: this only happens during Jamie’s songs. “I decided because he’s a writer, he’s the only one who has fantasies,” LaGravenese explains. The music and lyrics are the same, save the addition of some percussion.
“See I’m Smiling”
Listen carefully. This is the only song where the F-word is used in the film. Brown edited some of his lyrics to make sure the movie received a PG-13 rating. Cathy shout-singing, “You could stay with your wife on her f—king birthday,” as Jamie leaves Ohio early is the only one that made the cut.
“Moving Too Fast”
While there are no lyric changes, there’s one that stuck around against all odds. “Sonny Mehta is a reference for absolutely no one,” Brown says of the shoutout to the editor. “For the past 10 years now, I’ve been saying Oprah Winfrey, and now that doesn’t count anymore either because she doesn’t do the book club. So I’ve actually outlived the replacement reference and gone back to the original.”
“I’m A Part of That”
“I was telling a story within that song that was going back in time as it was happening,” LaGravenese said of his approach to Cathy’s song where she sings about fading into the background of Jamie’s career. “She’s having a flashback to when he first started writing the book because she’s talking to people,” LaGravenese continues. “At the end of the song, she’s just reading the manuscript for the first time when she’s realizes number one he used her in the book and number two he’s talented and where is that going to put her?”
“The Schmuel Song”
This was the hardest number to visualize for LaGravenese, who even admits to asking Brown to write an original tune so he didn’t have to deal with it. There are no new lyrics, but there is some new dialogue. “Most of the Schmuel interjections that Anna made are entirely her ad lib,” Brown said. “We just sort of set her loose on it and said, ‘This is where you’re at, go for it.’ So she’s an animal, she’ll make up anything. She was great!”
“A Summer in Ohio”
Lyric change alert! The original line from the Off-Broadway production is, “I found your book at a Borders in Kentucky.” Now Cathy sings, as she’s video-chatting Jamie about the horrors of doing summer stock, “I found your book at a Target in Kentucky.” RIP Borders.
“The Next Ten Minutes”
Brown added some robust string orchestrations for this romantic number where Jamie proposes, but he didn’t add as much as he initially intended. “I had planned that ‘Next 10 Minutes’ was going to be 60-piece orchestra with French horns, trumpets, and trombones,” Brown says. “But when we got up to it being time to score the movie, I realized that the world we were building, it still didn’t want brass instruments.”
“A Miracle Would Happen/When You Come Home To Me”
There’s an F-bomb on the soundtrack but not in the film. (“F—k her” becomes “Touch her.”) “When we put the soundtrack together, we decided we would keep the songs as we all know they should go as opposed to the way that the MPAA decided they should go,” Brown says.
No one wants to take credit for the lyric change in this song. In Cathy’s inner monologue at a failing audition, she sings, “These are the people who cast Russell Crowe in a musical.” (Linda Blair was the punchline in the original show.) “I think that was actually Anna’s!” Brown says. “Anna says it was my suggestion, but I actually think she came up with it, but let the record show that neither of us will take credit for it just in case Russell comes hunting us down.”
“If I Didn’t Believe in You”
This was one of the hardest filming days for Jordan because he had to sing the entire song live, as the number is one master cut. “It was one of the meanest in terms of having to do a six-minute song from one end to the other every single take,” Brown says. There’s also a lyric change: “touring again for the summer” becomes “going again to Ohio.”
“I Can Do Better Than That”
In the Off-Broadway production, Cathy said an ex-boyfriend “looked like Tom Cruise“; however, given how the world has changed since 2002, Brown has actually edited this lyric in the show itself to “very well-placed tattoos.” “It got to a point where in the culture the name Tom Cruise started to suggest crazy Scientologist instead of hot guy,” Brown says.
“Nobody Needs to Know”
This was the song that helped LaGravanese understand “Schmuel.” “When he sings, ‘We build a treehouse, I keep it from shaking,’ you realize that’s what he used to,” LaGravenese explained of the plights Jamie went through to uplift Cathy, as he does in “Schmuel.” “He must have done that a million times, but it just doesn’t work and he’s tired.”
“Goodbye Until Tomorrow/I Could Never Rescue You”
The string orchestrations factor highly in this song, where Cathy has just met Jamie, and Jamie is in the process of writing the break-up note. While LaGravenese has filmed this scene so the two time periods overlap in the same frame, the music crescendos and leaves the viewer and listener feeling uplifted even though the break-up is inevitable. “It just pays off,” Brown says. “Because what the orchestration can do is support what the actors are doing.”
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