'The Last 5 Years': How a Hit Off-Broadway Recording Led to an Anna Kendrick-Starring Film

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'The Last 5 Years'

"The songs didn’t just belong to the singer, they also belonged to the person they were sung to"

Did Kurt Deutsch think he would own a record label? “Never in a million years."

But when the former actor saw theatrical performers with pop-rock crossover potential being undervalued by major labels, he saw an opportunity. “Rent opened the door for this new, Internet-savvy generation of musical-theater enthusiasts,” says Deutsch, 48, who founded Sh-K-Boom Records with fellow actor Sherie Rene Scott in 2000. (The two married in 1998 and have a son.)

The label focused on solo albums at first, and cast recordings were not in the picture until Scott, now 45, was cast in an off-Broadway musical called The Last Five Years by Tony-winning composer-lyricist Jason Robert Brown. While the show struggled in post-9/11 New York, Deutsch approached the producers with an idea: They would collaborate and invest in the recording together and share in its success, rather than use the traditional royalty system.

It worked, to the extent that it has become the first Sh-K-Boom film: Starring Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan, The Last 5 Years premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in early September. Although reviews praised the performances but were less enthusiastic about the story, it secured U.S. distribution through Radius, a boutique arm of The Weinstein Company, with a slated February 2015 release date. The story follows a New York couple’s failed relationship, only she tells the story in reverse while he explains it chronologically. Aside from small spoken bits, the entire show is sung, by two people.

Writer-director Richard LaGravenese says he immediately envisioned it as a film. “I didn’t realize it was a monologue show. I imagined scenes of them together,” he says. “With a camera, the songs didn’t just belong to the singer. They also belonged to the person they were sung to.”

The show has been a cornerstone of Sh-K-Boom’s success: It’s the label’s top-selling off-Broadway cast recording at about 100,000 units worldwide. (A standard off-Broadway cast album averages around 5,000.) The show has been produced across the country, and though the label doesn’t handle performance licensing, the producers pay the label a regular fee to help maintain the record’s visibility. Sh-K-Boom, which produces cast albums under its imprint Ghostlight Records, is now the largest independent theater-focused label, working with almost every producer and actor on Broadway. Its soundtracks for The Book of Mormon and In the Heights have won Grammys, and the label also has recorded several Tony Award-winning shows, including this year’s winner, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder.

The adaptation also marks one of Sh-K-Boom’s ventures to expand: Deutsch hopes to get involved with projects on the ground level, and is collaborating with Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater on the musical Alice by Heart. Says Deutsch, “I love working with artists who want to push the boundary of what a musical is.”

Listen to the original album below.

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 20 issue of Billboard.