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  • Kerry Auer Fergus

The Last Five Years and the Next Ten Minutes

No matter what musical you're working on, the love duet is always a pivotal moment of the show. In the case of Jason Robert Brown's The Last Five Years, the love duet is quite literally a pivotal moment as it is the only intersection of the two narratives. For those of you unfamiliar with The Last Five Years, it is the story of a failed marriage with a double narrative structure: the husband, Jamie, tells the story of their relationship in chronological order whereas Cathy begins at the end and moves backwards through time. "The Next Ten Minutes" marks the intersection of the two stories, after which Cathy crosses into the earlier days of their romance and Jamie moves into the latter half of the relationship. But for this one moment, Cathy and Jamie are together, and though we as the audience know that this relationship is doomed, they of course do not. In fact, this is probably the happiest moment of their life together. But does the music really reflect this happiness? Or does it perhaps indicate a different reality? Let's find out!

Before we get to "The Next Ten Minutes," we need to first establish the traditional formula for a love duet. You see, a lot of musical theatre love songs stick to a specific tried-and-true blueprint: first one person sings, then the second person sings the same thing but maybe with some new words, and then they sing together. In keeping with our "Ten Minutes" theme, consider "Ten Minutes Ago" from Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella for an example of a typical love duet. First, the prince sings, then Cinderella, and then finally he joins her on the last phrase and they sing in unison (this means they are singing the same notes, as opposed to singing in harmony). The unison is especially significant. It's no secret that composers often have characters sing together in unison to demonstrate how in sync they are, or in this case, how in love. (On a side note, if you're interested, you should go to YouTube and check out Laura Osnes and Jeremy Jordan singing a mash up of "Ten Minutes Ago" and "The Next Ten Minutes." It works surprisingly well!)

So how does "The Next Ten Minutes" fit within this traditional model? Well, on paper it looks pretty good! First Jamie sings. Then Cathy. Then they sing together. And finally Cathy sings the tag. That's pretty straight-forward, right? Well.... maybe not. In the case of "The Next Ten Minutes," we need to consider what they are singing, not just when. Jamie begins the number (more on that strange opening tag later) and clearly establishes a particular melody and accompaniment ("Will you share your life with me..."). But when Cathy begins her portion of the duet, she takes it in a completely different direction. What I love about that shift is how it truly comes out of nowhere. Brown maintains Jamie's distinctive accompanimental figure right up until the moment Cathy begins to sing. So until she actually opens her mouth, we (who are used to "Ten Minutes Ago" and "I've Never Been in Love Before" and all those other standard love duets) subconsciously expect her to sing a second verse of Jamie's melody. It's a bit of shock when Cathy comes in with "I am not always on time." And it's a HUGE red flag - an indication that Cathy is not in the same emotional place as Jamie.

Now that Cathy's had her say, it's time for our two lovers to sing together. Bear in mind, we are SEVENTY measures into this thing and we still haven't heard them sing a common melody, let alone sing together. In fact, so far these could be two different songs. At measure 70, Jamie returns to his original melody ("Will you share your life with me...") while Cathy repeats the word "forever" above him. So they may be vocalizing at the same time, but it's still not a common melody. FINALLY, the two sing together at the lyric "'Til the world explodes. 'Til there's no one left who has ever known us apart." But even then, they only join together for those two lines, after which, they start alternating lyrics. ("There are so many dreams I need to see with you." "There are so many years I need to be with you," etc.) What does it say about our couple that even in this intimate moment, they can only join together for a handful of lines at a time?

Cathy and Jamie's final "I do's" provide them with one last opportunity to sing together. The harmonies here are often oblique - this means that they are moving in different directions. (So if Cathy moves to a higher note, Jamie will move to a lower one.) The harmonies still complement each other, but it's not as intimate as it would be if they were singing in unison or even in parallel harmonies. (You're just going to have to trust me that in the world of music theory, oblique harmonies are not as intimate as unisons.)

However, in a moment of musical brilliance, Brown has Cathy and Jamie end on the exact same note. Not even the same note in different octaves -the same note. It's the first time in the entire piece that these two have been able to come together in any kind of significant way. There's something incredibly poignant about this. They have finally come together. They are communicating. They are in sync. But only for one note. And now they must part ways once more.

Brown has one more trick up his sleeve. "The Next Ten Minutes" begins and ends with a clever device that highlights the double narrative structure of the show. Go back and listen to those opening measures. Jamie is speaking, but his words don't quite make sense. It's as though we are missing some of it. And in fact, that's actually the case. This is half of a conversation between the two of them. You see, since Jamie is moving forward through time, we hear his side of things first. Then once the scene has ended, we return to this same musical idea and finally hear Cathy's portion of the conversation. Cathy is moving through the relationship from end to beginning, so now for the first time, we as the audience get a glimpse of something we've already seen as Cathy shares her half of the conversation. It's a brilliant way to reinforce the concept of how time moves in The Last Five Years. And it's especially emotional coming off of that final unison. It's difficult to see them go their separate ways again after that one brief moment together.

The split conversation is a clever device and a fantastic way to bookend the piece, but it tells us more about the structure of the show. The rest of the piece - Cathy's contrasting melody, their reluctance to ever sing together, those oblique harmonies, and the final unison - can give us a better understanding of the characters themselves and how they relate to one another. As an actor, one of your greatest challenges in The Last Five Years is identifying what went wrong in this relationship. There are those who would blame Jamie's infidelity or Cathy's resentment or their diverging careers, but I would argue that "The Next Ten Minutes" instead paints a picture of two people who don't have enough in common. This marriage could never have worked because Jamie and Cathy are operating on two different wavelengths.

Ultimately, "The Next Ten Minutes" is a crucial piece in the puzzle of what went wrong. And it is the music that can bring us to this greater understanding of Cathy and Jamie and a marriage that wasn't meant to be.

Adam Cantor and Betsy Wolfe in the Off-Broadway revival of The Last Five Years.

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