Betsy Wolfe and Adam Kantor talk about how a failed love can still produce smarter, stronger, better people
The rising Broadway stars have made extraordinary extracurricular careers out of performing The Last Five Years, Jason Robert Brown’s celebrated and most unusual 2001 musical rumination on his first, failed marriage.
The show uses an innovative form of storytelling in which the man sings his version of the story in chronological order, while the woman tells hers in reverse order. So the two stories only briefly intersect for their wedding, right in the middle.
It was a completely unexpected musical for its time, and instantly praised as a modern classic. And in 2013, Kantor and Wolfe breathed new life into the tale when they starred in a record-breaking off-Broadway revival directed by Brown himself. Since then, Kantor and Wolfe have met up for nearly a dozen one-night stands around the country performing a special, stripped-down concert version of the musical. This coming Monday (May 22), the pair will revisit the marriage of Cathy and Jamie in the Denver Center’s Seawell Grand Ballroom.
“We’re always joking to each other: How many more years do you think we can get away with this before we have to make Jason write The Next Five Years?” said Wolfe, who was talking with the DCPA NewsCenter on a very big day in her life: Her first day of rehearsal in preparation for taking on the lead role in Broadway’s Waitress on June 13.
Because the two actors essentially take turns singing songs, The Last Five Years is one musical where you might think their chemistry as a couple is not all that essential to the production. But Kantor and Wolfe exude magnetism, even from afar.
“We’ve been best friends now for five years,” said Wolfe. “So not only have we been doing this show together, we have experienced some significant real-life ups and downs together. And I think that just further enriches what we do onstage. After all we have been through, I can’t imagine going through this experience with anyone else.”
Kantor, who recently appeared in a landmark Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof as Motel, says Wolfe has similarly upped his stage game. “She has made me a better actor and a better performer and a better person,” he said.
Ironically, Kantor says, one of the most common comments the couple receives from audiences has to do with their stage mojo. “When we performed the full production in New York, we were onstage together for a grand total of maybe five minutes,” he said.
So how can two people communicate that kind of chemistry when they hardly ever interact? “I think it is because the way we rehearsed it,” Kantor said.
In preparation for off-Broadway, the actors had the unusual opportunity to be directed by the man who wrote the music. Rather than rehearse the two alone, Jason Robert Brown had the actors sing to each other. Even though one actor was always silent, they were reacting to one another. They were playing off each other’s energy. So when it came time for the actors to take to the stage and sing alone, they were now essentially playing opposite a real memory. As all of us must do when thinking back on a failed love.
“I tell you, we each both felt the presence of the other,” Kantor said. “The moments I was performing alone onstage were still very much based on the reactions Betsy gave me in rehearsal. So it’s almost like we were playing with the ghost of the other, in a weird way. And the audience feels that energy.”
Part of the fun in now presenting the story as a concert is that the actors don’t have to disappear from the stage when they aren’t singing. They can just take step back and watch what they never got to see in full performance: They other actor performing.
“What’s funny is that the staged version is in so many ways, just a slightly enhanced version of a concert anyway, because we are singers take turns,” said Wolfe. “The stage production fills in some of the obvious visual blanks. You know where we are in the story, for example: We are in a bookstore. You can see that. What I personally love about the concert version – and why I actually think it’s even more successful at times than the staged production – is that it allows the audience to fill in the blanks for themselves. It’s not so black and white. This story is all about the grey areas of a relationship. And not having the sets, the lights or the costumes allows you to go deeper into the relationship.”
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Video: Listen to Betsy Wolfe sing ‘A Summer in Ohio’
Kantor feels it, too. “I do think there is something energetically unique about having the two of us onstage throughout the concert, versus in the full production,” he said. “There is more of an awareness of the presence of the other. In concert, we are able to play with each other a little bit more in the moments when Cathy and Jamey might actually be together onstage.”
One reason The Last Five Years’ enduring success is still somewhat surprising is that audiences go into it, even on first viewing, knowing the end of the story. So why should we care about a couple that we know from the start isn’t going to make it?
“It’s true,” Kantor said, “Cathy and Jamie are two people who fundamentally weren’t meant to be in a forever relationship. There is a crack in the foundation, and I think that just makes it all the more tragic. Because despite that, I do believe they made each other better people. They made each other smarter and stronger. I think that’s why it’s so relatable. How many of us have been in a relationship that was filled with love, that was filled with dreams of perfection and infinity, but didn’t come to fruition the way we thought it would?”
Which leaves only one big and oft-debated question over these last 15 years of The Last Five Years: Why Brown decided to tell his story with the two narrators swinging from two opposing pendulums of time.
“Audiences might look at that as courageous and unconventional,” said Wolfe. “But if you ask Jason, he will tell you that it was the only way that it could be done.”
Kantor thinks Brown’s approach gets at something essential about the way we experience time. “Whenever you are looking at a memory,” he said, “there are so many angles in. Here, he is giving us two ways in.”
In their initial rehearsals, when Wolfe and Kantor were first exploring these fated characters, they both thought it would be a bright idea to rehearse the story in chronological order, just to see how that felt. Brown just smiled. When The Last Five Years bowed off-Broadway back in 2002, stars Norbert Leo Butz and Sherie Rene Scott also thought that might be a useful exercise.
“But it was completely unhelpful,” Wolfe said. “Because when you look back at a relationship and it comes across as, ‘OK, well this happened, and then this happened,’ then it’s just the blame game. If you see what each person is feeling at the same time, I think it’s too easy to pick sides. Better to explore the relationship as a big picture instead of with a magnifying glass. You just can’t tell this story any other way.”
Wolfe says these special one-off concerts tend to draw first-timers and 50-timers alike. But she’s not sure how many years The Last Five Years has left.
Adam and I are very proud of our history with this show,” said Wolfe. “I like to think we are giving you a show that will make aficionados proud and will make huge new fans of this show as well. But I don’t know how many more times we’ll get to do it. Our schedules have gotten busier. At some point, the time will come to say, ‘OK, I think we’re good.’ One of the biggest compliments we get is when people say, ‘I knew I should have gone, and I am devastated that I missed it.’ ”
John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.
The Last Five Years in concert starring Adam Kantor and Betsy Wolfe
About the show: Adam Kantor (Fiddler of the Roof, RENT and Next to Normal on Broadway, Avenue Q off Broadway) and Betsy Wolfe (Falsettos, Bullets Over Broadway and The Mystery of Edwin Drood on Broadway) star in The Last Five Years in Concert. This intimate musical by Jason Robert Brown (Parade, Songs for a New World, Honeymoon in Vegas, The Bridges of Madison County) chronicles the five-year relationship between two New Yorkers, struggling actress Cathy and promising writer Jamie, from their first meeting to their last goodbye. The Last Five Years is a powerful and personal look at marriage told from both points of view – Jamie’s story begins at the first meeting and follows through to the couple’s ultimate breakup, while Cathy relates the story in reverse, from falling out of love back to the first spark of romance. This innovative storytelling structure makes for a show nearly entirely comprised of solo songs, with the actors meeting just once in the middle of the show in a duet.
• May 22
• Seawell Grand Ballroom
• Tickets start at $45
• Call 303-893-4100 or BUY ONLINE
Please be advised that the Denver Center for the Performing Arts – online at DenverCenter.Org – is the ONLY authorized online ticket provider for The Last Five Years in Denver. Follow the DCPA on social media @DenverCenter and through the Denver Center for the Performing Arts News Center.
Video: A message to Denver from Adam Kantor and Betsy Wolfe
Interview bonus: More with Adam Kantor and Betsy Wolfe
Betsy Wolfe: Every night. I had played Princess Puffer in a college production. So when I first got called in for the Broadway Edwin Drood, silly me, I just assumed, ‘Oh, they want to see me for Princess Puffer.” And they are like, “No, Betsy. Chita Rivera is playing Princess Puffer.” And I thought, “Oh yeah, – that’s right. I’m in the real world now.” So I played Rosa Bud and Miss Deirdre Peregrine. And that was pretty thrilling. Every night, Chita sang the second-to-last song, and she sang it right to me. She’s reminiscing about her life and how some things went right and some things went wrong. And of course as much as I am trying to be 100 percent in character, I am sitting there going, “Chita Rivera is singing to me at 80 years old about her life.” I’ll never forget it. It’s ingrained in my memory.
John Moore: And Adam, you just appeared in a wildly received production of Fiddler on the Roof.
Adam Kantor: Yes. Fiddler on the Roof was the first show that I ever did, when I was in 6th grade. That was a school production. I played Mendel, the Rabbi’s son. And then two years later, in 8th grade, I played Tevye. That was community theatre. So the show lives in my bones and in my blood on multiple levels. Going deeper, I am a descendant of Jewish immigrants. To do some prep for the show, I did a big trip through Eastern Europe and traced my ancestry. The whole journey from my preparation through this really gorgeous production really was like an excavation of the soul. I learned a lot about myself, and my roots. I just loved doing it. I am really grateful for it.
John Moore: And Betsy, next you will be taking over the lead role in Waitress on Broadway. The national tour comes to Denver in December. What are we in for?
Betsy Wolfe: I’ll say this – and you can’t say this about all shows: It is pure joy from start to finish. And I mean joy in every sense of the word. It’s joyous to watch this woman who is so broken find her footing, because we are all that person in a way. And so few females are written like this now, where we get to see them have this incredible journey. It’s a huge gift to get to play this role, in same way that The Last Five Years is a gift. It’s also just funny. I remember seeing one of the first preview performances as an audience member, and my stomach hurt because I was laughing so hard. These characters are outrageous and yet … they are us. There is a part of them in everyone. You can’t leave this show without feeling better about decisions you have made. And the music is incredible. Sara Bareilles has written one of the most incredible scores I’ve ever heard.