Playing The Last Five Years – Guitar
Writer / Composer: Jason Robert Brown
Year: 2001 (original Chicago production), 2002 (Off-Broadway)
It occurs to me that this is the third Jason Robert Brown musical I have written about in my three years of blogging, and for that I make no apologies. Brown is one of the most interesting composers producing new musicals today, and (more to the point) he writes terrific guitar books, which are a joy to play. The Last Five Years easily makes it onto my “top 10” list of shows that any pit guitarist should play (note to self: must write an article about that), while being different from any of Brown’s other guitar books. It is complex, stylistically varied, and challenging enough that you feel improved as a musician for having played it.
I have played two productions of The Last Five Years. The first, in 2016, was for SecondStory Repertory in Redmond. I was itching for a chance to play the show and was very grateful for this gig. Music Director Julia Thornton was very patient with me during rehearsals as I got to grips with the material. More recently I played show for Renton Civic Theatre in September-October 2021, with music director Paul Linnes. This was a particularly fulfilling experience, partly because I brought five additional years of experience to my performance, but also because it was my first pit work after an 18-month enforced break due to the Covid-19 pandemic and we had a great pit ensemble.
In this article, I examine the show’s orchestration, describe the role of the Guitar and provide some general notes on the Guitar book (for a detailed examination of the book see my companion article The Last Five Years – Detailed Notes on the Guitar Book – coming soon). I discuss my preparation for playing the show and my experience performing it. Finally I provide a detailed description of the equipment I used to play the show and why I made particular equipment choices.
An in-depth review of The Last Five Years is beyond the scope of this article; reams have been written about it since 2001, and the story is one of the oldest and simplest there is (Kathleen and Jamie meet, fall in love, marry, fall out of love, separate). The nifty literary device of reversing Kathy’s timeline for the show provides the audience with a context that the protagonists don’t have: we know from the outset where this is headed, forcing us to focus on the dynamics of the relationship instead of a plot. It also serves as a metaphor for their relationship as a whole: their timelines converge in the first half of the show, culminating in their marriage, then begin to separate – very neat. The opposing timelines also mean that our perspectives on events in the first half of the show are progressively altered as they are re-contextualized by the other character in the second half, which is quite unsettling at times.
Like all of Brown’s shows, the central appeal of The Last Five Years lies in his fabulous, eclectic score, which encompasses pop, classical (definitely some nods to Bach in “Still Hurting”), Klezmer (“The Schmuel Song”), blues, Irish dance, Latin and folk. I even get a Phillip Glass vibe from “The Next Ten Minutes”. It’s all over the place, changes styles on a dime and is exhilarating to perform.
ORCHESTRATION / ROLE OF THE GUITAR
The Last Five Years is often described a “chamber musical” (small cast, small orchestra and suitable for small theatres) and the orchestration embodies the label quite literally. In essence it’s a piano plus a string quartet and an acoustic guitar. But there are some twists: an electric bass is used in place of an upright, and a second cello instead of a viola. In summary the ensemble is: piano, two cellos, violin, acoustic guitar and electric bass, which is a surprisingly flexible combination. The second cello gives the sound more breadth and richness, while the use of an electric bass suits the pop/rock sections of the score; the piano, guitar and bass take the lead in these sections. The score also calls for a handful of percussion flourishes (cymbal, celeste, bells) which are covered by the string players (and are often not used at all).
The roles of the various instruments are what you might expect, with the exception of the guitar. The piano is the backbone, or framework of the show. Indeed the whole show can and often is performed using just the piano and vocals. The cellos and violin take the role of a string trio, and the bass is the bottom end.
The role of the guitar is more varied. Sometimes it’s a second piano, sometimes it doubles one of the string parts (mostly Cello 2). Whenever strong rhythm is required the guitar provides it. At other moments it’s adding bluesy solo flourishes and sometimes it provides arpeggiated melody. The result is a guitar score that’s highly stylistically varied, requiring fluency in several styles.
GENERAL NOTES ON THE GUITAR BOOK
The Guitar book is complex and detailed. It begins with a note from the composer instructing the musician to play specific chord voicings (where provided) as written. However, the book also makes extensive use of slash rhythm notation, and even provides slash notes for a lot of arpeggiated sections. A large proportion of the chords in the book are complex and/or unusual chords. It is worth taking time to work out in advance exactly which voicings you plan to use, because in such a small ensemble these choices affect the overall texture of the music, and have an influence on the ease of playing. Attempts to sight-read the book are likely to end in frustration and failure. I discuss the Guitar book in detail in my companion article (The Last Five Years – Detailed Notes on the Guitar Book – coming soon).
PREPARING TO PLAY THE SHOW
Since the score is complicated, tricky in places, and requires a lot of precise playing, it should not be underestimated. I recommend taking several weeks to become very familiar with the material before the first rehearsal. The first time I played it I took a conservative approach to my preparation, working on it gradually over two months and making detailed notes for future reference. This paid off in 2016, and again in 2021, when I revisited the score and was able to use my notes from the previous production as a starting point (although I still spent several weeks re-familiarizing myself with the material). At this point I have large sections of the score memorized. I also recommend building up your hand strength in preparation for the show, which is quite physically demanding (see below). There are lots of places in the score where the Guitar doubles another instrument (mostly Piano or Cello 2). It is useful to develop an understanding of which instrument you are doubling in such sections.
There are three cast recordings available for The Last Five Years. I recommend listening to all three to get the broadest possible perspective on how the material can be interpreted and help stimulate some ideas of your own. I provide links for CD purchasing and YouTube playlists for the various recordings at the end of this article.
- Original Cast Recording (2002): this is the recording which I most closely modeled my own performance on. It features outstanding vocal and band performances; its only drawback as a reference is that the guitar is quite low in the mix.
- Off-Broadway Cast Recording (2013): the guitar is a little more prominent in the mix on most of this recording, but I find the vocal performances slightly brash. Nevertheless, this is another good reference for anyone preparing to play the show.
- Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (2014): the orchestration is slightly modified for this version, most notably with the addition of drums on some songs, but once again there is some useful listening for guitarists learning the show. I particularly like the rhythm playing on the up-tempo numbers in this recording, and the guitar is very clear on “The Next Ten Minutes”. The production and mix on this recording is particularly good.
PERFORMING THE SHOW
The show is one act and sung through, taking about 80-90 minutes to perform. There are no significant breaks for the guitar apart from the slightly incongruous two-minute book reading by Jamie about two thirds of the way through. This, combined with the use of acoustic guitar throughout means that more hand strength and stamina is needed than for a predominantly electric score. Some songs are quite tiring to play, particularly #4: Moving Too Fast, which is mostly bar chords and always makes my hands ache!
Given the complexity of the material, I strongly recommend taking time to warm up before each performance. I made a point of playing all the most difficult and exposed sections every day as part of my warm-up process. I also continued to practice the show in between performances throughout each run (this is one of the few shows where I do this).
I also made a point of consciously internally counting time through most of the score, because the absence of a drummer makes this more important, and it helps you stay completely focused on the book. When doubling another instrument, I also listened a little more closely on that instrument.
At first glance, equipment selection for The Last Five Years should be straightforward: it’s all acoustic guitar. However, I wanted to achieve a variety of tones to match the stylistic variety of the material. I tried three approaches:
- Multiple Guitars: for the 2016 production I tried switching to an archtop for #1: Still Hurting and #7: A Summer In Ohio. The thicker, woodier tone of the instrument fit the material well, but I ultimately abandoned this approach because both songs segue directly into the following numbers and there isn’t enough time to make the switch, especially at the end of “A Summer In Ohio”.
- EQ Pedals: for the 2021 production I experimented with adding both a graphic EQ and a parametric EQ into the signal chain to achieve tonal variety. This gave me a warmer sound for #1 and #7, a bright tone for the poppy, strummed, rhythmic songs and a tone somewhere in the middle for everything else. I also decided against this approach, not because it was impractical but because I was able to achieve the same effect with a third, simpler approach.
- Different Picking Implements: the approach I settled on in 2021 was simple, but very satisfactory. I grew out my picking hand fingernails and coated them with nail hardener (Sally Hansen Hard As Nails). This protected my nails throughout the run and also allowed me to use them for strumming. I settled on three tones:
- Fingerpicking: having hardened nails added a little extra definition and clarity to the picked notes.
- Strumming with nails: here I was just using my index finger nail as a pick for strumming chords. It provides a warmer sound than using any plastic pick and worked well for numbers like the jazzy “A Summer In Ohio”. The hardener protected the nail, so I could strum as hard as needed throughout the run without damaging it.
- Nylon Pick: for the more rhythmic songs where I wanted a brighter tone (such as #4: Moving Too Fast) I used a Dunlop 0.46mm nylon pick. This industry stalwart is pretty flexible so you get a fair amount of pick noise in the sound, which is exactly what I wanted.
With just these three simple techniques I was able to get all the tones I wanted out of one acoustic guitar with minimal fuss, allowing me to focus more on my performance. I describe exactly where I used each technique in my companion article, The Last Five Years – Detailed Notes on the Guitar Book (coming soon).
When choosing an acoustic guitar for the show, I recommend slightly smaller OM or similar body styles, rather than larger Jumbo or Dreadnought body shapes. The idea is to fit into the ensemble, rather than booming out and these smaller body styles are good for this more refined, compact tone. Ultimately, it depends on your preference, but one key characteristic that the guitar really needs is to have a cutaway body. There are two moments in the show (in #4: “Moving Too Fast” and #13: “Nobody Needs To Know”) which require quick and easy access to the 14th to 17th frets, and this can only practically be achieved with a cutaway instrument. On both occasions the Guitar part is exposed, so you need to be able to get it right consistently.
For the 2021 production I used my Taylor 214ce-QM-DLX acoustic guitar. This is part of Taylor’s “Grand Auditorium” range, but with a nice quilted maple finish to the back and sides of the guitar. It has the excellent Expression System 2 electronics (standard on all guitars in the series I believe).
I also recommend having a spare acoustic guitar available in the pit if space allows, because if you break a string there is no time to change it.
The Last Five Years isn’t a loud show, so the amount and type of guitar amplification needed depends on the size of the room, the sound design of the production and whether or not you are in a pit. Generally, I think that as a minimum some amplification is needed for the acoustic guitar so that it can be balanced against the louder cellos. Careful attention is also needed to the EQ for the electric bass, which can easily become boomy.
My 2021 setup is fairly typical for a show like this. I input the guitar into a Fishman Aura Spectrum DI Preamp (a great, versatile preamp). The Aura has built-in Acoustic Imaging which can be blended with the direct pickup signal to give a more natural-sounding amplified acoustic sound. I used the Acoustic Imaging feature, plus a little of the onboard EQ and compression to get a sound that satisfied the house sound designer. The Aura output was sent directly to the house mixing desk via its XLR output.
For personal monitoring in the pit I ran the ¼-inch output from the Aura into my AER Compact 60 amplifier. I didn’t need a lot of volume, but it did help at times (those cellos!).
I used no effects for the show, other than the EQ, compression and Acoustic Imaging (Impulse Response) features of the preamplifier, as described above. I did have an MXR M108 10-Band Graphic EQ on the pedalboard, in case the sound designer wanted some adjustments, but I didn’t use it. The pedalboard was a Pedaltrain Classic JR, with a CIOKS DC10 power supply fitted on the underside.
I used the following additional equipment for the show:
- Shubb Deluxe Capo S1 (you have to have a capo. I actually had three or four with me).
- Dunlop 44P.46 Nylon 0.46mm picks
- My trusty Big Dog drum stool (now sadly discontinued).
LINKS – OTHER ARTICLES ON THIS SITE
The Last Five Years – Detailed Notes on the Guitar Book (coming soon)
LINKS – EXTERNAL
Note: all links were valid at the time this article was published.
The Last Five Years Wikipedia entry
The Last Five Years (film) Wikipedia entry
Jason Robert Brown homepage and Twitter
SecondStory Repertory Theatre
Renton Civic Theatre
2002 Original Cast Recording CD and YouTube playlist
2013 Off-Broadway Cast Recording CD and YouTube playlist
2014 Original Motion Picture Soundtrack CD and YouTube playlist
Sally Hansen Hard As Nails (Nail Hardener)
Fishman Aura Spectrum DI
AER Acoustic Amplifiers
CIOKS Pedalboard power supplies