By Blair Hill
The Last Five Years is a semi-autobiographical musical written by Jason Robert Brown. For the purpose of this essay, I will be discussing the music and characterization from the 2014 film starring Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan as Cathy and Jamie respectively. The musical follows the relationship of Cathy and Jamie: a relationship that lasts five years. The story is told out of chronological order; Cathy begins her tale at the end of their relationship, while Jamie comes from the beginning. I will be discussing major plot points, so a spoiler warning is now in effect.
Who is to blame for the decline and subsequent unraveling of Cathy and Jamie’s relationship? Cathy and Jamie meet as adults, both coming with baggage from previous relationships. Cathy has had one serious relationship while Jamie has had many exploits (which he details in the song Shiksa Goddess). Meanwhile, Cathy mentions that her previous boyfriend broke things off with her in “a heartfelt letter,” claiming that she’s better than that kind of relationship.
At the beginning of their relationship, Cathy and Jamie are both seemingly in love. Jamie expresses concerns that “things are moving too fast,” but Cathy is ready to dive in because she wants to move past her previous relationship. This shows that, from the beginning, Cathy and Jamie are not in the same place. Jamie may be ready for a certain kind of love, but it’s immediately apparent that Cathy is in it for the long haul.
Viewers are fairly divided on who is to blame for the characters’ failed marriage. Many people point to Jamie, who cheats on Cathy in the song Nobody Needs to Know. While it’s easy to say that cheating is never acceptable in a relationship, Jamie also expresses that he feels trapped in his relationship with Cathy, who is constantly in Ohio while Jamie is in New York. Is the distance to blame?
When Cathy and Jamie meet up in See I’m Smiling, which is told from Cathy’s perspective, it’s clear that, once again, Cathy and Jamie are not on the same page. Jamie has come to visit Cathy in Ohio but says he has to leave almost immediately to go to a party in New York. At the end of the song, Cathy says “I swear to God I’ll never understand how you can stand there straight and tall and see I’m crying and not do anything at all.” This song occurs right before Jamie makes the decision to leave Cathy. Was the distance too much for him?
The distance may not have been the issue after all. Jamie is a successful author while Cathy is a struggling actress, taking whatever gigs she can get (even if that means spending summers in Ohio with a former stripper and her snake). This is likely another influence for the issues in their relationship. There are two songs that highlight this issue further: Climbing Uphill and If I Didn’t Believe in You.
Climbing Uphill sees Cathy going through a number of auditions, desperately pursuing success in the acting scene of New York: a path that she admits to regretting in the song. Near the end of the song, Cathy reflects on who she doesn’t want to be in Jamie’s life. She says “I will not be the girl who gets asked how it feels to be trotting along at the genius’ heels. I will not be the girl that requires a man to get by.” Here, we see an issue in the relationship that has little to do with Jamie.
Conversely, in If I Didn’t Believe in You, Jamie is trying to convince Cathy to attend yet another party with him. His novel has recently come out, and he declares that he’s going to the party with or without Cathy. In this song, Jamie bounces between desperation and criticism, working to convince Cathy of his love while also trying to convince her to come to his party. Unfortunately, Jamie’s anger overcomes him: “I will not fail so you can be comfortable, Cathy. I will not lose because you can’t win.” Once again, the inequality in the relationship is notable, as we see Jamie confirming Cathy’s fears about their power dynamic.
Upon examining this dynamic further, it’s clear that these issues have been a common thread in Cathy and Jamie’s relationship. Jamie consistently puts his work and his parties before Cathy, causing her to question her place in the relationship. Her worries are put on display in I’m a Part of That, where she questions the role she has to play in Jamie’s life. Meanwhile, Jamie is focusing on avoiding the temptations that come with being a successful novelist.
In the song A Miracle Would Happen/When You Come Home to Me, Jamie is actively struggling with remaining faithful. He’s narrating these struggles to his friends and wishing that “a miracle would happen” and suddenly other women wouldn’t look appealing to him anymore. Even before Cathy and Jamie are actively fighting all the time, he’s grappling with his temptations. Unfortunately, he gives into these temptations, likely creating the final permanent rift with Cathy.
In Nobody Needs to Know, Jamie sings quietly to his unknown partner (who some may have assumed was Cathy) “Hey, kid. Good morning. You look like an angel. I don’t remember when we fell asleep. We should get up, kid. Cathy is waiting.” It’s this last line that clues the listener/viewer in on the fact that Jamie is with someone who is not Cathy. Some might look at this action and say “this is it. Clearly Jamie is to blame for the end of the relationship.” However, that may or may not be the case.
Similarly to Jamie, Cathy has some issues that begin with her. As mentioned previously, Cathy is struggling at work and in her relationship with Jamie; this leads to low self-esteem and causes her to become increasingly suffocating in her relationship with Jamie. She doesn’t want him going to parties or being exposed to temptation. She wants to succeed, and if she does, she thinks everything else will fall into place, which is likely an idealistic twist on how events might actually unfold.
While Cathy’s idealism can be encouraging to Jamie at times, it also is the root of some of Cathy’s issues with control. She is wholly convinced that she deserves to succeed and will. However, the longer she goes without success (and the more trips she has to take to Ohio), the clearer it becomes that Cathy is not happy with herself, which then translates into a lack of happiness with Jamie.
Finally, Cathy’s unwillingness to admit blame is likely what ultimately causes Jamie to drift away from her. In See I’m Smiling, Cathy tries to convince Jamie to stay with her in Ohio, seeing her show and celebrating her birthday. However, when Jamie refuses to stay, we see Cathy fall apart; all of her statements about compromise and mending things fall out of the picture. It seems that if, in losing Jamie, Cathy loses herself.
In Jamie’s final communication to Cathy, (another unfortunate “heartfelt letter”), Jamie says “I could never rescue you: all you ever wanted, but I could never rescue you, no matter how I tried.” This is it: the underlying issue in Cathy and Jamie’s relationship. Their relationship was built on Cathy’s insecurities and her belief that Jamie’s love would somehow save her. This was not a relationship of equals but a relationship of co-dependence and false idealism. In the beginning, Jamie may have thought that his love would save Cathy, but he realizes too late that entirely supporting someone else is not what he wants.
In the end, it’s hard to fully place the blame on one single party. Both Cathy and Jamie made serious mistakes and missteps throughout their relationship, causing its eventual downfall. This topic is highly debated amongst theater fans, but I’m going to refrain from taking a side and let the reader consider the question: who is more to blame, the dependent idealist or the loving cheater?
“The Last Five Years.” IMDb, 1990-2019, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt2474024/. Accessed 12 July 2019.
The Last Five Years. Directed by Richard Lagravenese, performances by Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan, Lucky Monkey Pictures, Sh-K-Boom Records, and Grand Peaks Entertainment, 2014.
Edited by Emily Chance