For James Sampliner, musical director for Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years, which opens previews May 7 at the Long Wharf, directed by Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein, taking on the assignment is “a major milestone.” Sampliner, who will be performing the show eight times a week, conducting from his piano’s keyboard, sees the complicated and varied score as both an immense pleasure and a challenge.
In Sampliner’s view, the show is a test of a musician’s stamina as, among devotees of musical theater, The Last Five Years is known for its demanding piano score. What’s more, the show is a “two-hander,” meaning that there are only two characters on stage throughout, and the entirety of the show consists of the songs each character sings about their relationship. For Cathy (Katie Rose Clarke), the story of her relationship with Jamie (Adam Halpin) is told from their break-up backwards to her first date with him, while for Jamie the sequence follows a chronology of first to last.
The challenges of the show, for a musical director, entail not only the physical task of playing the show each night—which Sampliner views as a good cardiovascular workout—but also reacting sensitively, even intuitively, to the singers/actors as they tell their parallel stories in song. Sampliner has never worked at the Long Wharf before but has worked with Brown on the latter’s Honeymoon in Vegas adaptation, and feels that his grasp of Brown’s music is important to the show’s delicate dynamic.
“Jason’s music is very carefully written,” Sampliner stresses, so that the musical director’s task is not so much interpreting the music as communicating to the other musicians the different emphases of the actors in performance. One begins to see at once what he means by “complicated.”
Drawing on blues, jazz, rock’n’roll, and classical techniques—all the musical forms he and Brown share a love for—the show, Sampliner says, is “one I needed to do.” Rehearsing with Edelstein, Clarke and Halpin, they have been asking lots of questions of the material, finding their unique way of bringing the show to life. “It’s not so much a question of new layers that other productions haven’t discovered, but asking ‘what do you think this is about,’” finding their own answers to the questions that arise.
The play’s structure is “a brilliant idea,” Sampliner finds, with Cathy moving from her lowest point to her highest and Jamie following the opposite trajectory. “They sing together at the middle point between the two extremes,” and each song offers its individual challenges, so that, for Sampliner, it’s not a question of finding the show’s highpoints, as each song has its highpoints and its rewards. “In so many ways,” Sampliner says, “The Last Five Years is Brown’s magnum opus,” the kind of musical that has musical directors “champing at the bit” for a chance to perform it.
When it comes to conducting, Sampliner finds that being able to conduct his ensemble of six players from the keyboard is the kind of skill necessary at a time when theater demands versatility and smaller orchestras. “It’s not uncommon,” he says and rising to the challenge of playing as well as conducting has him very excited by the opportunity to be, as he says, “the bus driver.”
“At the meet-and-greet when rehearsals began, everyone asks one another what they do, and I like to say ‘I’m the bus driver.’” Making sure the show gets where it needs to go and that all parts of this tuneful, challenging, funny, and moving show get there in concert is not unlike the task of steering an unwieldy vehicle to its proper destination, come what may.
Meanwhile, fans of musical theater and of Jason Robert Brown—currently enjoying a hit on Broadway with The Bridges of Madison County, and likened to Stephen Sondheim in his crowd-pleasing grasp of musical theater—should be lining up to take the ride.
The Last Five Years Written and composed by Jason Robert Brown Directed by Gordon Edelstein
The Long Wharf Theatre
May 7-June 1, 2014
Tuesdays and Wednesdays: 7 pm Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays: 8 pm Wednesdays, Saturdays, Sundays: 2 pm