Elise McCann is starring with Christian Charisiou in Jason Robert Brown’s musical The Last Five Years at the Ensemble Theatre. The musical is a two-hander, which traces the beginning and end of a love story between a successful writer and a struggling actor, told from two different perspectives and time frames. Elise McCann, who recently gave an award-winning performance as Miss Honey in Matilda The Musical, spoke to Limelight about the musical and why she was so keen to perform in it.

Elise McCann and Christian Charisiou. Photograph supplied

 I believe this is a musical you have loved for a while? When did you first come across it?

I first heard of The Last Five Years in 2003 when I was doing the Musical Theatre course at NIDA. One of my friends, Amy Robertson, told me about it, and subsequently burnt me the original cast recording and I played it in my car until it died! Later that year our NIDA class was taken to Adelaide for the Cabaret Festival and coincidentally Jason Robert Brown was one of the International Stars of the Festival. Our class did a masterclass with him and then we were guests at a concert version of The Last Five Years that Jason performed with Lauren Kennedy. It was such a fortuitous and special experience and my obsession with the show amplified and has continued ever since!

What was it about the show that so appealed to you?

I think it originally resonated because I happened to relate to the character of Cathy so strongly. I was young and green and dying to be a professional actor and I could really see myself in a lot of the scenes and experiences that were so cleverly captured for this couple. With some age – or dare I say wisdom – I now think that one of the  central reasons this show has such a cult following is because it doesn’t just resonate with young wannabe actors and artists, in fact the content and emotional journeys of both characters are hugely universal. I think almost anyone will find themselves, and their relationship and emotional blueprints, in each of these scenes/songs. JRB has created an incredibly raw score that sits intrinsically within the landscape of how all humans at some stage of their life feel and act.

The musical goes in two directions. Jamie’s story moves forwards and Cathy’s moves backwards. Can you explain to readers who don’t know the show how it works?

Absolutely, it’s pretty much as you said. Essentially the show covers the five-year time period of Cathy Hiatt and Jamie Wellerstein’s relationship. Within the show, Jamie moves through their relationship in chronological order from the end of their first date through to when the couple break up at the end. Cathy however starts the show at the end of the five years, when their relationship has ended, and she travels backwards throughout the show, ending at their first date. So the couple are only ever in the same place and time once throughout the show, which is at their wedding. It sounds bizarre but it is actually a wonderful and thrilling way to structure the show as it means the audience simultaneously feel like they know what’s going on, but they are also constantly surprised by how the other character is experiencing moments throughout their relationship and journey.

It’s the first time the Ensemble has staged a musical for 10 years. Did you suggest the idea to them?

I did! When I swiftly realised I would soon be too old to play Cathy, I started thinking about theatres in Sydney that would be a fit for this piece. The Ensemble was honestly the first one that came to mind. So I emailed [Artistic Director] Mark Kilmurry and petitioned him with all the reasons I thought this was a great piece and why it would suit the Ensemble. He didn’t know it originally but after I continued to email him over a year or so, he had had a chance to look at it and had similarly fallen in love with the piece. A few more months passed and I didn’t think they were going to program the show. But around March 2018 I got a phone call from my agent saying Ensemble had offered me the part. So I did suggest it, but it was definitely a slow burn and it took some time for it to become suitable within an Ensemble season. All I can say is I am SO glad they eventually decided to do it, and even more so that they offered the part of Cathy to me.

Jason Robert Brown based it on the failure of his own marriage, and his ex-wife threatened to sue him as it was so close to their story. Does it have a real authenticity do you think?

I truly do! I think the fact so much of the emotional turmoil and conflict and highs of this relationship are taken directly from the author’s lived experience is the reason it feels so honest and moving and is so relatable. To be fair, after his first wife threatened to sue he did go back and make a number of changes. So JRB often comments when asked about it in interviews that it isn’t at all factual anymore. That he has amalgamated and edited and changed a lot of the highly personal elements. However the show continues to hit a nerve and really resonate with audiences of all ages, so I think the heart and tension of his lived experience is still really prevalent.

Have you ever met Jason Robert Brown or had any chance to talk to him about the show?

I have met him! Three times actually! I met him originally in 2003 at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival, as mentioned, first in our masterclass and then in the Haigh’s Chocolate shop in the centre of Adelaide. I don’t think he’d remember me from either of those! The third time was years later in 2014 when I was in New York and saw Bridges of Madison County [for which he wrote lyrics and music] on Broadway. I had previously worked with the director of Bridges –Bartlett Sher – on South Pacific here in Australia, and when I went to see the show, Bart happened to take me backstage and I met JRB again. I didn’t get a chance to talk to him about The Last Five Years at all as we only talked about Bridges. However, I have watched every interview and snippet of YouTube I could find where JRB talks about this show – so I feel like he’s at least talked to Me.

Have you seen the show performed anywhere?

I saw a concert version of it at Adelaide Cabaret Festival with JRB and Lauren Kennedy as I mentioned, and the only other time I have seen it was a UNSW Theatre club production when my friend was playing Cathy. I’ve never seen a pro production.

Can you describe your character Cathy? And is it a challenging or easy role for you?

Cathy is an actress – which I think is a brilliant descriptor for her, as that word really captures the personality trait of someone trying to be everything that they think they should be. Cathy is full of hope, she is funny and neurotic and very ambitious but she does struggle with her own authenticity I think. In this period of her life she is really challenged with balancing the pursuit of career with the compromise required in a long-term relationship, and that of her identity and role within that relationship. Particularly with the tension that comparison brings, as her partner is also a creative – however one who has experienced much greater and faster success than she.

I definitely struggled with my sense of truth and authenticity when I was younger, as well as struggling with balancing the conflict of career and relationships. So I find Cathy incredibly relatable. I really feel like I understand her on a deep, inner want and need level. I have found myself in almost every scene and situation she experienced throughout this show, at some point in my life. So in some ways it is easy as I do feel like I just ‘get’ her. But don’t get me wrong, it is also extremely challenging at times! There are so many layers and so many emotions and moments in this music and this show. There is a huge emotional journey to go from wild, mad adoration of meeting, to the deep love and trust of their marriage, through the pain and heartbreak of falling out of love, and you have to navigate through every stage of that within 90 minutes. And for me I’m doing it in reverse! So the emotional changes are deep but swift. Add to that the fact we are mostly onstage alone, so you have to have an intense detail and understanding of what motivates every shift within you, as you don’t have anyone else that is physically in front of you influencing your reactions. The choices and understanding of the journey need to be precise and executed with great clarity, and that takes a lot of time and thought and practise.

With just two actors on stage, you have to have a real rapport. Have you and Christian Charisiou ever worked together before?

No, we literally met properly at his final call back for the show. It is a very important relationship and so, since we were both cast we have caught up and hung out a few times. Most of that chemistry and relationship, however, we have developed over rehearsals. Because there are only two of us, you have no one else but each other to rely on, to throw ideas around with, to be ridiculous and nervous and frustrated and excited with. Thankfully we adore each other! Well I adore him – and I’m choosing to assume he adores me too!

Is it your first time working with director Elsie Edgerton-Till?

Yes it is. I have never worked with Elsie. Similarly to my relationship with Christian, I didn’t meet Elsie until we were both already confirmed on the show. However we bonded super quickly. We somehow have been really lucky and have a very similar way of doing things. We speak in a lot of the same language and often literally use the exact same words to describe or communicate actions and conflicts. It’s been awesome and I have truly had the best time working with this whole team. I am stoked and so, so grateful that this opportunity came to life!

The Last Five Years plays at the Ensemble Theatre, Sydney, March 29 – April 27