BWW Interview: Michael Berresse on ACT's THE LAST FIVE YEARS

BWW Interview: Michael Berresse on ACT's THE LAST FIVE YEARSBroadwayWorld San Francisco spoke with Michael Berresse, who directs of American Conservatory Theatre's upcoming production of "The Last Five Years." Read the full interview below to learn about Michael's work with the show's composer, his methods for rehearsals, and what audiences can expect from his fully staged production.

Last year San Francisco saw ACT do a concert version of "The Last Five Years," which worked well since the musical is just two people telling their stories. But now you're actually giving it a full production. It must be difficult to find the right way to create that story on stage, especially when you're placing such an intimate musical in such a large space. How are you dealing with that challenge?

One of the things that's interesting about "The Last Five Years" is that it has giant emotions, and the scale of the music is really grand. So, there's sort of an operatic quality to the size of the emotions. In my opinion it actually fits beautifully in a large house. It's about expanding what is a very intimate, internal story. I think that we have come up with a set design that really helps to sort of refine what those moments are in a very neutral, metaphoric way. I feel like there's something appropriate about doing this show in a big house. The challenge of making sure that the scale of the performance fills the house, I'm finding in the rehearsal room, that's the greater challenge. I don't want to lose the intimacy of humanity in what they're expressing, but it has to be broad enough that it reaches the back of the house.

I have a friend who is in love with the music of the show, but I've been waiting to see it on stage before watching the film version. What can I expect from the score?

I had the great privilege of working with Jason Robert Brown a couple years ago when I was acting in a production of "Parade," and in rehearsal one day Jason sat down and started playing, and this crazy thing happens when Jason plays his own music. He sort of stops being Jason, or even a person, and he just goes inside of the music. It was really enlightening to watch him play his own music. I can't get that image out of my head, so every time I listen to this score, that's what I'm sort of feeling.

I think instinctively, audiences can hear it when they're listening to this music. It runs the gamut. It's very lush, very romantic, very beautiful, also very funny. I think it's because he's a brilliant composer lyricist, but it's also that the story is so human, and it's tricky. It's hard to do something that is one person singing the whole song, and then another person singing a whole song. And then the first person. Then taking turns all night long. It could be repetitive or it could be predictable. But I think he has varied the music so much, and also I think it's such a fascinating experience to watch the blossoming and deteriorating of a relationship happening simultaneously that I think no matter where you are in the journey of love, you can see yourself in this show.

Do you have any special insights coming to this show, already having worked with the composer?

I know there are a lot of autobiographical aspects, and it's informative to know Jason and to read the material through his eyes. But I think it's also more about the integrity he has as a person and as a musician. He has a very deep emotional well that he pulls from when he's composing, and I feel an obligation to do it justice.

Have you found any personal connections to these characters as you have begun work on the show?

Well, that's a little Pandora's box. The answer's yes. On every side of the equation. I think one of the things I really want the audience to step away from this show thinking about is a sense of gratitude for any love they've had in their lives. Even though it's a very sad story on one hand - to watch these people who loved each other so much lose that love - on the other hand, none of us can get where we are today without having experienced love and, most often, loss at some point. I really wanted the audience to leave feeling how special and lucky any of us ever are to find love. And because of that, I have looked back on all the love in my life, and even though I feel I've done a pretty good job of understanding and respecting and loving all those relationships up until this point, working on this show gives me a different degree of respect and appreciation for all the people that risked loving with me or that I risked loving.

Tell me about your cast and their characters. My friend noted that her worry for any production is that the audience could care more about one half of the relationship than the other. How do you want audiences to see this couple?

Tell your friend she's very smart. That's one of the challenges of the show. It depends on who's acting in it, who's directing it. Because of the way the story is told, it would be easy to fall into certain stereotypes or traps. She plays an actress. He plays an author. He plays a very successful person. She plays someone who doesn't find the same degree of success. And one of the things I've explored with Cathy is that it isn't necessarily a matter of her not having the talent to succeed, it's that she has a certain ambivalent relationship about what it takes to succeed, or that she doesn't need it as much. Her ambition in life is to find love and have a relationship that fulfills her, and that's a very noble thing, but if it's out of balance, it can also be problematic. And he's super ambitious and wildly talented and has a great deal of success in his career, which is also a wonderful thing, unless it is the thing that defines you most.

So, I absolutely have done my best, not just to mold characters that I think are very three-dimensional, and that both have great virtue. They're both funny. They're both lovable. They're both charming. They're both talented. They're both faulted, and they both make big mistakes. I also tried to hire two actors (Broadway's Margo Seibert and Zak Resnick) that have the capability to bring all of those colors to each of the characters. We actually just finished staging the show yesterday, and we still have another week and a half to go back in and do a lot of refining. I finally got to see both of them have the complete journey, and they're shockingly talented. To me, at the end of the day, what makes this different from a concert version of the show is you have to find the way in which all the material and subtext for the characters really plays out over the course of the whole evening so that you have a linear story that makes sense, versus just glorious music sung beautifully.

Different directors will go about rehearsals different ways - keeping the actors mostly separate or having them there to sing to each other. What is your approach?

I created a framing device for the show that I think is unusual to this production. There's musical material that precedes the downbeat of the first song, and also there's a repeat of it at the end of the show. So I created a little framing device that puts them both in the same time at the beginning, then end, and also the center of the play as it's written, when they sing to each other and their stories overlap just for the wedding. But there's a little moment at the beginning that I wanted the audience to be able invest in their love very briefly so that there is some immediate sense of loss that you can relate to her character. It's difficult for the female to start at the end of the journey and work her way to the beginning without any context at all. So, it's a small beat, a subtle beat, but I found it really was important for me that the actors had a strong sense of each other and of the relationship, because it informs everything that they're doing, even thought they're doing it independently.

One of the things we did, actually just today, was I had Margo sing all of Cathy's journey from the end of the play to the beginning so that she could feel the more organic emotional arc, she could feel what it feels like to sing the last song, which is the first date song, and then move all the way in reverse. It was very informative for her and for me. I think it helps her anchor honest emotions so when she actually does the show in reverse, as it's written, she'll have something to hang on to that feels more organic and more honest.

I cannot wait to see how it turns out.

I am very excited for everyone. I think it's a very special piece of theatre that I also think we have unique opportunities in this production with a big house, and also these actors in particular are very special to me, and I think it's a really beautiful show.

"The Last Five Years" runs May 11 - June 5 at the Geary Theatre. For tickets and information, visit http://act-sf.org/.

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Photo credit: Mario Elias Photography

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