My favorite musical of all time is The Last 5 Years. I could talk about it forever. The tortured, ridiculous five year journey of a doomed relationship and its two self-absorbed inhabitants is not typical musical fare, and it's hilarious, heartbreaking, infuriating, and cathartic. I love it, I hate it, I see too much of myself in it, and I cannot get enough of it.
My absolutely favorite song from the show, curiously, is rather triumphant and exuberant. I mean, it's not quite true. On different days, my favorite song from this show changes, but "I Can Do Better Than That" tends to always hover near the top. Tack that up first to its joy certainly, but also to its accessibility and its relatability. In a show full of relatable moments, it's one of the most relatable songs: We get to see Cathy vulnerable, honest, scared, embarrassed and empowered by her past, nostalgic, but willing to take a very big step forward. Personally, it's also a song that sounds most like me. I tend to relate more to Jamie in the relationship of the show, obviously, but there are shades of me (that I both hate and love) in Cathy as well. This song more than anything.
The passion that she has for the relationship, the drive that she has to keep moving forward, the obliviousness to everything else are a potentially lethal combination, and one that I understand, which is perhaps the strongest reason I gravitate to this song.
So today, I want to highlight two recent performances brought to my attention. Originally, I had wanted to include a bootleg recording of original Cathy, Sherie Rene Scott but I decided against it because 1) it's not the greatest quality, and hard to see the acting, 2) the directorial choices dictate Sherie not facing where the camera is pointed most of the song so we lose her in profile, and 3) the choices are in context of the show so Sherie's constrained by the director. While Sherie I think is one of the most talented actors, deftly able to do both comedy and drama, it's a relatively safe performance. But the bootleg is out there if you want to see it. Fun fact: the original lyric is in the video, "Met a guy in a class I was taking with some very well-placed tattoos" was originally "Met a guy in a class I was taking who might say looked like Tom Cruise." Apparently, someone's a little litigious... (Or, wasn't the heartthrob he once was. I don't know the story.)
There's been some renewed interest in the show, particularly with the movie (a marvelous effort from its talented Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan), which I was originally going to include as well, but it's such a vastly different medium and I didn't want to bring in musical film analysis to what I was hoping would be a relatively relaxed post. And even more recently, the Town Hall benefit concert, with the amazing Joshua Henry and the Tony-winner Cynthia Erivo. We'll actually get to her in a moment.
But first, we need to talk about Miss Anika Noni Rose.
I first saw Anika in high school, the LA production of Caroline, or Change, which she had already won a Tony for during its Broadway run. She was an unforgettable performance, But since then, she has also been in the Dreamgirls movie (with Beyonce and Academy Award winner Jennifer Hudson, not bad company at all) and For Colored Girls, and was the voice of Tiana in The Princess and the Frog.
Anika's voice is so pure, so strong. I should just let the performance speak for itself first, and then we'll dive into some highlights:
There's much more strength from ANR that I see in this than I normally do. Perhaps it's the backing of the band, perhaps it's the concert setting, but I also think it's ANR's ability to connect with the audience. When we're acting, when we have to be representational, it's harder. ANR gets to play off the audience, and it's really wonderful. She's re-telling a story at a party, and she's letting us all enjoy it.
0:25 - I love the way ANR eases into a characterization. Sometimes, musical theater singers move into something too fast, forgetting that it always takes longer to sing something than say something. It's not jarring, and it's almost unnoticeable. She's casual as she kind of takes on the stance of Carol Anne. It's something she does throughout this section, where she's retelling the story, but she's not being totally demonstrative. The most demonstrative is on "heavy metal drummer", which I think is forgivable, since I tend to believe Cathy doesn't like Mitchell much. When I was deconstructing bad performances, I was very hard on gestures done too "on the nose." Like I said though, this feels motivated by character.1:07 - The sass while she folds that sweater and sings "I can do better than that" is unbelievable.1:14 - I love that saxophone! (The last two notes before she sings again are a muted trumpet, though.) Whenever there's new accompaniment in a piece I know, it's always a welcome addition. (Unless it's like a weird synth or something.)1:36 - ANR is very good with subdued and subtle gestures that inform her song. The slow look indicating where the tattoos are on this guy elicits a proper laugh from the audience.1:39 - I love the phrasing ANR uses on this line. Some singers hold out 'him', but ANR instead holds out 'alone' in "wouldn't leave me alone" so that "unless I went with him to dinner" all has the same value, and it makes the walk down the scale feel like more movement because it's mirroring the move in the accompaniment.1:57 - Whoever this camera person is, kudos. Because ANR's facial expressions are magic. Again, she's very understated about it all, but with clear choices, going from one moment to the next. On "and the second it enters my head," she has this face of creeping realization, particularly her eyes. On "focus on his career," the sarcasm shines through, especially with the head movement. And on "I can do better than that," there's firm resolution. Musical acting 101, folks. If you have to repeat a lyric, each one should come from a different motivation. In the first A, ANR makes the choice of comparing. She looks at Carol Anne, she looks at herself, and she goes, "Huh. No thank you." But the second time, in this A, she finds more reason in herself to be better. She feels this guy took advantage of her. That is not happening again.2:27 - I just want to highlight ANR's gorgeous low notes on "just love me." Dramatic and soulful.
Kudos, ANR.2:43 - The bridge builds with each "You don't have to..." and when Cathy finally flips more into a head voice on "You don't have to change a thing" it's usually a lot more noticeable, but ANR's voice just lines up so flawlessly, it's a walk in the park for her.2:50 - Again, I just want to highlight a musical phrasing choice that ANR makes that's different from other singers I hear on the song that I love. Usually, the singer goes legato from the phrase "stay with me" right into "I want you" without a break. It's a cool trick, shows off breath control. But I like ANR's break here. It breaks up the thought, and it gives her more drive into the next line.3:27 - I mean, nothing to say about the note on "mine", because it is just phenomenal. I also want to highlight how everyone is in sync on the end of that phrase. Everyone onstage kind of bobs simultaneously as she resolves the note. I love that.4:48 - The final riff on "better" is pure sass.
Alright, let's get to Miss Cynthia Erivo.
I don't know WHO THINKS IT'S OKAY THAT CYNTHIA CAN BE AS DROP DEAD TALENTED AS SHE IS, BUT HOW DARE YOU.
But seriously, I cannot tell you how many times I've watched her performance at this year's Tony Awards from The Color Purple and been moved to tears with a mix of joy and emotion and celebration and for some reason pride. I cannot tell you, because I won't tell you. Because the number is embarrassing. I stopped writing this post twice to watch it and wipe away tears. It's ridiculous. And she's ridiculously good.
Cynthia Erivo broke out in the UK with the Sister Act musical, where she played the Whoopi Goldberg role of Las Vegas headliner Delores Van Cartier, aka choir director Sister Mary Clarence. I have not seen the performance in any capacity so I have nothing to go on there, but The Color Purple is more than enough for me.
Here she is at Elsie Fest in September. Be amazed.
Also, be warned. Some flashing lighting effects are used, in case you're sensitive to that.
I mean, come on.
0:23 - To guy who calls her, "Queen", you are correct.
1:20 - Cynthia's also got some beautiful low notes and they come out on the first "I can do better than that."
1:55 - It's such a cute recovery from forgetting lyrics. JRB's right there for the singer, as always. That for me is always the mark of a good performer, if they can recover well from lyric flubs.
2:00 - This is the phrasing I was talking about in ANR's performance. She holds out "him" before "to dinner."
2:13 - I like Cynthia's different take on Cathy here. Where ANR was more self-deprecating when she discusses how her and this guy are starting to work out, Cynthia's Cathy is a little more discerning, a little more "how could I have been so stupid, it was so obvious." ANR doesn't transition to that in her performance until toward the end of the line, pretty much on the second "I can do better than that."
2:50 - Cynthia's unique sound comes to the fore in the bridge build. Her voice is so forward and so forceful, it makes for a very different read of the character and I love it.
3:12 - I really love how she acts "I want you and you and nothing but you," and this whole little section. The way she really vocally revels in "miles and piles" and chews on "finally I'll have something worthwhile" like she's embracing him, almost melodramatic, but tastefully done, is a wonderful choice.
3:39 - Unbelievable riff on 'mine.' Followed shortly thereafter by a very fun moment on "I don't need to get hitched tonight." She drops to speak-sing for the line, which I'm normally not a fan of, but it carries here a comedic beat as well as a strong acting moment. She's backing off from coming off strong, this very unmistakable fortitude to a moment of, "Hey, uh, don't misunderstand me, we're not getting married or anything." Very cool.
4:27 - "Think about what you wanted". Obviously, we can talk endlessly about Cynthia's high notes, but her speaking range is phenomenal too. It's colorful and nuanced, and she uses it to great effect here, on this quieter moment before the final build.
4:57 - I just want to point out she changes her mouth placement during the note for "do", but the vowel doesn't change. I don't. I don't understand.
And of course, the final bars are just crazy, showing off her trademark power and high notes. She actually takes out a lot of the riffs that are normally done here, especially the one on the third to last "better". In the movie, it's a riff down. Normally, it's a riff up, like ANR does. She does do a riff on the first syllable though, which I normally don't hear.
Also, I LOVE the button.
So there you have it. Two outstanding, gorgeous reasons to love this song. There's so much room for interpretation, quieter and self-reflective, to resolute and defiant. There's a lot to play with, in terms of range and phrasing. Plus, it's just a ball to listen to. I love Sherie on the original recording, and like I said, I also love Anna Kendrick's on the movie soundtrack. These two though, bring a breath of fresh air to a song I never tire of. Thank you, ANR. Thank you Queen Cynthia.
And thanks for reading! See you next week.