By Gary Wien
The Last Five Years is a musical love story from Tony-Award winning composer Jason Robert Brown (Parade, Songs for a New World) that chronicles a young couple's romance — with her story starting at the end of their relationship, and his beginning on the day they met. The George Street Playhouse revival brings Sarah Litzsinger and Colin Hanlon back to New Brunswick a year after they starred in the immensely successful play tick,tick...BOOM! I was able to talk with Sarah about the play and her career.
Last year you and Colin Hanlon were part of a pretty successful run in tick, tick... BOOM! What's it like to have two central cast members brought back for a different role?
It's amazing! Colin and I knew last year that we were going to do The Last Five Years this season, and we have been looking forward to it all year. It's been just such a pleasure both last year and this year. It's almost like being part of a family. I think it's a rarity when you're working in theatre when you find a group of people that you really adore and love working with.
So you knew about this role during that run as well?
Yeah, actually Colin would warm up before tick, tick... BOOM! with the song "Moving Too Fast" from this show and David (Saint) would ask Colin, "What are you singing?" So, Colin was sort of the one who brought it to David. He said, "I love this musical. It's really great and you should hire me and Sarah." I think David had listened to the CD and was already considering it and then when we expressed interest in it he was quick to ask us if we wanted to come back this year and do it.
So, was it pretty easy to get the chemistry going again this year?
Definitely. The great thing with Colin and I is that we played boyfriend / girlfriend last year, so it was an easy jump to play a married couple - we already had that existing chemistry together. And also with David. We had stayed friends over this past year and we all have a very similar sense of humor, so it really doesn't seem like work. We'd be laughing half the day and coming up with ideas for things we were going to do. It just didn't seem like work, which is the best possible scenario.
What's it like working with someone like David Saint, who is really the guiding force for a theater?
It's amazing. This year was even better because we had already established our relationship together and we could create chemistry together. So from the first day of rehearsal it was already fun. And I think David is really brilliant. He always comes up with great ways and unexpected ways of telling a story. Of course, I was imagining how I was going to do this number or that number in my head because The Last Five Years are basically just words in the script. It doesn't really tell you where they are or what they're doing. And David came to us with all of these great ideas and just made it really exciting.
You've been on Broadway several times in roles like Beauty & The Beast and Les Miserables, how is a theater like George Street different in your eyes?
Basically the money is on Broadway - especially if you're playing a lead on Broadway.
Or in a Disney production...
Exactly! Disney was great to me and they treated me very well, but I really like working at George Street because to me David always picks pieces of theatre that are a little bit edgier and maybe look at the darker side of things. As an actor, it's really challenging and interesting to play. The types of shows that he picks for George Street are things that sort of make you think. It's maybe something that doesn't necessarily have a happy ending or a fairy-tale ending. He's interested in looking at all those different sides of life. I think that's why The Last Five Years interested him. It is sort of an edgier piece. It looks at a contemporary couple and the trials and tribulations that they go through. When I'm here I feel like it's my chance to sort of stretch myself and I feel really safe here.
How would you describe the music in the play?
We have a six-piece band and it's all acoustic music. There are a couple of cellos, a violin, acoustic guitar, piano and bass. There are no drums in the show and the orchestrations are absolutely gorgeous. What's interesting about the orchestration is that they rarely play the melody of what the singer is singing. So, they sort of fill in the blanks. You'll hear this violin going crazy behind the vocals and they have their own voices. It sounds like there's many people behind us playing when it's only six of them. To me, Jason Robert Brown's music is so actable. He reminds me of a pop Sondheim. It's interesting and difficult at times. His music, to me, is unexpected - it doesn't go where you think it's going to go. But his songs are totally singable and actable. You have to use a lot of your range when you're singing it, but I love it. For any musical theater actor or performer that loves to sing in a contemporary style this is the music to sing. I think a lot of people in the community who have these types of voices would grab at the chance to sing his music because it's just so beautiful.
You started out very young on Broadway. I know you probably wanted to do this for a career, but did everybody tell you that it was going to be too difficult to act for a living?
I think that I was really fortunate because I started singing when my parents got me the record of Annie when I was six. I was a really good mimic and started singing to the record. One day my parents thought it was the record playing, but it was me singing. They were sort of blown away and like "what are we going to do?" I kind of forced my parents into the business. I had 100% interest in being on stage, wanting to sing, and wanting to be up there. So my parents started taking me to auditions and I had an agent discover me when I was 10 years old.
It was basically my hobby, but my parents had a New York agent tell them that I had the talent and the ability to do this on a larger scale. So they just kind of went along with it and I just ended up getting jobs. I think I was really fortunate because I had a lot of success at a very young age. And after I graduated from high school I moved out here to New York City permanently.
A lot of people say I moved out to New York at such a young age, but I think it's easier to move to New York when you're 18 because you don't know as much. I think you learn a bit more in your 20s and I think it would be harder to move there if I was 26 or 27 with a little more knowledge in me. Those fears of "what if I don't make it" - well at 18 I thought I was going to make it. I think I was just more fearless at that age and it was probably the best thing for me.
How is being in a limited run as The Last Five Years different from your stints on Broadway, which lasted for quite some time?
Well, this past year I've been doing tons of new pieces and regional theatre - just different shorter gigs that I've really enjoyed. I've usually been locked into things - I did Beauty and the Beast for three years and I did Les Miserables for a long time. This is the first time in my career that I've sort of jumped around to different jobs, but I've really enjoyed the variety of work. Working in a long running show is a challenge in itself, but jumping from role to role is great because you get to explore different parts of yourself.
Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.