Richard LaGravenese has earned a reputation as elite screen adapter and the go-to guy when a script’s in trouble (although even his input, along with the Coen brothers, couldn’t help “Unbroken”). His resume includes HBO’s “Behind the Candelabra,” directed by Steven Soderbergh; his Oscar-nominated original screenplay “The Fisher King”; and his adaptation of “The Bridges of Madison County,” one of the rare instances when a movie is widely regarded as an improvement on the novel.
So established is LaGravenese in the film world that it may be a surprise to learn he’s a theater geek. His new film, “The Last Five Years” (opening in the Boston area on Feb. 20), blends three of LaGravenese’s loves: acting, writing, and musicals. “I was a theater major [at NYU], a dancer, a summer stock boy, all that stuff. The writing came out of that. I had to audition as an actor and I got so tired of doing the same monologues over and over, so I started writing my own and then I started selling them to other actors,” LaGravenese said in an interview at last fall’s Toronto International Film Festival, where “The Last Five Years” had its US premiere.
“The Last Five Years” is a passion project for the Brooklyn-born LaGravenese. Jason Robert Brown’s off-Broadway hit has earned a cult following among musical theater fans. Its story is told almost exclusively through song and unfolds from opposite ends of the same timeline. It follows the five-year relationship of Cathy Hiatt (Maine native Anna Kendrick), an aspiring actress, and Jamie Wellerstein (Jeremy Jordan), a successful novelist. In the stage musical, Cathy and Jamie sing their respective songs directly to the audience and to each other only once, when Jamie proposes. LaGravenese altered that in the film version.
“The songs are little plays in and of themselves,” he said. “I’m a dramatist. To me, it’s all in the eye-to-eye contact, so that’s what I wanted to see.”
LaGravenese fell in love with theater early on. “I saw the original ‘Follies’ on Broadway when I was 12. Sondheim is my God; I love the man. I learned a great deal about writing from his work, his lyrics, and his structure. Dialogue is music. . . . There is a musical rhythm to great writing, especially if it’s performed correctly. Sondheim taught me that just listening to his work.”
So demanding are the songs in “The Last Five Years” that LaGravenese struck a deal with the composer: LaGravenese would cast the actors and Brown would decide if they had the musical chops.
“Anna was cast before ‘Pitch Perfect,’ so we were lucky with that,” said LaGravenese. “I needed real actors who could act as well as sing. We knew Jeremy could sing the score; I just had to get a performance out of him. I gave him [the song] ‘If I Didn’t Believe in You,’ which is a three-act play — a man’s support and love for his wife then his cruelty and resentment comes out — which makes it one of the greatest, most honest scenes, not just a song, the way that curve happens.”
LaGravenese says the musical has such a rabid fan base that “people came out of the woodwork who knew this musical . . . an action hero guy I won’t name put himself on tape from a hotel room in London.” But Jordan was the director’s first choice. “He has one of the greatest voices; I don’t know how he does what he does. I just had to be sure of his desire to go deeper as an actor. I knew how to get him there; I just needed to know that he wanted to, and he did.”
Jordan, interviewed during his run as J.M. Barrie in “Finding Neverland” at the American Repertory Theatre, was an early fan of the musical. “When I started college around 2003 everybody was obsessed with it. . . . As a musical theater trainee, it became the standard because it’s hard. All the songs are range-y and filled with intense emotion. It was the unspoken bar, along with Sondheim’s songs.”
Jordan auditioned four times and sent in a tape from the film “Joyful Noise” and the TV series “Smash.” “So they knew I could sing,” he said. “But in those roles, I was never really allowed to go where Jamie has to go. So I’m incredibly thankful that I got [the part].”
Jordan has high praise for LaGravenese. “He’s one of the most passionate people you’ll ever meet and so kind and so caring. He loves what he does. When there’s a good take, you’ll hear him squeal ‘cut’ like it’s this visceral reaction. He watches each scene and experiences each emotion with you. He’ll yell ‘cut’ through tears.”
Both director and star call “The Last Five Years” an ‘indie musical’ — the antithesis of the big-budget, lavish productions that one associates with the genre. “Style is dictated by content, that’s my belief, and this content is intimate,” says LaGravenese. “I knew that the camera had to be an eavesdropper into an intimate relationship and that’s how I designed the whole movie.”
Despite the film’s modest budget, neither LaGravenese nor Brown was convinced it would actually get made. “It seemed like an impossible dream,” said LaGravenese. “But I feel so at home with musicals, I’m dying to do another one.
“I love dance. We haven’t had a really good dance movie in a long time, so maybe that’s what I’ll do next.”Loren King can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.