Songs from Musicals: #7, “Nobody Needs to Know,” from The Last Five Years

Honorable mentions: “Moving Too Fast,” “If I Didn’t Believe in You”

If you’ve already seen my post on the film version of The Last Five Years, which went up about three and a half weeks ago, then you might imagine that I’m burned out on talking about this musical. You’re wrong. I will never be burned out on this musical.

“Nobody Needs to Know,” one of the weakest songs in the film, is in my view the strongest song in the musical, the one that asks the audience to put out its hands and then pours a bucket of acid over them. “Nobody Needs to Know” is a rarity, a moment of thorough honesty from a man who has spent months lying through his teeth. As Jeff from Community tells us, “nine out of ten lies happen six inches away from the bathroom mirror.” Jamie, in The Last Five Years, is the exception. Nine out of his ten lies occur six inches away from his wife’s face. By himself, he is hauntingly truthful.

He knows what he’s doing is wrong. One of the frequently repeated lines in the song is, “All right, the panic recedes.” He claims to make “conscious, deliberate mistakes.” He knows that when he goes out to Ohio to see his wife, he’ll have to lie to her face about what he’s been up to. And yet he still convinces himself that he’s a victim in this situation: it’s Cathy’s fault that their marriage is rocky, her nitpicking, her need for honesty which, in his mind, comes at the expense of his privacy. I think that, at this point, Jamie really believes that he’s in the right. Puffed up by his success, by his friends, by the women he can get into bed, he has no one besides Cathy who will tell him no. By his standard, which has evolved to “if you aren’t with me, you’re against me,” that makes her wrong.

And yet, his refrain is that “nobody needs to know.” His reasons are tripartite: “the panic recedes,” “everyone bleeds,” and “I get what I need.” Each one of them is selfish, self-serving in the extreme. If he’s not worrying about his infidelity, then why worry at all? If everyone bleeds, then he must be sharing in the carnage. (How long the bleeding lasts, or at what severity, is someone else’s problem.) And for Jamie, the holiest of all the reasons is the final one. “I get what I need, and nobody needs to know.”

What he needs is ambiguous. The song suggests that what he needs is the sense that he’s keeping  a secret, a way to preserve himself by shutting out the person he’s unified himself with. If that were the case, though, there’s nothing about cheating on his wife that makes it inevitable. Perhaps it’s the simplest option, but it’s not necessarily the option. Perhaps he needs the sex, the thrill of putting himself at risk. Perhaps he needs the sense of power, that he has something that he can hang over Cathy’s head. That’s the interpretation I prefer, incidentally; he has already stuck his tongue at Cathy’s professional success earlier in the musical. If he wants to express his superiority in their personal lives – if he, in fact, needs to do that – then he could hardly choose a better way to give his wife the bird.

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