8 years ago

Volume 17 Issue 3 - November 2011

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  • November
  • Toronto
  • Jazz
  • December
  • Arts
  • Symphony
  • Theatre
  • Musical
  • Orchestra
  • Choir


2P(IANOS)4H(ANDS) …// BY ROBERT WALLACEThe idea that music andtheatre often combine informs other than “musicalcomedy” was on mymind when I entered therehearsal hall of the St.Lawrence Centre to talkwith Richard Greenblatt and TedDykstra, the co-writers and performersof Two Pianos Four Hands(2P4H), arguably the most successfulplay in the history of Canadiantheatre. Opening on November 2 fora limited run at Toronto’s PanasonicTheatre, before it moves to Ottawa’sNational Arts Centre in January, theproduction marks the show’s 15thyear, a remarkable milestone thathas seen various incarnations ofthe piece accumulate close to 4,000performances in 175 cities (worldwide)and play to upwards of twomillion people.Though small in size, 2P4H coversa lot of ground as it traces the livesof two boys, Ted and Richard, intheir quest for stardom as concertpianists. Working fervently towardstheir dream, the boys suffer pushyparents, eccentric teachers, repetitive practice, stage fright, nervewrackingcompetitions and, finally, their own limitations. After 15 yearsof tinkling the ivories, they apprehend the gap between the very goodand the great, only to arrive at the humbling conclusion that stardomlies beyond their reach.Although the boys’ goals are specifically musical, their situationis recognizable to anyone who attempts to use training, talent andwill-power to achieve greatness in any field. This, suggests RichardGreenblatt, is one of the reasons for the show’s success: “We thought itmight just be for music nerds — piano nerds (even worse) — and we foundout it wasn’t. People relate the show to their own experience of takinglessons — maybe piano, maybe something else — and of moving on.”As we chat over soup and sandwiches during the actors’ lunch-break,we focus on the relationship between music and theatre. When I mentionthat The WholeNote listings section this month characterizes 2P4H as“musical comedy,” Greenblatt shakes his head and says “No, it’s a playabout music.” “The piano, specifically,” Dykstra immediately interrupts.“It’s a play about how piano music relates to the lives of the so-calledordinary citizen.” Greenblatt resumes: “It’s a play, but it doesn’t havea traditional play-like structure, except for its two acts. It doesn’teven have characters in a conventional sense. It’s a narrative, but it’snon-linear. There’s a chronology, even though the play circles back onitself, but there’s actually only one scene where we play our own ages.”The structure Greenblatt describes evolved from improvisations theactors began in 1993 while performing in Chamber Concerts Canada’s“So You Think You’re Mozart.” Both men had trained in classical pianofor years, and, as adolescents, achieved near-prodigy status; yet bothhad switched to acting in their early twenties. Sharing and comparingstories about their past, they were moved to develop a series of sketchesthat eventually would become the play which, Dykstra is quick to pointout, is more “considered” than a collection of mere vignettes. Eachactor takes turns playing child versions of the other, while his partnerportrays the teachers, adjudicators, parents, etc., that they encounter.8 thewholenote.comNovember 1 – December 7, 2011

BRINGING IT HOMESN BIANCAAnd each plays the piano, live onstage, a technique that chroniclestheir progress.“It’s the piano-playing that keepsus honest,” Greenblatt says, when Iask him about the requirement thatthe play’s actors also perform themusic. “It keeps us from growingcomplacent about the show. Thepiano-playing is the big measuringstick for us, and we’ve set the barrelatively high. Making it the bestit can be still is our goal, and ourchallenge, because it’s not what wedo, 24/7.”In fact, both Greenblatt andDykstra do so much, 24/7, that it’s unusualfor them to find time to do theplay: this is their first reunion since2003 and, according to Greenblatt, itprobably is their last. Besides actingin Toronto and across the country,each of them writes, directs and,more to the point of our discussion,composes music for the theatre.Returning to this topic, Greenblattsuggests that “Music in the theatreis another under-valued and underappreciateddesign element,” a commentthat moves Dykstra to shake his head and emphasize that originalcomposition and sound design “are completely different skills.” Hegrows passionate ashe talks about theway digital technologyhas furtheredthe prevalence ofmusical compositionRichardGreenblattand TedDykstra.“THE PIANO-PLAYING IS THE BIGMEASURING STICK FOR US, andwe’ve set the bar relatively high.”in contemporary performance: “In the same way that video has becomeless a novelty in the theatre, so has the composition of originalmusic … We are using technology to enhance the imagination in waysthat we weren’t able to do before.” Greenblatt concurs. “Composersnow have studios in their own homes: Rick Sacks, John Gzowski, JohnMillard, Thomas Ryder-Payne, Richard Ferren … The situation is verydifferent than years ago when John Roby and Jim Betts were writingmusic for the theatre.”Greenblatt’s remark reminds me that he’s been introducing originalmusic into theatrical production for a long time now. As if reading mythoughts, he recalls the score he wrote for his production of RobertFothergill’s Private Lies at Tarragon Theatre in 1993, noting that thebudget for that show wouldn’t allow him to hire a composer. This situationhas changed, with more theatres commissioning original musicfor their productions, a fact that Dykstra’s career corroborates. Withinthe past year alone, he has composed an original score for the productionof Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie that he directed forToronto’s Soulpepper Theatre, and another for The Kreutzer Sonata, anadaptation of a one-act monologue by Leo Tolstoy based on Beethoven’s“Kreutzer” sonata, that Dykstra performed for Art of Time Ensemble.I ask Greenblatt and Dykstra about the music in Two Pianos FourHands: how did they choose it? Greenblatt is the first to answer: “Inboth of our cases, we chose music that we have an emotional connectionto — like Bach, which is one of the reasons we finish the show withit.” Dykstra adds, “And there’s Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin … and theNovember 1 – December 7, 2011 9

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