Richard (Greenblatt) and Ted (Dykstra) were obscure Canadian actors in 1994 when they decided to exploit a common background as student musicians to write and perform a semi-autobiographical play about the dreams and disappointments of concert pianists.
At first, it was a 25-minute skit. But after a full-length version of the play was produced at Toronto's Tarragon Theatre in 1996, 2 Pianos 4 Hands became a surprise hit around the world.
Mark Anders takes up Ted's part and Carl J. Danielsen plays Richard's role in Arizona Theatre Company's production of the play - one of the first in which the writers are not also the performers.
The two parts are extremely hard to cast. Both require accomplished actors who must move in and out of about 20 characters - and who can perform piano repertoire from Bach and Mozart to Billy Joel. Anders and Danielsen, in addition to boasting major acting credits, harbored early ambitions not unlike the protagonists in the play.
"For about 10 minutes when I was a kid, I thought the life of a concert pianist might be a possibility," says Anders, whose character is the more assertive of the pair. "Then I realized what it would take." In the musical world, the phrase "two pianos, four hands" denotes a musical genre in which two pianists play at once on separate instruments. In the play, the pianos and their players embody multiple metaphors
for aspirations, relationships, desires quashed and compromised, dreams and realities. Dykstra has said the script has a lot to do with putting aside illusion: "At what point do you realize you're not going to become president of the United States? What are you going to be happy with in your life as an adult? Finding out who you are is a big part of the show."
The central characters in 2 Pianos 4 Hands chase music, but music rarely lets them catch her. As in every other endeavor, talent and commitment don't necessarily lead to success, and many a pianist who has dreamed of playing Rachmaninoff at Carnegie Hall ends up playing Misty at a Days Inn.
Ironically, Carl J. Danielsen's relationship to music is exactly the reverse of that pictured in the play. The actor, a veteran of the Denver Center Theatre Company, San Jose Repertory Theatre and the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival, has spent a lot of his life running away from musical success. "I was a great sight-reader, and by the time I was 12, I was working gigs and churches," Danielsen recalls. "At 19, I was conducting shows professionally. And all the time, what I really wanted to do was the acting thing."
Many musicians make little money with their music and must work as teachers or paralegals or bank tellers. Danielsen made so much money with music that it kept him away from his true ambition. "I got a music degree and played theater
gigs and six or seven Masses every Sunday. Suddenly, I was making $50,000 a year as a musician, and all I wanted to do was act. No one would take me seriously as an actor. It was all backward."
Danielsen fled for London to study acting and focus entirely on the theater, but the stigma of musical success has never left him. "I turned down conducting a show on Broadway last year," he says. "I had no desire to do it."
2 Pianos 4 Hands demands that Danielsen exercise his musicianship, but it demands that he act, as well. That he will accept.
Throughout the play, the two actor-pianists take on many roles, including teachers, parents - even the ghost of Antonio Vivaldi. Anders finds this one of the most moving aspects of the script: "The conversations Ted has with his father are a lot like conversations I had with my late father. I remember talks about 'This is reality.' There's a lot of resonance there for me, as a son."
Neither actor has ever before portrayed a living person in a play. Danielsen has met both Greenblatt and Dykstra, during auditions for another production of their play. He says the encounter with the real Richard didn't give him a lasting impression of any certain character.
Anders hopes not to meet the authors - at least not until the show is over. "If they came, I'd be interested to find out their reactions," Anders says. "But I wouldn't want to know which night they were there."