“It's about tennis. The show's about tennis."
Richard Greenblatt's friend offered this appraisal after an early workshop presentation of 2 Pianos 4 Hands. It was news to Greenblatt. He and co-creator Ted Dykstra had thought they were developing an autobiographical two-hander about their youthful travails in the world of classical music. "At first," says Greenblatt, "we were really worried that it was only going to be for piano nerds." However, his friend -- a former junior tennis champion -- insisted that every scene was equally applicable to a childhood on the courts. In fact, audiences from Toronto to the West End to Broadway have written letters, and waited at stage doors, to say how much the show has meant to them personally – and often, to share their own hilarious or traumatic tales of early ambition. "The thing I noticed," says Dykstra, "is that people would come backstage talking about themselves, and not about us." Greenblatt recalls that many fans introduced themselves with the words, "For me, it was..." Andy McKim, who directed the first production, offers this perspective: "Whenever someone had a passion, an interest, an area in their life where they wanted to achieve excellence -- and drove themselves really hard to achieve that excellence -- they saw it in this story."
For all its universality, 2 Pianos 4 Hands is rooted deeply and specifically in the love of music. In 1993, Dykstra and Greenblatt were acting together in So You Think You're Mozart when they discovered that their childhoods -- eight years and three thousand miles apart -- had been surprisingly alike. Each had studied classical piano and won province-wide competitions (Dykstra in Alberta, Greenblatt in Quebec). Each had planned on a career as a concert pianist, and left that dream behind at the age of seventeen. "There's a show in there," they thought.
It took two years and a dare to get the busy artists together again. Mutual friend McKim runs the annual Spring Arts Fair at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre: it’s a weekend-long open house where everything from Peking Opera to play readings is presented free to the public. McKim offered twenty hours of rehearsal space, "a tiny bit of money," a twenty-minute slot, and his services as consulting director. "I was calling their bluff," he explains.
Steeped in the Canadian tradition of ‘collective creation’, Greenblatt and Dykstra worked in what they called "a collective of two." They would bring in music that inspired them, and share stories from their lives. They would then decide on a subject, improvise it, and tape the result: if it seemed promising, the scene was stored away for rewriting.
Both men describe this collaboration as being very enjoyable, but not without tensions. Dykstra wanted the show to be "hugely entertaining," while Greenblatt pushed for resonance and depth.
As their partnership evolved, Greenblatt became the schtick police and guardian of the show's emotional and thematic core, while Dykstra was the indulgence police, who fought to make everything as witty and surprising as possible. Thus, two different agendas combined to make one strong script. A further challenge was that Dykstra and Greenblatt are very competitive individuals, especially with regard to their musical ability. Instead of suppressing their one-upmanship, however, they decided to make it central to the play: Richard and Ted compete with themselves, with the music, with each other, and even with Vladimir Horowitz. As Greenblatt wryly comments, "My theory is that -- in all collectives -- whatever the dynamic of the group, that's what the play is about."
2 Pianos 4 Hands is already a Canadian theatrical legend: an initial twenty hours of rehearsal produced over an hour of material; audiences at the Arts Fair went wild; the Tarragon commissioned a full-length show, which went on to tour Canada, England, and the United States, racking up rave reviews and enthusiastic audiences for 701 performances before the original duo passed the mantle to others. Since then, the show has been performed as far away as Australia and South Africa; translated into French and German; and retooled in a version for two women.
Dykstra and Greenblatt have said that the making of, and reaction to, 2 Pianos 4 Hands, has changed the way they see themselves as writers, actors, and musicians. But what about as fathers? Did their examination of keyboard-centred grief resolve them to eschew pushy parenting, or music lessons in general? Apparently not. Both men recall a day when Greenblatt's daughter Natasha was practising her piano as the adults talked. Greenblatt confesses sheepishly, "I'm having a conversation with somebody else -- and across the room, I yell: 'E Flat!'"
Dykstra was appalled. "He was literally yelling across the room at her, and I said, 'Richard, that's unbelievable. My God, we just wrote a play about this. SHUT UP!'" He laughs, "The apple doesn't fall far from the tree."
Meanwhile, the easy-going Dykstra -- a new parent -- turns firm when the subject of musical education comes up. "He can do whatever he wants, but he's going to have at least a functional knowledge of music," he says. "I don't know anyone who regrets being able to play the piano as an adult: and I know so many people who are really upset that they quit." Youth, music, and striving toward dreams: the timeless elements of 2 Pianos 4 Hands prepare to inhabit another generation.
Leanna Brodie, a Toronto-based playwright and actor, was featured in last year's ACT/Hedgebrook Women Playwrights' Festival. Her play The Vic was published last year by Talon Books Ltd.