2 Pianos, 4 Hands franchise offers a lesson in creating theatrical success

Max Roll and Reza Jacobs. Photo: Max Telzerow

When former National Post theatre critic Robert Cushman reviewed (positively) Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt’s uber-popular 2 Pianos 4 Hands in 2011, he noted that it was the third time he’d seen the show but that he’d forgotten the extent to which the drama-cum-music-cum-comedy piece was about humiliation and how hilariously that’s portrayed.

The semi-autobiographical show, which debuted in the mid-1990s and plays the National Arts Centre July 18-Aug. 3, tracks the fortunes of two would-be professional pianists. Blending music by Bach, Grieg and the like with rock and other genres, the story includes the duo’s young days when pushy parents rode herd on them, their later rejections by musical conservatories and the deflating realization that they would never be classical pianists.

Humiliation clearly sells. The Dora Mavor Moore and Chalmers award-winning show is now part of the Canadian canon, has toured the world and has been translated into French, German and Japanese. It has played the NAC more than once, most recently in 2012 with Dykstra and Greenblatt, who have since retired from the show, in the roles of “Ted” and “Richard”.

However, “humiliation” is a strong word for what occurs in the show, according to Max Roll, who plays Richard in the upcoming production. “I certainly think there are moments where teachers do that to the kids, where the kids do that to the parents,” he says. “(But) it’s people really trying to connect with each other.”

Reza Jacobs, who plays Ted, adds, “I don’t think there’s malice. Perhaps it’s the humiliation one feels when you come up against a discrepancy between where you thought you were and where you actually are. That happens a number of times in the show.   These are moments that come up in life; they’re another of those very relatable moments.”

The two, who have each been in 2 Pianos 4 Hands before but are performing together for the first time, say that the trials and tribulations faced by the two characters are what give the show its universality.

“In addition to being a very entertaining show, it has a lot of heart and a lot of truth that resonates beyond just piano playing,” says Jacobs. “It has to do with what we all struggle with: being understood by our parents … struggling with our own limitations and what we want to do with our lives and how we can realize our dreams or come to terms with the fact that perhaps our dreams need to be changed.”

Adds Roll, “People recognize their own stories and struggles in these two kids, whether it’s to do with music or something else.”

That self-recognition is evident in the audience talkbacks that follow some shows.

Talkbacks can be “dreaded” events for performers, according to Rolls, with questions about how actors can memorize all those lines and whether the two performers actually play their instruments. Not so with 2 Pianos 4 Hands. He says that audience members typically can’t wait to share how the show brought back very personal memories of their own childhoods, whether it was struggles with sports, mathematics or some other discipline.

The storyline also resonates personally with each of the performers.

Jacobs, who began studying piano at nine, dreamt of becoming a classical musician. That ended when he burned out during his conservatory studies and abandoned classical music for a time. “Doing the show in some way helps process a lot of that,” he says.

Roll, whose parents are both international concert pianists, started studying piano at five but was actually on track to become a classical clarinetist. However, he stepped away from the instrument when he reached a point that public performances became torturous.

He transitioned from music into acting and, after some 15 years away from the piano other than a few minutes here and there, returned to it only a couple of years ago.

“Now I’ve come back to it on my own terms and I think we both derive more pleasure doing our respective musical things,” he says. “Not only is it fine, it’s a relief and it’s exciting and it’s exactly where we’re meant to be.”

2 Pianos 4 Hands is in the Babs Asper Theatre July 18-Aug. 3. For tickets and more information: NAC box office, Ticketmaster outlets, 1-888-991-2787, nac-cna.ca

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Patrick Langston covered English professional theatre for the Ottawa Citizen from 2008 to 2016. He also wrote about music, travel, the local housing industry and other subjects for the paper. Patrick continues to contribute to Ottawa Magazine, Diplomat and International Canada Magazine, and other publications.