A Second Look at Two by Two
Remembering the original Two by Two and looking forward to concert performances of the show this week.
Saturday night, September 26, 1970 at the Shubert in New Haven. I'm fifth-row center, next to Arthur Miller. He's here because his sister Joan Copeland is in this new musical called Two by Two. It would open in my native Boston the following Monday, but I couldn't wait.
I'm so glad I came! Electric excitement in the air. This was, after all, The New Richard Rodgers Musical. Never mind that the last one (Do I Hear a Waltz?) lasted only six months. His music for that work showed that Rodgers still had it, so we dared hope that this score would be even better.
I had high expectations for other reasons. Two years earlier, I'd attended a backers' audition for Ballad for a Firing Squad and I learned that Martin Charnin was one terrific lyricist when he sang "Maman." Here, Charnin taught me the famous theatrical lesson that if a performer wants an audience to cry, he himself must not. How resigned Charnin was as he sang his song, in which a young soldier wrote his mother the day before combat: "I'm afraid, Maman; we are done. They have gas, Maman; we have none." From that moment on, I believed in Charnin.
The author of Two by Two's book was Peter Stone, who had just written 1776, the best book in musical theater history. If he'd been able to convincingly humanize the founding fathers, he might do well with the real "Founding Father" and His interaction with Noah of ark fame. Director-choreographer Joe Layton had worked with Rodgers before and had delivered a unique staging for No Strings. But, of course, the cherry on the top of the sundae was Danny Kaye's return to Broadway.
When the curtain rose and Kaye entered as a just-awakening Noah, he received extra-loud entrance applause. But his first song, "Everything That's Gonna Be Has Been," got none. It was about his own humdrum existence and it was...well, humdrum. The next song was better: Noah's family questioned whether or not they should "Put Him Away" for wanting to believe that the world was coming to an end. Thought a spirited Rodgers march, the number still wasn't enough to make us relax and feel like we were at a new hit.
And then 22-year-old Walter Willison, as Noah's youngest son Japeth, came out and dared to question and challenge God, singing that there had to be "something someplace, someplace something that you like." When he finished, the audience gave him a thunderclap of applause--but none of us knew then what had happened during rehearsals. Willison told much of his story when Martin Gottfried was writing Kaye's biography, Nobody's Fool: If Kaye wanted something changed, he'd pout, be terrible in a scene, or go to his dressing room. He wouldn't say, "You must do this" but he made things so difficult that the creators would acquiesce.
Over the years, Willison has told me a bit more. For example: "Noah's wife was written for Nancy Andrews as a strong, Jewish matriarch. Danny didn't want that--or her. Joe hired Joan Copeland and spent a full day staging a dance she'd do with one of her sons. Danny wanted the dance--and got it. Slowly, the secondary characters were being pared down." But not Willison's. "Danny cared about the father-son relationship, where the son eventually became the parent," he explains. "So did Dick and Marty, who wrote 'Something, Somewhere' especially for me. Danny liked it and insisted that he get some of it, so they had to add a reprise for him to end the act."
Steve Suskin reports in More Opening Nights on Broadway that on November 10, 1970, Two by Two opened to one rave review, one favorable, two mixed, one unfavorable, and one pan--the most split-down-the-middle notices you can get. Kaye was dispirited and, after he injured himself onstage during a February performance, the show's fate was sealed. "Maybe because Joe had done Sherry," says Willison in reference to the musical version of The Man Who Came to Dinner, whose hero is in a wheelchair, "he thought, 'Why can't Danny use a wheelchair and crutches on stage and make them part of the character?'"
So that's what they decided to do. "On Danny's first night back," Willison relates, "he did one ad-lib about showing up and the audience went nuts. Soon, he was telling us back stage, 'Okay, I'm going to do such-and-such here, cut this line, add an ad-lib, and you break up like you've never heard it.' I refused to fool around. I felt you had to do what the writers and director say. For that, I had great support from them. They knew I loved the show and the part."
Matters worsened at a subsequent performance, when Kaye slipped, banged his cast, fell backwards, and Willison caught him. "You'd think he'd be happy I did, but he said, 'Let go of me, you..." (Willison adds two expletives that have been deleted here). "Then he shoved me and walked off." After that, Willison stopped speaking to Kaye. "One night, at the part of the show when Japeth is leaving home to begin his own life, Noah turns to him and says, 'Write sometime.' It's when the two come together and embrace. But that night, as I was going off, he didn't stop to call me. I turned, looked, and saw this smirk on his face. Later I told him, 'You know, you just unresolved the entire play.' He said, 'Yes--and I can do it any time I want.'" So imagine the tension back stage when Willison got a Tony nomination for the show...and Kaye did not. As it turned out, Willison lost the award to Keene Curtis of The Rothschilds--"And Joan Copeland said, 'Good thing! If you'd won, Danny would have immediately got on a plane to California and we'd all be out of work."
Twenty-seven years later, in 1998, in a show that at least meant to stress that the son eventually becomes the parent, Willison did exactly that: He played Noah in a production of Two by Two that was seen at two suburban Pennsylvania theaters, the Grand Candlelight in Milton and the Theatre for the Performing Arts in Media. He looked adorable while gingerly walking as the 600-year-old Noah and charmed the crowd when muttering, "Boy, we could use some rain." He knew how to deliver the Jewish-flavored humor as well as any Florida snowbird. When God miraculously made him young ("I feel like I'm 90 again!"), he showed what the song could sound like when delivered by someone with a genuine singing voice, conquering notes that Kaye was forced to finesse. Then, when God turned him back to 600 years old, you really felt for the man who had to hand over control to his son. Willison created a Noah that made you understand why God would prefer him above all other men.
"Until I did it, I had no idea what a killer this part is," he says. "It's almost too big. You get to be old, you get to be young, you get to cry, you get to get laughs." And so, each night before he took the stage, Walter Willison took a moment to bless Joe Layton, Richard Rodgers, Martin Charnin, Peter Stone--"and, yes, Danny Kaye. Whatever hell he put us through, out of it came this incredible part. I've forgiven him. In fact, at the point where God makes Noah young, I lifted my arms exactly the way he did in tribute to him. He did that so charmingly. What's sad is that Danny made everyone feel so insecure about the material. This show doesn't get done very much, but it's really solid when you play the truth of it."
Indeed. Two by Two has warmth, wit, and charm, and it deserves another chance. Now, we can see the show in concert form with Willison as Noah and Pat Suzuki, once of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Flower Drum Song, as Esther. It will be presented for four performances--Wednesday and Thursday, April 10 and 11, at 8pm; Sunday, April 14, at 3pm and 7pm--at the Jewish Repertory Theatre, Center for Jewish History, 15 West 16th Street. Phone 917-606-8200 for further information, and perhaps I'll see you there.