Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt are still spinning theatre gold from their failure as concert pianists

Between rehearsals and performances, Ted Dykstra, left, and Richard Greenblatt have performed the material in “2 Pianos 4 Hands” around 5,000 times.

Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt can’t stop laughing.

“It’s just silly,” said Greenblatt. “When you think about it in any kind of rational way, the idea that it’s been 26 years since we first opened at the Tarragon. I mean, that’s just stupid, that a show has lasted this long.”

The show in question is “2 Pianos 4 Hands,” which is back for its sixth major run in Toronto, which begins playing Saturday at the Royal Alexandra Theatre.

In the two and a half decades since it premiered at the Tarragon Theatre, the show became a bona fide phenomenon, touring across the country and around the world. Between rehearsals and performances, Dykstra and Greenblatt have performed the material around 5,000 times. Each of them has also directed productions featuring other actors (including female actors), and there have been further productions in which they’ve not had direct creative input.

It keeps coming back, they said, because it’s “basically about the transformative power of art. As our original consulting director Andy McKim says, that just never changes,” said Greenblatt.

The semi-autobiographical show is based on both men’s experiences taking piano lessons as children and realizing in their teenage years they were not going to have careers as professional musicians. In the show, they perform numerous pieces on the two pianos of the title, while acting out vignettes in which they play younger versions of themselves, their parents and their music teachers.

The show’s about “having a dream as a young person and coming up to your limitation of what that dream might be, and deciding what you’re going to do with that,” said Greenblatt.

After that early disappointment, both men pivoted into theatre careers, in which they have excelled. Greenblatt, now 69, trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London and has worked as an actor, director, writer, musician and teacher. Dykstra, 61, trained at Canada’s National Theatre School, is a founding member of Soulpepper Theatre and an actor, writer, composer and director who currently runs Coal Mine Theatre on the Danforth with Diana Bentley.

The show is a crafty way for them to transform their excellent-but-not-world-class piano skills into a unique selling point: “I wanted to be the best at whatever I do,” said Dykstra, “and so I wrote a show about all the things I do best and I became best at that … we’ve looked for 26 years and we’ve only found a couple of handfuls of people — and that might be generous — who can do this show.

“I always kind of smile that I’m out there in a tux, bowing for people who paid to hear me play the piano, because I cheated,” added Dykstra.

This time, they’re bringing it back at the request of Mirvish Productions, which was looking for well-known Canadian shows to present as theatres started opening up as pandemic restrictions waned.

While the lines and staging come back to them fairly easily, getting back into playing the piano is “terrifying,” said Dykstra. “That’s a rigour that we have to get back into,” agreed Greenblatt. “It’s kind of like now we’re running the marathon again, so you have to build up to it.”

The hardest part, they say, comes at the end of the show when they play the eight-minute-long Bach D-minor piano concerto. But the challenge playing that piece keeps them coming back. “I think if (the play) just was a two-hander without that, it’d be kind of like, ‘I think I’d rather eat my own leg,’” said Dykstra. “Because that exists at the end of the show every night, I think there’s some tiny little part inside of us that just goes, ‘Can that still get better?’”

Greenblatt has written a book about the show, “Two of the Best in the Neighbourhood,” which is being released during this Toronto run. It’s full of behind-the-scenes lore and stories about how audiences have reacted to the piece. During our interview, he and Dykstra recalled a particularly memorable encounter with an older man who waited for them after a performance on a cold winter evening in Saskatchewan.

“He said, ‘I don’t really know what I’m here for. I just wanted you guys to know that my wife passed away just recently, but we played that piece together all the time. And that’s all I have to say,’” recalled Dykstra, referring to the Bach aria “Sheep May Safely Graze” that they play as an encore.

“That’s what music is to me, just something that’s beyond our understanding,” said Dykstra. “If you were to think or believe in a higher power of any kind, music’s definitely connected to what that is.”

“2 Pianos 4 Hands” plays at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, 260 King St. W., June 4 to July 17. See mirvish.com or call 1-800-461-3333 for tickets. “Two of the Best in the Neighbourhood: An Anecdotal History of 2 Pianos 4 Hands’” is available at jgshillingford.com.

Karen Fricker is a Toronto-based theatre critic and a freelance contributor for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @KarenFricker2

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