There are many many extraordinarily talented musicians, vocalists, actors, visual artists, dancers, and performers of every stripe in the world. Most, despite their possession of gifts that astonish us mere mortals, will never be able to make it “professionally” in their art, let alone reach the stratosphere of fame and fortune to which they may aspire. I’m reminded of this sobering truth – that there are far more extremely talented artists in the world than opportunities for them to shine – every year at graduation, as I witness fantastically talented students from the CMU School of Drama get sometimes discouraging results from their showcase auditions and portfolio presentations, or when I look at the career trajectories of equally fantastic alumni and note how many end up pursuing alternate life paths. Talent is only part of the equation that sums up to a successful artistic career – you also need drive, discipline, the right look or personality, and, of course, a certain amount of good luck or good timing.
We all know the story of the lucky talented starlet discovered waitressing in a cafe; we also know the one of the equally talented, but failed artist who tragically overdoses on booze or drugs. Such trajectories occur in real life (the latter no doubt more frequently than the former), but they are on the extreme ends of a spectrum of experience. 2 Pianos 4 Hands tells the more common story, of artists who, despite oodles of talent and hard work, come to recognize and accept, without loss of pride in their accomplishments, that the coveted professional career and attendant fame and fortune will never be within reach, and who seek and find fulfillment in other, equally satisfying ways. The story here is that of two monstrously good classical piano players – Canadians Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt – who were nonetheless not quite good enough (or driven or disciplined enough) to make it in the rarefied world of classical music. Dykstra and Greenblatt went on to solid careers in the performing arts (as actors, writers, directors, and musicians), and in 1996 collaborated in writing and performing 2 Pianos 4 Hands, which humorously explores their shared experience growing up with a talent, and love, for the piano: studying and mastering classical works, competing in festivals, battling nerves and self-doubt, coping with loneliness and obsession, contending for coveted spots in conservatory training programs, facing harsh criticism and contradictory lessons from teachers, and finally coming up against, and accepting, the limits of their own talent and ambition. The show has been performed 4,000 times around the world, making it one of Canada’s most successful cultural exports; here in Pittsburgh the autobiographical roles originated by Dykstra and Greenblatt are performed by Bob Stillman and Christopher Tocco, both highly gifted musicians and adept comedians in their own right. The show is likeable and entertaining, and although I found the writing in some places predictable and “lite,” those weaknesses are more than compensated for by the sheer pleasure of watching and hearing these two men play piano with such virtuosity, and by the pathos of recognizing that even being that good is somehow not “good enough” to make it as a classical pianist. The irony of the play, of course, is that every time it is mounted, another two extremely talented “nonprofessional” classical pianists get to showcase their talent in a big and beautiful way, particularly in the show’s breathtaking finale: a two piano, four hand rendition of Bach’s Concerto in D Minor, which Stillman and Tocco play with brio, passion, and great joy.