STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: A Second Look at Two By Two

STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: A Second Look at Two By Two 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.

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 six months. His music showed he still had it, so we dared hope 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, where I learned that Martin Charnin was one terrific lyricist. William Goldman would go to bat for him in "The Season" by printing the entire lyric of his anti-war anthem, "Maman," from the show's earlier incarnation, Mata Hari. But here, months before the book's publication, Charnin taught me that if you want them to cry, you must not.

Bookwriter Peter Stone had just given 1776, the best book in musical theatre history. If he'd been able to convincingly write 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 delivered a unique staging for No Strings.

But, of course, the cherry on the sundae was Danny Kaye's return to Broadway. So when the curtain rose, and Kaye entered as a just-awakening Noah, we gave an extra-loud dollop of entrance applause. His first song, though, "Everything That's Gonna Be Has Been," got none. It was about his own hum-drum existence, and was, well, maybe a bit too hum-drum. The next song was better -- as Noah's family questioned whether or not they should "Put Him Away" for wanting to believing the world was coming to an end. Though it was a spirited Rodgers march, it 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, that there had to be "something someplace, some place something that you like." When he finished, the audience immediately gave the show applause that rivaled Peter Pan's bequest on the part of Tinkerbelle. But this thunderclap said "I believe! I believe in Two By Two!"

But none of us knew then what had happened during pre-production and rehearsals. Willison told much of his story when Martin Gottfried was writing Kaye1s biography, Nobody's Fool. If Kaye wanted something changed, he'd pout, be terrible in a scene, or go in his dressing room. He wouldn't say, "You must do this," but made things so difficult that the creators would acquiesce.

In a recent interview, Willison told me a bit more. "Noah's wife was written for Nancy Andrews, as a strong Jewish-mama matriarch. Danny didn1t 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 it -- and got it. Slowly, the secondary characters were being pared down."

Not Willison's, though. "Danny cared about the father-son relationship, where the son eventually became the parent. So did Dick and Marty, who wrote that song especially for me. Danny liked it and insisted 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 Nov. 10, 1970, Two By Two opened to one rave, one favorable, two mixed, one unfavorable and one pan -- the most split-down-the-middle reviews you can get. Kaye was dispirited. So after he injured himself onstage during a February performance, the show's fate appeared sealed.

"Maybe because Joe had done Sherry," says Willison (of the musical of The Man Who Came to Dinner whose hero was in a wheelchair), "he thought, why can't Danny use a wheelchair and crutches, and make them part of the character?" Kaye and Layton started rehearsing -- "for one day," reports Willison. "Whenever Joe suggested something Danny disliked, it was, `Oh, my leg, I don't know if I can do that.'" On day two, Danny told Joe had to go to California. He was in his New York apartment all the time. `He won,' is the way Joe put it."

There'd be more. "On Danny's first night back, he did one ad lib about showing up, and the audience went nuts. Soon he was telling us backstage, `Okay, I1m 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 he1d be happy I did, but he said, `Let go of me, you -- " (Willison adds two expletives that shall be deleted here.) "Then he shoved me and walked off."

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,' and he said, `Yes -- and I can do it any time I want.'"

Next came the jokes about Madeline Kahn's breasts -- "for a character who was to be Noah1s daughter-in-law," says a still-amazed Willison. "One by one, they all stoped liking him. Joan was the last to go, once he started unzipping her dress onstage."

So imagine what happened when Willison got a Tony nomination and Kaye didn't. "That happened on Tuesday, March 16, and the next day, I was getting all these congratulatory calls, including one from my agent, who also mentioned, `You'd better leave now for the matinee, because of the St. Patrick's Day Parade. As I left, I had my roommate call to let them know I might be late. He was on the phone as I was leaving.

"Now the night before, (eldest son) Harry Goz was 21 minutes late for half-hour, but he got in costume and did the show. I arrived nine minutes before half-hour, and was informed I wouldn't be going on. My understudy came down the stairs, already in costume and make-up, and Danny walked right past past me, put his arms around him, and said, `You'll be wonderful -- because you1ll listen to me.'

"I was in tears, and Jerry White, Rodgers' right-hand man, saw me, and said, `What's going on?'. I told him, and he said, `We'll see about that.' He went to the stage manager, then came back and said, `Nothing I can do. Danny said he wouldn1t go on if you did.'"

Willison lost to Keene Curtis of The Rothschilds -- "and Joan said, `Good thing. If you1d won, Danny would have immediately got on a plane to Caifornia, and we1d be out of work."

So it went for five months. "When Noah was fighting with Japeth on stage, he was really fighting. Until the week before we were to close, when Dick let me out to do Bernstein1s Mass. He asked me to say goodbye to Danny, so I did. And Danny said to me, `You haven't spoke to me for eight months, and just because you stepped on my foot that night.'"

And yet, 27 years later, in a show that at least started out to stress that the son eventually becomes the parent, Willison has ended up doing exactly that. In two suburban Pennsylvania theatres (the Grand Candlelight in Milton in May-June, and the Theatre for the Performing Arts in Media in June-July), he played Noah.

At the July 18 performance, 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 old man Jewish-flavored humor as well as any Florida snowbird. ("You always say, `It's time to eat,'" he told his wife, "and yesterday we had lunch at 9:30 in the morning."). When God miraculously made him young ("I feel like I'm 90 again!"), he showed what the song could sound like with a genuine singing voice, conquering notes that Kaye was forced to finesse. Then, when God turned him back to 600, he made you feel 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 others.

Afterwards in his dressing room, Willison had to take a deep breath before starting the interview. "Until I did it, I had no idea this part was this huge, what a killer it is. It1s almost too big. You get to be old, you get to be young, you get to cry, you get to get laughs. And it was really something at the end of the act, when I got to reprise "my" song as Noah. I had to think that if Danny hadn't demanded so much, I wouldn't have this big part now."

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, though," concluded Willison, "is that Danny made everyone feel so insecure about the material, that nobody wants to touch this show. But it's really solid when you play the truth of it."

Indeed. Two by Two has warmth, wit, and charm, and deserves another chance. It would fit well on the Goodspeed stage, and on the Promenade as well. Let's see it again -- with Walter Willison as Noah.

-- Peter Filichia is the New Jersey drama critic for the Star Ledger.
You can e-mail him at Pfilichia@aol.com