Remembering Two By Two
When the groundbreaking composing team of Rodgers and Hammerstein came to an end with Hammerstein’s death in 1960, Rodgers spent the balance of his career trying to find a lyricist with whom he could achieve similar magic. A decade later, Rodgers was still searching when he paired with lyricist Martin Charnin for the musical Two By Two. Two By Two was based on the Clifford Odets play The Flowering Peach (adapted by Peter Stone) that followed the biblical character of Noah and his family as they prepare for the flood, build an ark, and set sail with a menagerie of animals, one male and one female of each species.
To play the central character of “Noah,” star of stage and screen Danny Kaye was secured and the musical was tailored to his talents. This would seemingly make for a hot a ticket, a new Rodgers show and Kaye bringing his whimsical bag of tricks. All seemed to be going fine until the reviews for the show came out, which were (at their best) mixed. This prompted Kaye to ad lib, change the script, insert jokes, and deviate from the production altogether. Rodgers was livid, especially when Kaye began to mess with the score’s tempos. Kaye’s antics, however, actually helped and word of mouth spread, giving a boost to the box office that had been limping along.
Kaye also broke his foot during the production, but he was trouper and continued to perform in a wheelchair or with crutches. He would work these “props” into his schtick, and Rodgers details the scenario in his biography that Kaye would try to run the other actors down with his wheelchair and would use the crutches to poke the female performers inappropriately. Kaye turned the show into a variation on his old vaudeville act, and though many found his efforts entertaining, it wasn’t the show that Stone, Charnin and Rodgers had set out to create. Also in the cast of Two By Two were Marilyn Cooper, Harry Goz, Joan Copeland, Madeline Kahn, Michael Karm, Tricia O’Neil, and Walter Willison, who ended up being comedic foils for Kaye, in a constant state of improvisation as the show changed (nightly).
The Rodgers/Charnin score didn’t exactly ignite the stage, though the title song for Two By Two proved both catchy and to enjoy a modest life outside of the show. The Peter Stone book was nowhere near his best and it sometimes limped along. It is easy to see why Kaye would feel compelled to infuse it with his own brand of humor, however egregious an act. Perhaps there just wasn’t enough story or opportunities to deepen characters through music in that handful of biblical verses to make a full evening out of the “Noah’s Ark” story?
Two By Two opened at Broadway’s Imperial Theatre on November 10, 1970 where it ran for 10 months before shuttering. Directed by Joe Layton, the musical was mostly overlooked come Tony time, though Willison was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Musical. The show is mostly remembered today as an “also ran,” but its score still charms. Rodgers may not have enjoyed the successes of his years with Lorenz Hart and then Hammerstein as his lyricist, but he did prove he still had his knack for writing an infectious melody or two.
Mark Robinson is the author of the two-volume encyclopedia The World of Musicals, The Disney Song Encyclopedia, and The Encyclopedia of Television Theme Songs. His forthcoming book, Sitcommentary: The Television Comedies That Changed America,will hit the shelves in October, 2019. Hemaintains a theater and entertainment blog at markrobinsonwrites.com.