Three Cheers for Two by Two

Three Cheers for Two by Two

By Peter Filichia –

It was to be The Big Show of the season. For decades, “The New Richard Rodgers musical” always was. But Two by Two was going to be The REALLY BIG Show of 1970-1971 because Danny Kaye was coming back to Broadway. Although he had visited with a one-man show in each of the previous decades, he hadn’t done a book show since Let’s Face It! in 1941 – almost three decades earlier.

Big musicals should have big characters and big events. Two by Two could easily boast both, for Kaye would be playing Noah – and if God’s drowning the entire world isn’t a big event, what is?

Better still: The bookwriter was Peter Stone, whose previous Broadway show had been 1776, for which he’d provided the best book in musical theater history. Stone had been able to convincingly humanize the founding fathers, so he might do well by the real “Founding Father” – namely God — and His interaction with Noah.

The lyrics were by Martin Charnin, who’d been a Big Deal on Broadway – literally, when he created the role of Big Deal, a Jet, in the original production of West Side Story. He’d be a bigger deal still in seven years when he would direct and write the lyrics for Annie.

But in 1970, Charnin was known for having some bad Broadway breaks. Hot Spot with an increasingly ill Judy Holliday ran forty-three performances – forty-two more than his next three combined: Zenda and Mata Hari had closed out of town, and La Strada, for which he’d provided some additional lyrics, ran a night.

However, most Broadway savants knew that Charnin’s work was solid on all those shows and other problems were responsible for their failures. Now that Charnin was setting lyrics to melodies by the master, all would (presumably) be well.

Rodgers, who’d produce as well, hired one of his favorite director-choreographers: Joe Layton, who’d done the musical staging of his The Sound of Music. So all had to go well, right?

The problem with being The Big Show of the season is that it must turn out to meet all the big expectations. Two by Two didn’t. 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 immediately became dispirited. So after he injured his leg during a February performance, the show’s fate was sealed. He returned in a wheelchair, and when he gave the audience an ad-lib about his showing up, the crowd reacted so strongly and supportively that Kaye decided to add more and more ad-libs. The musical became a shambles.

The Tony committee judged Two by Two by its recent events and not by what they had seen early in the run. The show received one paltry nomination — for Walter Willison, who portrayed Japheth, the most rebellious of Noah’s three sons. Even Lovely Ladies, Kind Gentlemen, which had run a mere nineteen performances, received two nominations.

That Two by Two didn’t receive a Best Musical nod would have been enough of a snub, but to make matters worse, the committee only nominated three musicals: Company (which won), The Me Nobody Knows and The Rothschilds. The powers-that-be were saying, “We’d rather nominate nothing than Two by Two.”

Same situation in the Best Score and Best Lyrics category: those same three shows were nominated, and a blank slot was left that could have gone to Rodgers and Charnin. A listen to the show’s original cast album shows that that decision was patently unfair. This IS a good score, and deserves a re-listen.

Rodgers was always famous for his waltzes: “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World,” “A Wonderful Guy,” and “Hello, Young Lovers” – not to mention the most cherished of all: “The Carousel Waltz.” He started with a spirited one in “Why Me?” in which Noah questions God’s choosing him to survive the flood and keep the world going.

Next is a spirited 6/8 Rodgers tune, as two of Noah’s sons – Ham, as well as Shem and his wife Leah — sing how they should “Put Him Away” because he’s insane; how else to explain someone who thinks that God talked to him, divulged that He plans to destroy the world and will save only him and his family?

But Japheth believes that his father did indeed hear God – although he wonders why God must be so vindictive. In one of the score’s highlights, Japheth (the excellent Walter Willison) directly addresses God and asks if there isn’t “Something, Somewhere” that He likes. Take it from one who saw Two by Two during its New Haven tryout: When Willison finished, the audience immediately gave applause that exceeded what Peter Pan gets after asking on behalf of Tinker Bell.

Noah and his sons next clash over the boat’s construction – specifically because they insist “You Have Got to Have a Rudder on the Ark.” Rebuts Noah, “If God would have wanted a rudder, then God would have said ‘Make a rudder.’” The sons still argue, causing Noah to reply, “If God would have wanted four captains, then God would have hired four captains.” After each leisurely verse, the melody takes off. Jerry Herman once wrote, “There’s no tune like a show tune in 2/4,” and Rodgers apparently agreed, for that’s what he chose for the body of the song.

There’s a nice piece of dialogue interspersed. Noah points out, “God has chosen us to survive. He promised it. So why do we need a rudder?” Japheth answers calmly, the way people do when they know that their response is a checkmate: “Why do we need a boat?”

Still, they build one as we turn to the domestic problems that Rachel has with her husband Ham. As she sings to her mother-in-law Esther, “Something Doesn’t Happen” when they’re together. Rodgers’ melody is plaintive, but it gains strength to support Charnin’s excellent lyric, “Where’s the love I’m supposed to be in?”

The ark is coming along, despite the friction among the boat builders. Esther reminds her sons that her husband is “An Old Man” in another plaintive waltz. However, Noah won’t be old for long – because God is about to create a miracle and shave off 510 years from his 600-year-old body. Up to this point, Kaye had mostly been playing antiquated, but now he got to be the grown-up sprite for which he had become famous. He exuberantly says he feels as if he’s only “Ninety Again!” Crooned Kaye about being “a newer Noah”: “Hey, Esther — wanna play?”

Soon the ark is finished, and it’s time for everyone to get on “Two by Two.” In the middle of the charming song, Noah actually says, “It’s catchy, no?” He’s right.

Problem is, there isn’t a mate for Japheth. Actually, he thinks there is: Rachel, Ham’s wife. Admits Japheth, “I Do Not Know a Day I Did Not Love You,” considered to be one of Rodgers’ finest songs from his final years. Their relationship will get a chance, however, once Japheth meets Goldie – who catches the interest of Ham, thus leaving Rachel for Japheth. (Playing Goldie – and singing a Joan Sutherlandesque aria in “The Golden Ram” – was a future star named Madeline Kahn.)

Rodgers was famous for his marches, too, be they for Cinderella or the Siamese Children. He starts his second act, post-rainfall, with “When It Dries.” Kaye is then tender with Esther in two songs “You” and “Hey, Girlie.” Conversely, Shem and Leah are shown to be pragmatic in “As Far As I’m Concerned.” (She was played by Marilyn Cooper, a little more than a decade away from her Tony-winning triumph in Woman of the Year. “I’m a poker player, and I say if you stay at the table long enough, you’re bound to come up with a winner,” she said then.)

Alas, Two by Two was not a winner, because Danny Kaye corrupted it as the weeks and months went by on its 334-performance run. But the wonderful thing about the cast album is that it was recorded five days after the musical opened, when Kaye still believed in it. Listen to his final conversation with God, called “The Covenant.” You’ll be convinced. And with this original cast album, you’ll hear a much better show than most of the audiences saw.

Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at His new book Broadway Musical MVPs: The Most Valuable Players of the Past 50 Seasons is now available through Applause Books and at