Sandwiched in between the vogue for theatrical revue and the more current and ubiquitous rise of the juke box musical there were a number of shows which set out to celebrate the work of an individual in what might be thought of as a “greatest hits” collection. An early example was Cowardy Custard (Noel Coward) though probably the most well remembered has to be Side By Side By Sondheim. One I recall fondly was a show called Tomfoolery which celebrated the witty songs of American mathematics professor and part time performer Tom Lehrer. It was an early production success for the still fledgling Cameron Mackintosh and reintroduced the wit and satire of an earlier age (late 1950s/early 1960s) to a more contemporary audience.
And now here is the ever dependable Stefan Bednarczyk with his second show for Jermyn Streets Footprints festival reviving him yet again. Simply called Tom Lehrer the entertainment is a collection of songs which prick pretension and actually still have a great deal of resonance. Apparently Lehrer only wrote 37 of them so hardly an extensive body of work but what a clever melange they are and certainly bore rediscovering via an undemanding show which on the hottest afternoon of the year was probably all anybody could take. Bednarczyk is an amiable and knowledgeable host who has included Lehrer’s work in his shows before though never devoted a whole show to him, so this is something of a world premiere. As with his previous An Evening With Flanders and Swan, the performer sits at the piano on a bare stage with little by way of staging elements working his way through the catalogue interspersed with some biographical detail and personal anecdotes. There was a little trouble with a misbehaving microphone at one point, but this did little to undermine an assured and delightful performance.
The show is bookended with a pair of ghoulish songs about murder; the first of these is, as Bednarczyk points out hopelessly politically incorrect on a number of fronts and the last still seems as gloriously tasteless as the day it was written – but that’s Lehrer for you. Songs like “Poisoning Pigeons In The Park”, “The Masochism Tango”, “The Old Dope Peddler” and “The Vatican Rag” have become semi-legendary and if you’ve never heard them before I think you’ll be surprised at well they scrub up. Yes they are satirical about the era in which they were written though they tend to be about subjects other than contemporary politics so still retain their resonance; in any case Lehrer famously once said: “Political satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.” Although it’s the lyrics he is best remembered for he could also write a mean tune or two and plundered recognisable styles to create some memorable routines such as his various takes on “My Darling Clementine”. One tune is taken wholesale from Gilbert and Sullivan (Lehrer was a great admirer) as the chemical elements are set to the tune of The Major General’s Song from The Pirates Of Penzance.
Lehrer gave up performing to reconcentrate on his mathematics professorship in the early 1970s and is now in his nineties. He recently announced that his work would be placed into the public domain for all to access. Rather than going through endless files online, Jermyn Street Theatre’s show would be the ideal way to acquaint yourself with these classic works and there’s a repeat performance next Sunday if you’re intrigued; and you should be.
Tom Lehrer is available via the Jermyn Street website – click here
The full programme for the Footprints Festival at Jermyn Street Theatre is here
To keep up with the blog and all the latest online theatre reviews please click here and choose a follow option
For my Theatre Online list (suggestions and news of newly released productions) please click here. This list is supplemented by daily updates on Twitter (@johnchapman398