His Songs Spread Like Herpes: Tom Lehrer

There’s antimony, arsenic, aluminum, selenium,
And hydrogen, and oxygen, and nitrogen, and rhenium
And nickel, neodymium, neptunium, germanium
And iron, americium, ruthenium, uranium
Europium, zirconium, lutetium, vanadium

First Five lines of The Elements

Shah Iftar as Tom Lehrer (Photo: Simon Jackson)

In the days before podcasts there was the radio and on television That Was the Week That Was which I remember contained the clever, satirical rhymes of Tom Lehrer.  Tom Lehrer is Teaching Math and Doesn’t Want To Talk To You  is possible because this witty, idiosyncratic man deliberately did not copyright his verse.  The result is free access for all.

Francis Beckett was at boarding school when he was entranced by the satire and irreverence of Tom Lehrer’s songs.  He has devised this entertainment to attempt to answer the question as to why Tom Lehrer gave up writing and recording his unique comedy songs in 1960 and  instead becoming an obscure lecturer in maths. 

The format Beckett has used is several interviews with the same reporter played by Nabilah Hamid who also has a good singing voice.  In the first interview she will use the resulting article to launch a career in journalism.  So we have Tom Lehrer (a magnificent Shahaf Ifhar) answer questions about his life, illustrated by his many songs. Mostly at the piano is Harry Style but he can also join in singing. 

His work must have been regarded as often outrageous in the 1950s but what still thrills us is his satirical wit and clever rhymes.  Lehrer’s songs were so avant-garde that he couldn’t find a record company to take him on so he recorded his own LPs (vinyls).   Lehrer was a mathematician and won a place at Harvard when he was 14. As a research student was when his song output was at its peak and he recorded them for his fellow students. 

Nabilah Hamid (Photo: Simon Jackson)

After Harvard he goes to California to teach math to students on creative and artistic courses who need a basic maths unit to matriculate or graduate.  He also taught a course in the history of the musical, met Sondheim but disliked the folk singers of the 1960s like Bob Dylan. 

He never wrote about the Holocaust; perhaps that was a humorous step too far.  He agreed with Peter Cook that, why when the Weimar Republic was awash with satirical Cabaret, at the same time how was the Rise of Hitler and Nazism not prevented by satire.  He did have a dislike of Germans and Germany.  Lehrer wrote Wernher von Braun about the German aerospace engineer who escaped a trial for his Nazi war crimes so he could contribute in America to the space race against the Russians and become the real founder of NASA. 

The star of the show is the songs, the inventive lyrics, Hanukkah with Santa Monica, and in “I Wanna Go Back to Dixie”, Bol weevil with medieval, hominy with nominee.  Shahaf Ifhar is masterly. He has great presence and can deliver those tongue twisting lyrics with aplomb.  Nabilah Hamid is a charming singer and plays a persistent reporter My only regret is the omission of “The Masochism Tango”: maybe not political enough for the author but the highly sexual and full of inuendo “I Got It From Agnes” is the first song.

Although Tom Lehrer is Teaching Math and Doesn’t Want To Talk To You is only on until the 9th of June, pre-publicity has achieved a sell out but this excellent show should be revived soon or even transfer.

Musical Numbers

ACT ONE

I Got It From Agnes

I Hold Your Hand in Mine

The Vatican Rag

Wernher von Braun

The Whiffenpoof Song

Bright College Days

Poisoning Pigeons in the Park

Be Prepared

It Makes a Fellow Proud to Be a Soldier

We Will All Go Together When We Go

Who’s Next?

I Wanna Go back to Dixie

The Wild West is Where I Want To Be

 

ACT TWO

Clementine

The Folk Song Army

The Irish Ballad

Oedipus Rex

Pollution

National Brotherhood Week

Silent E

When You Are Old and Gray

Alma

Hanukkah in Santa Monica

Polaroid Photography Song

The Elements

Production Notes

Tom Lehrer is Teaching Math and Doesn’t Want To Talk To You

written by Francis Beckett

 

Music and Lyrics by Tom Lehrer

 

Directed by Isaac Bernier-Doyle

 

Cast

Starring:

Shahaf Ifhar

Nabilah Hamid

Harry Style

Creatives

Director: Isaac Bernier-Doyle

Musical Director: Harry Style

Information

Running Time: One hour 45 minutes with an interval

Booking until June 2024 but sold out 

Theatre:

Upstairs at the Gatehouse

Highgate Village

London N6 4BD

Box Office: 020 8340 3488

Website: upstairsatthegatehouse.com

Tube: Highgate

Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge

at Upstairs at the Gatehouse

on 28th May 2024