Brace yourself now, Suffolk, for plenty of Tom Foolery
It’s not every day you discover that a mild-mannered, slightly dusty, Harvard maths professor has had a not-so-secret life as an international satirist.
In the 1950s and ’60s Tom Lehrer was something of an enigma. In an age of cabaret and small-scale musical theatre he was one of the leading commentators on political life and human behaviour.
While in the UK Flanders and Swann were being whimsical with The Hippopotamus Song and The Gasman Cometh, in the US Tom Lehrer was making audiences laugh and gasp with his sharply-observed comic songs laced with generous dollops of black humour.
Lehrer was one of the few American comedians (or maths professors for that matter) to make the jump across the Atlantic during the 1950s and early 1960s.
Songs like Poisoning Pigeons In The Park, A Christmas Carol (about the commercialisation of Christmas), The Elements (a performance of the periodic table set to a tune of Gilbert & Sullivan’s Modern Major General) and Oedipus Rex (a song about movie title theme songs) made him a hugely popular figure both live and on record.
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But his fame waned in the early 1970s when he decided to concentrate on his academic life. Apart from a couple of appearances on Parkinson and a Royal Variety Show appearance he vanished almost overnight.
However, since the mid-1980s the music and the laughter generated by Tom Lehrer’s songs have been working their way back into people’s lives again, thanks to a show called Tom Foolery created by theatre impresario Cameron Mackintosh and actor/musician Robin Ray.
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Tom Foolery is a revue which collects together the best of Lehrer’s songs and sets them in a series of scenes and sketches.
The latest version of the show was staged at Frinton Summer Theatre as part of a collaboration between actor/producer Matthew Townshend’s MTP company and Connaught Productions. The show was such a success that Matthew has teamed up with Eastern Angles to take the show on the road for a short tour visiting venues across Suffolk.
Woodbridge-based Matthew Townshend said the show was too good to abandon after its Frinton run and deserved to be enjoyed by a wider audience. He is also hoping the tour will spark further collaborations with Eastern Angles, which may lead to a greater variety of shows touring round to smaller East Anglian towns and villages.
He said: “We are having some serious discussions with Matthew Linley at Eastern Angles about collaborating on some different kind of shows. Eastern Angles have a very clear identity and they know what they are doing, but I think there is change afoot.
“I think the arts world in East Anglia is changing. Because of current personnel changes the pieces are all up in the air and are being rearranged. At the moment we can’t yet see what pattern is emerging but what we are trying to do is shape that pattern in an interesting and accessible way.
“At Eastern Angles there is a sense of looking at partnerships which broaden the range of what can be offered to local audiences.
“What we want to do is to try and bring some top-drawer theatre to local audiences without them having to go to Ipswich, Norwich, Cambridge or Bury St Edmunds.” Tom Foolery is their first venture and a way to test the waters. But Matthew admits that getting the rights to stage the show from Cameron Mackintosh was not easy.
“I think the last time it was on tour it was staged by Kit & The Widow with Dillie Keane and that would have been at least seven years ago.
“It keeps coming back into the West End and, as you can imag-ine, Cameron doesn’t give up his shows easily. It has taken quite a bit of persuasion. I think that we were quite lucky to bag it.
“In terms of the tour it has been a steady process of chipping away and negotiation. With each new venue that has expressed an interest in taking our show we have had to go back to Cameron and seek individual permission for each date. So he obviously sees it as a worthwhile on-going investment.
“And certainly Tom Lehrer has been steadily returning to public consciousness – helped immeasurably by Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe performing Lehrer’s The Elements song on the Graham Norton Show. It has helped sell our show immeasurably.”
Matthew said Tom Lehrer has survived his self-imposed years in the wilderness because the songs are not only incredibly funny and well written but they continue to be topical.
“It’s extraordinary but songs written and first performed in the late 1950s and 1960s are just as relevant today. Tom Lehrer had a knack of identifying timeless faults in the human condition and writing very entertainingly about them.
“Listen to them now and they could have very easily been written yesterday.”
Matthew said Tom Lehrer’s continued popularity is based on a complicated mix of factors. Humour is at the heart of his appeal but that’s not all. American humour doesn’t always travel – particularly 1950s humour. Sid Caesar was hugely popular in the United States but didn’t make the same connection with UK audiences.
“I think Tom Lehrer is a performer who links straight across the Atlantic with English audiences. Interestingly, Lehrer combines the best of both British and American humour. He has the irony and sarcasm of the British, along with the sharp-edged American delivery.
“All of this is very much wrapped up in the man himself. He beamed this straight across the Atlantic and, unlike much of American humour at the time, it needed no translation.
“The thing that has struck us is how relevant and contemporary his work is. While we don’t belabour the point in the show, it becomes pretty obvious fairly quickly that a lot of the problems he was writing about in the 1950s are still with us.
“He has songs about Hollywood’s love of politics, and you look at Schwarzenegger and Clint Eastwood and you see that nothing has changed. Then he plays with the whole cult of celebrity. That ties in with everything from Big Brother to I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here to Ann Widdecombe and others on Strictly Come Dancing.
“Songs about timeless things like that immediately get people laughing because you don’t even have to say ‘remember when’. Even songs about The Cold War, things like We’ll All Go Together When We Go, are relevant. Just change location from Europe and the Eastern Bloc to the Middle East and you’re right there. The fears, the black humour and the dangers are exactly the same. It’s just the time and location that has changed.”
An example of how up-to-date his work still is is reflected in a woman coming up to Matthew after one show at Frinton, shocked a song could be declaring that the world hates Jews.
Matthew says that because Lehrer’s songs are so funny – so well observed – he can afford to be very daring with his subject matter.
“The song is ironic. It’s called International Brotherhood Week. It’s very sharp satire.
“If you look at the line which shocked our lovely audience member, you’ll see it is very relevant to the world in which we live today. It says: ‘All of us folks, hate all of you folks, And the Hindus hate the Muslims, And everybody hates the Jews.’
“I think it’s great; you can sit there laughing along with the songs and then suddenly sit bolt upright and say: ‘Bloody hell, did he really just say that?’ It’s great theatre.
“He goes very close to the line. He’s fearless but he never goes over it.”
Matthew said Flanders and Swann had a similar skill but did it in a more reserved, whimsical English way. Satirists of that era had the ability to strike a nerve, to say something meaningful, to make the audience laugh and take everyone with them.
Matthew said the key to Tom Lehrer’s comic longevity is his love of language.
“He was a very clever wordsmith. You would have never got him to talk about the creative process but you can see that he worked and worked on those songs. His parodies and his use of language are very clever and that is what makes them last.
“These aren’t songs where you can lift any words out, swap them around and put them back in any order. These are shaped and crafted by a genius. He really was a genius because half the time he was setting and marking highly advanced maths papers at one of the world’s leading universities and the rest of the time he was commenting in the most hilarious fashion on the world around him.”
Matthew believes it was academic pressure which finally put paid to Tom Lehrer the performer.
“What makes Lehrer interesting is that he flourished at the time of the anti-establishment movement. It was the time of That Was The Week That Was, David Frost, Private Eye, Peter Cook, and what made Tom Lehrer different and more interesting – apart from being an American – was the fact that he was a satirist who was coming from the other direction.
“He was part of the establishment. He was a scientist. He was a lecturer. He was a Harvard professor. He was a mathematician and yet he was also an entertainer.
“Although he has liked to surround himself in myth and legend, I think that ultimately the crunch finally came in the 1970s when his employers at the university said: ‘Look; what do you want to be? Do you want to be a cabaret artist or do you want a pension?’ It was at that stage he chose the pension.
“Tom Lehrer would never say that. Instead he declared that he gave up performing when they gave Henry Kissinger the Nobel Peace Prize. He said he couldn’t write another political satire after witnessing something so bizarre, and apart from a few special appearances he’s kept to his promise.”
n Tom Foolery is at The Sir John Mills Theatre, Ipswich, in association with Eastern Angles, on September 7-8. Tickets can be booked on 01394 385022.