Newsday, Sunday, November 29, 1981

Return of a great song satirist

Tom Lehrer inspires a musical revue

by David Hinckley
A decade had turned and we sought change, new voices for a culture from which the thrill had gone. As in the past, we looked to music for this renewal.

Then one day we heard a song about holding your hand. And although we had heard songs about holding hands before, none touched us quite like this one. And we knew we would never be the same again.

The year was 1953. The singer was Tom Lehrer. And the song, of course, was "I Hold Your Hand In Mine". Sing along if you wish:

"I hold your hand in mine, dear
I press it to my lips.
I take a healthy bite
From your dainty fingertips
My joy would be complete, dear,
If you were only here.
But still I keep your hand
As a precious souvenir..."

[photo of Tom] "I wrote that in about 30 seconds," says the tall, slim man in the brown sweater. Sitting at a street-side table in the Village Gate, Tom Lehrer looks and sounds altogether, well, normal, a fact that may come as something of a shock to those familiar with his songs - of which "I Hold Your Hand In Mine" is by no means the most morbid. Or tasteless, if you will. Or delicious. Or whatever. The only unanimous opinion on Tom Lehrer songs is that they should not be played at low volume in elevators.

Lehrer himself stopped singing them about 15 years ago. After an outraged denunciation by the Catholic Church for "The Vatican Rag", he apparently felt his musical goals were largely achieved; there was no one left to offend. But the songs lived on, like the mutant chicken heart in a Japanese horror film, and about three years ago an old Lehrer fan named Cameron MacIntosh, who happens to be a theater producer, asked if he would mind having them turned into a revue. "I said why not," recalls Lehrer. "They've done it for everyone else who wrote more than three songs. Besides, it was his money."

All of which explains why he is sitting at the Village Gate today; he's watching rehearsals of MacIntosh's revue, "Tomfoolery", which opens there Dec. 14 (it's now in previews). Actually, he knows the show, which uses about 28 of his 40 published songs; it has played in London, South Africa, Australia, Ireland, and Hong Kong. "Out-of-country tryouts," he says. "We don't mess with New Haven."

His main interest, he explains, is ensuring that the words survive intact; he leaves the arranging to MacIntosh's crew. With a cast of four and orchestration, these are not the basic vocal-with-piano that Lehrer fans know and love. In fact, he suggests, those seeking a note-for-note re-creation of a Lehrer album should consider simply buying another copy. "My royalties," he says, "are the same either way."

Some of the songs are still piano solos, while others - like "The Vatican Rag" - have a lot of jumping around. Which Lehrer says works out all right: "This is not the Bob Fosse school, where no line is uttered without some portion of the anatomy in motion. The staging doesn't distract."

Lehrer fans, of course, will need no prodding. For virgin ears, put it this way: his devotees prowl the streets by dark of night seeking just such innocence. There's nothing quite like the sight of an unsuspecting fellow hearing "Smut" or "When You Are Old and Gray" for the first time; the effect is so mesmerizing you can sometimes steal his wallet.

Some call Lehrer's songs topical or satirical. Others call them sick. Few call them subtle. In any case, the key is what might be called word choreography - verses that are not only funny, but sound just right (no small feat when the subject is the destruction of human life as we know it). If he must be classified, one might call Lehrer the black sheep of a deceptively sophisticated musical tradition that embraces, among others, Gilbert and Sullivan, Mark Russell, Bob Dylan, and Danny Kaye. "I like to think," he says, "there is a secret longing in the American psyche for literacy."

His own path to fame began at Harvard, which probably still doesn't know how many of us are indifferent to its corporate leaders and scientists, but know all the words to "Poisoning Pigeons In the Park." As a student there, he began singing his songs for friends - who, perhaps to get him out of the room, suggested he record them. "Songs by Tom Lehrer" led to a club act, which led to a second album, "An Evening Wasted With Tom Lehrer," which led to more clubs, which pretty much shot the '50's.

In 1965 he submitted a few songs to the TV show "That Was The Week That Was," and soon became the house songwriter. After the show folded - "justifiably," he adds - Reprise released an LP of songs he had written for it, along with his two earlier albums - a happy circumstance all around, since they have sold a million and a half copies. "I'm sure it amazes them as much as it does me," says Lehrer.

But enough of Lehrer the legend. What of the person, the self-proclaimed Lehrer the Lazy?

Well, six months a year he lives at the University of California at Santa Cruz, teaching a course in math and another in musical comedy. (He conceived the second, he says, after discovering his math classes didn't know why "Oklahoma" is a good musical.) The other six months he spends in Cambridge, where he intends to stay "until my brain turns completely to Jello, at which time I will of course move to California full-time. I hope to use the subjunctive right up to the end."

Does all this imply he would have been content to live his whole life out of the limelight, humbly teaching mathematics? "Yes," he says. "With a slightly higher income."

Politically, he remains a liberal. "Or perhaps a neo-liberal. It's harder to take positions on some things these days, but I still know who I'm against. I would rather curse the darkness than light a single candle." He is confident, for instance, that society will never solve enough of its problems - pollution, racism, poverty, etc. - to render his songs obsolete. Asked whether today's satirists get the same sort of gold from such fertile ground, he allows that he enjoys "SCTV" and "occasionally...very occasionally," "Saturday Night Live" and "Fridays."

Finally, and purely for the benefit of hard-core fans, he did agree to reveal how he mixes martinis. That's been a question ever since "Bright College Days," which ends, "Hearts full of youth, hearts full of truth/Six parts gin to one part vermouth."

"When I drink," he says, "I don't bother with proportions. It's purely for the alcohol."

Thanks to Chris Mezzolesta for typing in this article.

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