Is Tom Lehrer dead? He'd like you to think so. According to one source on the Internet, the comedic singer/songwriter/pianist enjoys spreading rumors that he has expired.
In truth, the dry humorist is a nondead professor of music and mathematics at the University of California-Santa Cruz. He's just one of those people who attained fame and then seemed to abruptly drop off the map.
For those old enough to remember, Lehrer is the guy who wrote and performed such novelty songs back in the '50s and '60s as "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park," "The Masochism Tango" and "The Elements." That last one is a list of every element in the periodic table, set to a Gilbert and Sullivan tune.
This weekend, the folks of K's Theatrical Korps will mount Tomfoolery, a revue of Lehrer songs. They will titillate all comers with numbers such as "Be Prepared," which contains these lines: "Keep those reefers hidden where you're sure that they will not be found/and be careful not to smoke them when the scoutmaster's around/for he will only insist that they be shared/Be prepared." In "My Home Town," a fellow reminisces: "The guy who taught us math/who never took a bath/acquired a certain measure of renown/And after school he sold the most amazing pictures/in my home town."
Before becoming a Dr. Demento favorite, Lehrer was a 1946 Harvard grad with a degree in math. He went on to become a professor himself and even did a bit of work for some defense contractors, which is surprising, considering the goodly number of jokey songs he's written about the potential devastations of nuclear war. He stopped writing silly songs "when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, which finally made political satire obsolete," he explains in the book for Tomfoolery.
KTK will perform Lehrer's tunes in a building formerly used as a convent, which is somehow appropriate. Director Kathy Schottel reports that a cast of seven, including a pianist and double-bassist, will perform the songs as soloists and in groups. Many of the group, not surprisingly, had never heard of the comic genius before the auditions, says Schottel. Like Frank Zappa or William Gaines, Lehrer is guru to an off-center, sophomoric cult of fans.
The cast will wear specially made bowling shirts reading "Tomfoolery" on the back, above a graphic of a dead pigeon. Costuming, props and sets are kept to a minimum, says Schottel, because the songs speak for themselves. In fact, this is basically a musical revue with a few theatrical touches. "You've got to careful not to go over the top with him [Lehrer], because he is dry," she says.
Some of Lehrer's songs may seem a bit dated, though. He mocks Nazi rocket scientist Wernher von Braun in one tune and actor/dancer/U.S. Sen. George Murphy in another. In such tunes as "National Brotherhood Week," however, his 30-year-old rhymes about social ills are still dead-on.
"Oh, the white folks hate the black folks/an' the black folks hate the white folks/to hate all but the right folks/is an old established rule," he writes, "...as long as you don't let them in your school."