“If by hearing one of my songs, just one human being is inspired to say something nasty to a friend or perhaps strike a loved one, it will all have been worth it to me.” So wrote Tom Lehrer, whose hits make up the musical review Tomfoolery, with songs that are often preceded by banter and staged as stories.
Some people love Lehrer; others hate him. His satire is intellectual and irreverent, sometimes morbid, sometimes political, always funny and perceptive. He takes on just about everything sacred, including the Vatican. He enjoins Boy Scouts to “be prepared–to hide your liquor pretty well, don’t write naughty words on walls that you can’t spell.” In his love songs, carefree couples poison pigeons in the park or dance the “masochism tango,” but the sardonic songs about college football and bright college days might hit Ann Arborites hardest. Still, Lehrer is not a pessimist–one wonderful song points out the upside of nuclear disaster and another celebrates national brotherhood week; I won’t spoil the fun by telling you why.
In the production Lauren London is directing for the Penny Seats Theatre Company, four engaging actors begin on barstools, a piano to the side. They pull props and simple costumes from boxes, transforming a small space in Conor O’Neill’s pub into a stage. The show had early productions in England and New York, and London has left it largely intact, updating only a few lines and switching two numbers for two other Lehrer songs that Ann Arbor audiences might prefer.
Lehrer studied mathematics and taught at Harvard, MIT, and the University of California-Santa Cruz. His scientific interests find their way to the stage in songs about chemical elements and the 1960s “new math.”
Like Lehrer, Zach London, the director’s husband, knows a bit about science and song. He is a neurologist at U-M and an exceptionally talented songwriter. When Zach was nine, he discovered one of Lehrer’s albums in his dad’s record collection and listened to it over and over and over. Since 1991, he has been writing a song each month, some laugh-out-loud funny, many inspired by Lehrer. (Listen at hardtaco.org.) It is entirely fitting that Lauren begins her production with a delightful original by Zach, a musical playlet about two youngsters who show up for a science fair with identical projects.
The troupe’s motto, “The Penny Seats are nothing but trouble,” may seem fitting, especially when they’ve taken on Tom Lehrer. But the truth is the Penny Seats are nothing but fun. Audiences, like Boy Scouts, should be prepared for a wonderful time. Tomfoolery runs Oct. 2, 9, 16, & 23.