Thomas Andrew (Tom) Lehrer (born April 9, 1928) is an American singer-songwriter, satirist, pianist, and mathematician. He used to lecture on mathematics and the American musical.
Prior to attending college, he graduated from the Loomis Chaffee School in Windsor, Connecticut. As an undergraduate student at Harvard University, he began to write comic songs to entertain his friends, including "Fight Fiercely, Harvard" (1945). Those songs later became (in a joking reference to a leading scientific journal, The Physical Review) The Physical Revue. Influenced mainly by musical theater, his style consisted of parodying then-current forms of popular song. For example, his appreciation of list songs led him to set the names of the chemical elements to the tune of Gilbert and Sullivan's "Major General's Song".
Inspired by the success of his performances of his songs, he paid for some studio time to record an album, Songs by Tom Lehrer, which he sold by mail order. Self-published and unpromoted, the album, which included the macabre ("I Hold Your Hand In Mine"), the mildly risqué ("Be Prepared"), and the mathematical ("Lobachevsky"), became a success via word of mouth. With a cult hit, he embarked on a series of concert tours and released a second album, which came in two versions: the songs were the same but More Songs by Tom Lehrer was studio-recorded, while An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer was recorded live in concert.
Lehrer's major break into the UK came as a result of the citation accompanying an honorary degree given to Princess Margaret, where she cited musical tastes as "Catholic, ranging from Mozart to Tom Lehrer". This produced signifcant interest in his works, and helped secure distributors for his material. Ironically, it was in the UK where his music ended up more popular due to the proliferation of University Newspapers referencing the material, and the willingness of the BBC to play his songs on the radio (something that was a rarity in the USA).
By the early 1960s Lehrer had retired from touring (which he intensely disliked) and was employed as the resident songwriter for the U.S. edition of That Was The Week That Was (TW3), a satirical TV show. An increased proportion of his output became overtly political, or at least topical, on subjects such as pollution ("Pollution"), Vatican II ("The Vatican Rag"), race relations ("National Brotherhood Week"), education ("New Math"), American militarism ("Send the Marines") and nuclear proliferation ("Who's Next?" and "We Will All Go Together When We Go"). He also wrote a song which satirized the alleged amorality of Wernher von Braun. A selection of these songs was released in the album That Was The Year That Was.
The record deal with Reprise Records for the That Was The Year That Was album also gave Reprise distribution rights for Lehrer's earlier recordings as Lehrer wanted to shut down his own Lehrer Records. The Reprise issue of Songs by Tom Lehrer was a stereo re-recording. This version was not issued on CD, but the songs were issued on the live Tom Lehrer Revisited on CD instead.
Departure from the scene
There is an urban legend that Lehrer gave up political satire when the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Henry Kissinger in 1973. He did say that the awarding of the prize to Kissinger made political satire obsolete, but has denied that he stopped doing satire as a form of protest, and asserts that he had stopped doing satire several years earlier. Another urban legend held that he had been sued for libel by the subject of one of his songs, Wernher Von Braun, and been forced to relinquish all of his royalty income to Von Braun.citation needed
When asked about his reasons for abandoning his musical career, he cited a simple lack of interest, a distaste for touring, and boredom with performing the same songs repeatedly. He has observed that when he was moved to write and perform songs, he did; when he wasn't, he didn't, and after a while the latter situation prevailed. It has been frequently observed that, though many of Lehrer's songs satirized the Cold War political establishment of the day, that he stopped writing and performing just as the 1960s counterculture movement gained momentum. Lehrer has stated that he doubts his songs had an impact on those not already critical of the establishment: "I don't think this kind of thing has an impact on the unconverted, frankly. It's not even preaching to the converted; it's titillating the converted... I'm fond of quoting Peter Cook, who talked about the satirical Berlin cabarets of the '30s, which did so much to stop the rise of Hitler and prevent the Second World War."
Lehrer's musical career was notably brief, stating in an interview in the late 90s that he had performed a mere 109 shows, and written 37 songs across his 20 year career. Nethertheless, the cult following that had grown around his music significantly bolstered the effect that he had on a global scale.
In the 1970s he concentrated on teaching mathematics and musical theater, although he also wrote the occasional educational song for the children's television show The Electric Company. In the early 1980s, Tom Foolery, a revival of his songs on the London stage, was a surprise hit. Although not its instigator, Lehrer eventually gave it his full support and updated several of his lyrics for the production.
Live in London 1998
On 7 June and 8 June 1998 Tom Lehrer performed in public for the first time in 25 years at the Lyceum Theatre, London as part of the gala show "Hey Mr Producer!" celebrating the career of impresario Cameron Mackintosh (who had been the producer of Tom Foolery). The 8 June show has been his only performance before the Queen. Lehrer sang "Poisoning Pigeons In The Park" and an updated version of the nuclear proliferation song "Who's Next". The DVD of the event includes the former song.
In 2000, a CD box set, The Remains of Tom Lehrer, was released by Rhino Entertainment. It included live and studio versions of his first two albums, That Was The Year That Was, the songs he wrote for The Electric Company, and some previously unreleased material, accompanied by a small hardbound book containing an introduction by Dr. Demento and lyrics to all the songs.
Lehrer the scholar
Lehrer earned his BA in mathematics (Magna Cum Laude) from Harvard University in 1947, when he was 18. He received his MA the next year, and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa. He taught classes at MIT, Harvard and Wellesley. He remained in Harvard's doctoral program for several years, taking time out for his musical career and to work as a researcher at Los Alamos, New Mexico. He joined the Army from 1955 to 1957, working at the National Security Agency. All of these experiences eventually became fodder for songs: "Fight Fiercely, Harvard", "The Wild West Is Where I Want To Be" and "It Makes a Fellow Proud to Be a Soldier", respectively.
In 1960, Lehrer returned to full-time studies at Harvard. However, he never completed his doctoral studies, and never received a PhD in mathematics. In 1972, he joined the faculty of the University of California, Santa Cruz, teaching an introductory course entitled "The Nature of Mathematics" to liberal-arts majors — "Math for Tenors", according to Lehrer. He also taught a class in musical theater. There have been claims noised about that he now measures his age in Centigrade.
Lehrer was praised by Dr. Demento as "the best musical satirist of the 20th Century."
When asked by an Australian newspaper about his silence since the 1960s and his legacy now, he commented that his particular brand of political satire is more difficult in the modern world. "The real issues I don't think most people touch. The Clinton jokes are all about Monica Lewinsky and all that stuff and not about the important things, like the fact that he wouldn't ban landmines... I'm not tempted to write a song about George W. Bush. I couldn't figure out what sort of song I would write. That's the problem: I don't want to satirise George Bush and his puppeteers, I want to vaporise them."
A play, called Letters From Lehrer, has been written by Canadian Richard Greenblatt, and performed by him at CanStage, from January 16 to February 25, 2006. It follows Lehrer's musical career, the meaning of several songs, the politics of the time, and Greenblatt's own experiences with Lehrer's music, while playing some of Lehrer's songs. There are currently no plans for more performances, although low-quality audio recordings have begun to circulate around the net.
Reviews selected by Lehrer for his liner notes
Many Lehrer songs are also performed (but not by Lehrer) in That Was "That Was The Week That Was" (1981).
The sheet music to many of Lehrer's songs is published in Too Many Songs By Tom Lehrer (Pantheon, 1981, ISBN 0-394-74930-8).