In the ’50s and early ’60s he was the Cole Porter of the coffeehouses—a piano-playing Harvard grad student in mathematics whose bitingly satirical songs delighted a not-always-silent generation. No institution was safe from Tom Lehrer’s musical barbs, whether the Boy Scouts (Be Prepared), the South (I Wanna Go Back to Dixie) or the church (in The Vatican Rag Lehrer chorused, “Two, four, six, eight/ Time to transubstantiate!”). The irreverence led at least one school board to ban a Lehrer LP from classrooms; cerebral viewers relished his infrequent appearances on public TV.
By 1967 Lehrer made good on his own frequent threat to stop the music. He gave up performing to divide his life between his beloved clapboard house in Cambridge, Mass. (“hidden discreetly behind a dumpster”) and the University of California at Santa Cruz, where he still spends six months a year teaching one course on the use of math in the social sciences and another on the American musical. “I’d been everywhere I wanted to go,” explains Lehrer, now 53. “I didn’t like going over the same material every night. Besides, what good are your laurels if you can’t rest on them?”
Others haven’t agreed. In 1978 a British producer, Cameron Mackintosh, persuaded Lehrer to give permission for a musical revue based on his work. The show, titled Tomfoolery, ran for more than a year in London and has been touring Canada since September. Last month a U.S. production opened at New York City’s Top of the Gate. Lehrer does not perform but did offer advice on the script. He has also helped compile a collection of his music and lyrics titled Too Many Songs by Tom Lehrer (Pantheon, hardcover $16.50, paperback $8.95). “Tom graciously volunteered to break his time-honored code of only working when absolutely necessary,” jibes Mackintosh. “He’s polished up the script and lyrics so they gleam as squalidly today as when he first wrote them.” Lehrer’s own explanation of his return: “Many young people today are familiar with me because of Dr. Demento, the syndicated radio deejay from Los Angeles who plays my songs. This, I think, is responsible for the herpeslike spread of interest in them. The parents of kids now 18 to 25 were in college when I began singing.”
The son of a New York tie manufacturer, Tom began taking classical piano lessons at age 8 (“I didn’t like it”). By the time he got his B.A. in 1946 he was already composing satires like his early classic, Fight Fiercely Harvard. He now finds that “definitely an adolescent work. Why should I care whether the people who went to another school beat the people who went to my school?”
In 1953 he spent $15 to cut his first album and another $700 to have it pressed. His budding career was interrupted by the Army in 1955-56, but when he returned to Cambridge he found his notoriety was salable and quickly went on tour. “When people start offering you a year’s salary for a week’s work,” he explains, “it’s hard to refuse.”
A lifelong bachelor (“I have such a short attention span”), Lehrer still pounds away at the piano for friends. He watches old movies on TV (“Fred Astaire is God”) and hails the medium’s new comedians: “Steve Martin is hilarious—his humor is about humor.” Tom admits to only one vice, tap dancing, which he practices half an hour several times a week. “Astaire need not panic—I just do it for exercise,” he says.
Lehrer has no trouble with the thought of performing again. “But now that I’m older,” he explains, “I am more mature—or is it senile? It’s a matter of semantics. People do their best satirical work when they’re young. I’m not interested in saying only the nasty. My mind doesn’t run that way anymore. I don’t know if the times are changing or I am.” But his edge is by no means dulled. “People are always suggesting hilarious subject matter,” he says. “Things like the Vietnam War, or the gradual destruction of the environment, or our recent Presidents. But things I once thought were funny are scary now. I often feel like a resident of Pompeii who has been asked for some humorous comments on lava.”