Before Randy Newman, before Weird Al Yankovic, before Dr. Demento (all of whom credit his influence), there was Tom Lehrer. Before the Firesign Theatre, Jon Stewart, and Steven Colbert, who might credit him if anyone asked and surely would if they sang, there was Tom Lehrer. The man had one of the briefest, most improbable legendary careers in history, and didn’t even have to die young. (He’s still alive and, by all accounts, cheerfully cheeky at 85, though he’s scarcely performed and hasn’t recorded any new songs in more than 50 years.) He recorded only about three dozen in the 1950s and early ’60s before tiptoeing off the stage, returning to his day job as a mathematician and college instructor, and, in 1973, declaring that Henry Kissinger’s Nobel Peace Prize “made satire obsolete.”
But Lehrer remains a touchstone for the generation that grew up getting its boundaries pushed by his songs, or at least getting its suspicions about authority confirmed. And a touchstone for those of us who came up soon after, too late to be shocked but still able to delight in his ingenious tune- and wordplay.
"Poisoning Pigeons in the Park: The Relevant, Radical, and Risque Songs of Tom Lehrer" is a show for us, though it’s staged on the youthful turf of Fremont (after past runs at the Market and Bathhouse theaters). It’s a selection of Lehrer’s most popular songs, from the gleefully gruesome title tune to the rousing World War III anthem “We Will All Go Together when We Go,” which could have inspired the movie "Dr. Strangelove." The idea’s not exactly novel; Cameron Mackintosh (later of "Les Miz") staged a Lehrer revival in London in the ’80s. But Arne Zaslove, the irrepressible impresario of "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park," thinks Lehrer’s satire, so topical back then, is still pertinent in the age of Putin, Snowden and nuclear saber-rattling at Iran. So it’s as good a time as any for another revival.
The songs are performed in spritely fashion, with some excess mugging and pantomime, by an engaging quartet, with the right quotient of well-turned explanation between them. No one can top Lehrer’s own renditions, but the animated staging does bring out new dimensions to some — especially “I Got It from Agnes,” a swinger’s "La Ronde" that manages to pack in venereal disease and various other sexual taboos without ever naming any of them.
Still, that might have been easier to laugh about in those pre-HIV, even pre-herpes days, when a dose of clap meant just a shot of penicillin. Other past shockers — “The Masochism Tango,” “The Old Dope Peddler” — seem downright quaint now, though “The Vatican Rag” (“If it is, try playin' it safer/Drink the wine and chew the wafer/Two, four, six, eight/Time to transubstantiate!”) is, like the Church, eternal. A couple "Poisoning Pigeons" selections, on the morally elastic rocketman Wernher von Braun and song-and-dance senator George Murphy, seem too topical to time-travel to new audiences. And why couldn’t Mike King as George Murphy give us a couple taps?
I took a test spectator who didn’t grow up under Tom Lehrer’s influence to the show, and she tapped along with the tunes but pronounced them “not funny.” Afterward, though, she searched him out on the web and decided he was funnier than his songs — as when he declared, amidst post-9/11 mania, “I don’t want to satirize George W. Bush and his puppeteers, I just want to vaporize them.”
After all that’s passed since, there’s a charming naiveté about the notion (which Lehrer, but not Zaslove, disavowed) that songs like his, melding the wit of Cole Porter and the politics of Earl Robinson, could change minds, let alone the world. "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park" is a dip into lost innocence — and a healthy antidote to "Mad Men."
Through Aug. 11 at 7:30 p.m. at West of Lenin, 203 N 36th St., Seattle, 800-838-3006, www.westoflenin.com
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