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Ex-madcap Lehrer Stays With Oldies

June 13, 1986|CHALON SMITH

Dedicated Tom Lehrer fans who are trooping to "Tomfoolery" at South Coast Repertory Theatre are in for a disappointment if they hope the madcap songwriter will emerge from a 20-year exile. The former Harvard professor turned satiric lyricist and composer says he still hasn't found anything amusing enough to write about since dropping out in 1965.

"Things just aren't that funny anymore, not like they used to be, and I don't feel like writing," Lehrer said matter-of-factly during a recent telephone interview from his Santa Cruz home. "The world is much more serious than it was. I didn't think there was going to be a nuclear war 20 years ago, but I'm not so sure now.

"Eisenhower was funny; Reagan isn't really funny at all. I just get angry now."

Surprisingly dour thoughts from the iconoclast who in the 1950s and '60s gave us songs like the silly and spirited "The Vatican Rag," "The Masochism Tango" and "I Got It From Agnes." All well-rooted in American music's terra firma, these are but three of the almost 30 songs that make up "Tomfoolery," a musical salute to Lehrer's comedic talents. The show, which originated in London in 1980, is playing through June 29 at the SCR's Second Stage in Costa Mesa.

Lehrer, 58, began goosing the establishment with his songs in the early '50s while studying math at Harvard (he later became part of the faculty) and continued until 1965 when he regularly appeared on the "That Was The Week That Was" television program. He briefly composed bouncy, education-oriented tunes for PBS' children's show, "The Electric Company," in 1971 but then began to lose his inspiration.

"It came to a point (in 1965) where the ideas just weren't flowing, not like when I was younger," Lehrer recalled. "Unfortunately, with maturity came the understanding that the songs just wouldn't come as easily. A lot of the pleasure left with the ease of it all."

An indefatigable performer at one time, Lehrer said touring also lost its thrill and he found himself "going through the motions, the act of entertaining" during later concerts. After his last American tour in 1959, he did some concerts in New Zealand but soon after decided to stay home.

The increasing outlandishness of political satirists and comics further prompted Lehrer to back off from his writing, which he said no longer seemed to fit with current trends. Lehrer's lyrics, which were considered almost scandalous in the '50s and '60s, appear almost tame compared to what many young comedians put into their stage acts today. Contemporary humor, in many ways, has become vulgar, contends Lehrer, who openly wonders what has happened to subtlety.

But Lehrer doesn't have time to lament. He said he's too busy teaching mathematics and the history of the American musical at UC Santa Cruz, where he has been a faculty member since 1971. He now lives a much quieter, "less outrageous" life in an apartment near campus. An unrepentant bachelor ("I just skipped my first three marriages") who doesn't even have a pet ("What a revolting concept"), Lehrer is content in his scholarly role.

His students pay him the proper respect due a storied troubadour, and colleagues are pleasantly amused by his past. "I get to use my brain, which I prefer, and things, all in all, are pretty good," he said cheerfully.

And he doesn't deny the kick he gets from "Tomfoolery," which has been produced in New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles, among other cities. Its success is described in typical Lehrerian metaphor: "It's spread like herpes. I like it because I don't have to put much effort into promoting it. You don't have to advertise herpes."

The songs, which ticklishly observe everything from the spread of nuclear bombs to the spread of venereal disease, remain current both as testaments to cleverness and the need to examine the critical issues of the day, he said.

"Some of those songs I wrote more than 30 years ago, and I'm amazed to see them have a timely quality," Lehrer said. "Of course, some of the references don't make sense (now) at all, but basically things that were wrong then are wrong today and have gotten worse. The nuclear threat is greater, racism is just the same and pollution has changed from car exhaust to toxic waste but is still there in a big way."

The lack of progress in dealing with social problems dismays Lehrer, who said he thought the future would be less precarious when he first began writing. But he doesn't blame it on apathy; in fact, Lehrer argues there may be as much constructive activism today as when his career reached its apex during the counter-culture 60s.

Ever skeptical, Lehrer even dismisses much of that era's protests as almost self-serving. Marches and flag-waving against the Vietnam War, for example, were inspired as much by fear of being drafted as an abhorrence to the U.S. role in Southeast Asia, he said. "Still, I have to admire them for taking a stand; every little bit helps, I guess," Lehrer quickly added.

More recently, he points to the Hands Across America demonstration and other social events as evidence of contemporary activism. Lehrer also said that campuses like UC Santa Cruz are still fertile arenas for thinking students to question all assumptions and develop progressive ideas. It's just that the focuses have changed somewhat: Protests against South Africa's apartheid and demands for university divestment have replaced outcries against the Vietnam War and the draft, Lehrer noted.

"Students are tamer, but I can't say it's apathy," he maintained. "Universities are still the place for encouraging thought."

As are Lehrer's songs. But now, 20 years later, what does Lehrer think of his work?

"I think some of them are marvelous; on the whole, I am quite impressed," he said, then added dryly, "but it's like looking at your baby pictures: you know, 'what a cute kid,' but that doesn't mean I'm cute now."

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