Tom Lehrer: Poisoning Pigeons in the Park
“The Art of Pleasure”—my Wolf Trap concert for this year—includes a section of guilty pleasures. This was at once the most fun and the most difficult group to program. How far were we willing to go? It’s not so easy to assign louche material for a group of people you don’t know. As always, I took a flying leap (the M.O. for my entire career, it seems). The first song would definitely be Tom Lehrer’s 1959 classic “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park.” It falls into a category of songs that don’t reveal their magic until they are put in front of an audience. On the page, the lyrics don’t look all that funny, but in performance they always work like gangbusters. It must be the combination of Lehrer’s insipid waltz with the psychopathic lyric. It’s killer. As it were.
My next flying leap was to give “Pigeons” to Piotr, my Polish tenor. His English is fluent, though lightly accented. Like many Polish people I know, he is prone to saying “f” instead of “th”—“I went wif her,” he’ll tell me excitedly. I thought that Piotr’s schoolboy good looks, clear but non-native diction, and the hint of madness that lurks in his eyes might bring Lehrer’s song to new heights. The bet paid off. When Joseph Li was preparing the song prior to my arrival, he wrote me: “That may have been the hardest I have chuckled in a coaching with someone. His accent makes the song funny on a level I didn’t know possible. I’m tempted just to spend the entire day coaching him on this.”
Lehrer is probably a discovery for my cast, but he was a phenom in the late 50s and throughout the 60s. A certain subset of people my age can still sing every lyric of his iconic “Vatican Rag” (“Ave Maria, gee it’s good to see ya”). A Harvard-trained mathematician, Lehrer moonlighted as a songwriter until his career as a purveyor musical satire threatened to outstrip his life as a math professor. He toured America, the U.K., and Australia, and his songs were a feature of the weekly television hit That Was the Week That Was. Lehrer eventually moved to Santa Cruz, where he often incorporated songs in his lectures to help explain mathematical principles. Lehrer also taught a course in musical theater. He remains highly respected as a satirist. Randy Newman wrote, “He’s one of the great American songwriters without a doubt, right up there with everybody, the top guys. As a lyricist, as good as there’s been in the last half of the 20th century.” Lehrer’s own take on his work: “If, after hearing my songs, just one human being is inspired to say something nasty to a friend, or perhaps to strike a loved one, it will all have been worth the while.”