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Comedian Highlights Satirical Songwriter Tom Lehrer in New Musical

In a new solo Hollywood Fringe show called “The Layers of Tom Lehrer,” comedian Allan Murray is performing Lehrer’s songs and telling the world about the satirist he’s always enjoyed. 
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October 20, 2021
Comedian Allan Murray plays the music of Tom Lehrer in his new show. Courtesy of: Allan Murray

Tom Lehrer was a musical comedic force in the 1950s and ‘60s. He wrote and performed satirical songs about everything from war to religion to death and politics, and was known for tunes like “The Elements,” “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park” and “The Masochism Tango.” His work went international, and he ended up inspiring the likes of Monty Python, Weird Al Yankovic and Flight of the Conchords.

Now, in a new solo Hollywood Fringe show called “The Layers of Tom Lehrer,” comedian Allan Murray is performing Lehrer’s songs and telling the world about the satirist he’s always enjoyed. 

“My folks had his album ‘That Was The Year That Was,’ and I would listen to it as a kid,” Murray told the Journal. “I didn’t understand all of the references, but I heard this guy singing and playing the piano to huge laughs from the crowd. I was hooked. He’s one of the reasons that I learned piano. I’ve been a fan forever.”

Murray, a stand-up comic with credits from Comedy Central, Showtime, MTV and NBC, said that he chose to do a show on Lehrer not only because he was a fan, but also because of how important the singer was to the culture during his time. He wrote songs about nuclear tensions between countries when the Cold War was happening, and wasn’t afraid to parody any topic. Plus, nobody had written a show about Lehrer before. 

“Sometimes I’d see reviews of his music pop up, but never a one-person show about Tom’s journey from math to showbiz to math again. I’ve wanted to create a show about him for years and finally made it happen.”

One of the most surprising things about Lehrer is that when he reached the top of show business – without much effort, Murray noted – he left it to focus on being a mathematician instead. Lehrer earned a gold record, got nominated for a Grammy and was featured in the same Time Magazine article featuring Lenny Bruce, but Murray said he never cared about being famous.

‘His enigmatic qualities only helped grow his cult following.’ – Allan Murray 

“He wouldn’t even put a picture of himself on his albums. His enigmatic qualities only helped grow his cult following, though. His first love was math, not fame. If some people don’t know his name today that’s all by his design. But sing ‘The Elements,’ and they will know the song. That’s fine by him.”

Murray reached out to Lehrer, who is now 93, to discuss the show prior to its debut. “I called him to ask for his blessing,” said Murray. “We’ve had some pleasant conversations and emails back and forth about the project. He splits his time between Boston and Santa Cruz. I plan to send him a video.”

While Lehrer is Jewish, Murray said he didn’t make it part of his act like his contemporaries Mel Brooks or Allan Sherman did. 

“Tom did write ‘(I’m Spending) Hanukkah in Santa Monica,’ “said Murray. “If that’s not part of a Jewish legacy, I don’t know what is.”

To prepare for the show, Murray sat at his piano daily to fine tune the songs. “There was a lot to rehearse and a whole script to write as well,” he said. “I have a five-year-old daughter who knows all the words to ‘Poisoning Pigeons in the Park.’”

Even though COVID-19 restrictions are in place, Murray has had full houses since his first show. “The audience wearing masks didn’t affect a thing,” he said. “You hear the laughs, you feel the connection [and] you get the responses.”

When people come to see the final performance of “The Layers of Tom Lehrer” on October 23, Murray said he hopes they gain “a greater knowledge of this great man and his music. And, also, [I hope they] have a blast at the theater again.”

You can purchase tickets for “The Layers of Tom Lehrer” on the Hollywood Fringe website.

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