December 18, 2018

Evolution of a Darwinian Musical

As a kid in Queens, N.Y., Richard Milner’s nickname was "Dino," while fellow Jurassic-geek Stephen Jay Gould was "Fossil Face." For Milner’s 1954 Reform bar mitzvah, Gould gave him — what else? — Roy Chapman Andrews’ classic, "All About Dinosaurs."

Four decades later, Gould, by then a leading evolutionist and paleontologist, gave his friend an even more significant gift. At the time, ex-anthropology grad student Milner had performed his original songs in coffeehouses but was stuck writing for sex magazines. During his career crisis, he remembered his childhood love of prehistory and wrote his long-lost pal Gould. The Harvard professor had a suggestion: "He said, ‘Go to England, visit Darwin’s house, buy old books,’ Milner recalls. The result is Milner’s clever one-man musical, "Charles Darwin: Live and In Concert," featuring Milner lyrics such as, "There was an ancient monkey with a long and curly tail/That ape evolved into a man/He’s teaching now at Yale."

The evolution of Milner and his Tom Lehrer-esque musical is almost as complex as the origin of species. Because his parents’ religion was education,he dutifully trudging off to UC Berkeley to study anthropology. But after doing his field work on black pimps, he says he was typecast as a sex writer. By 1982, he figured "I’m writing crap and making no money, so I may as well do good stuff and make no money."

After taking Gould’s advice, Milner began his acclaimed 1990 "Encyclopedia of Evolution" and was hired as a senior editor of Natural History magazine.

His ensuing Darwin lecture evolved into a musical staged from Scotland to the hotbed of creationism hotbed of Lawrence, Kan.: "It’s electric to perform in places where Darwin’s issues are still very much alive," he says. For Darwin tickets, at the Natural History Museum, May 19, 2 p.m. call (213) 763-3534.