In the 50s and 60s during the Cold War nuclear panic, mathematician Tom Lehrer became an international comedy sensation as he sang twisted tunes that satirized war, pornography, race, kink, death, religion, the environment, education and politics. His comedic style got Tom listed in the same Time Magazine article along with his cohort Lenny Bruce about a new type of comedian, the “SICKNIK.” Lehrer inspired the likes of Bo Burnham, Flight of the Conchords, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, and “Weird Al” to name a few.
I’ve been a fan of Lehrer’s creative musical musings for many years. So I decided to chat with comedian and actor Allan Murray who tickles the ivories and brings Lehrer and his acid-tinged ditties to life during this year’s Hollywood Fringe Festival in his World Premiere of THE LAYERS OF Tom Lehrer.
(Shari): Why did you decide to create a show about Tom Lehrer?
(Allan): My dream project has always been to create a show about Tom Lehrer ever since my parents had his albums when I was growing up and his songs resonated with me. In fact, he’s one of the reasons why I learned to play the family piano.
(Shari): Wasn’t his adult humor a bit over the head of a young boy?
(Allan): Being so young at the time I didn’t understand all the jokes while listening to his albums, but I heard the audience laughter and I was hooked.
I love that he never bought into the limelight or even understood it. He was a Harvard trained math professor and it was and will always be his first love. That’s where his loyalties lay.
(Shari): Did you reach out to Lehrer as you were writing the show?
(Allan): I conceived the idea of a one man show and called the now 93-year-old mysterious maestro Tom Lehrer himself to share my idea. My call went straight to Tom’s answering machine which wasn’t surprising as he famously doesn’t answer calls. As I was leaving a message detailing the show, however, Tom suddenly picked up the phone. And after our conversation, Tom gave me his blessing.
(Shari): Tell me about your process of bringing the World Premiere of THE LAYERS OF Tom Lehrer to Fringe.
(Allan): In early 2020, the Hollywood Fringe Festival felt like the perfect launching pad for the show. Everything was in the works, but, then, COVID hit and the Fringe Festival was canceled. There was talk of it being rescheduled for October, but that was scratched. I used the months of lockdown to cultivate and rehearse my show, sitting at my piano daily to fine tune the project from the music to the storyline. After months of uncertainty, the Fringe announced the festival for August 2021. It was a long journey, but I was thrilled to finally bring the premiere of my show to Fringe 2021.
(Shari): You are presenting the show at the very small Wren Theater in Hollywood. What is it about that intimate venue that works well for the show?
(Allan): Obviously, it’s a different theater experience than the norm, but even with a masked audience at The Wren Theater, it’s great to finally share Tom’s story with such an intimate audience. And I learned that masks don’t get in the way of a great audience. You hear the laughs, the applause, the connection, the responses.
(Shari): Why do you think the show resonates with audiences in 2021?
(Allan): The audiences are leaving happy whether they knew the subject matter coming in or not since it plays like a relatable showbiz journey. I’ve been hearing that it reminds audiences of the comedy era of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel since Lenny Bruce is featured in it and that’s Tom’s world too. He and Lenny Bruce were in the same Time Magazine article introducing a new kind of comedian known as “The Sicknik” due to their comedic style of satirizing everything using very adult language. And audiences need to laugh right now, given how strange things are in the world.
(Shari): One of the benefits of having your own show in Fringe is that you also get to see so many other shows and meet other artistic visionaries.
(Allan): That is so true. It’s also been great to get to know and hang out with other artists who are creating such amazing theatre for Fringe 2021.
(Shari): And congratulations on THE LAYERS OF Tom Lehrer receiving Fringe 2021 Awards.
(Allan): Receiving awards and honors for the work was truly meaningful after so many starts and stops. The show has been selected as an OFFICIAL WINNER OF THE HOLLYWOOD ENCORE PRODUCERS’ AWARD, PICK OF THE FRINGE (14 shows picked out of 112), and nominated for Best Musical.
THE LAYERS OF Tom Lehrer has an encore performance on Saturday, September 4, 2021 at 8pm (Pacific time) at The Wren Theater at The Irish Import Shop (Main Space), located at 742 Vine Street in Hollywood. Run time is one hour, with tickets priced at $12, available at https://www.hollywoodfringe.org/projects/6100 In accordance with all Fringe 2021 shows, masks must be worn at all times while indoors and proof of vaccination must be presented at the door for admittance. This is an in-person performance only, no streaming.
Photos by Richard M Johnson