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Fringe Online 2021

Low Down

Arranged and performed by Stefan Bednarczyk. Camera work from several angles (Director Mark Swadel, Operator Balazs Weidner), including seventy-five degrees overhead, are deftly sequenced. One more performance, till July 25th.


Footprints Festival’s celebrated many of the great performances at Jermyn Street over its 27-year history. Early on in July 1997, Stefan Bednarczyk arrived with An Evening With Flanders and Swann, which he gave again on June 20th. He returns as before singing and accompanying himself with his sweet-toned Kawai piano. As Tom Lehrer.

The legendary composer-performer of just 37 songs stopped performing on a regular basis in 1960 though continued particularly abroad to 1972, popping up since whenever the presidency threatens to get out of hand.

Bednarczyk  brings 25 of these songs. All the hits? We’ll see as we start and end with murders. ‘The Maid who Did Her family In’ wasn’t familiar but is as all Lehrer’s work, exquisitely wrought. Bednarczyk   states he learned more about musical from Lehrer in his three years at Oxford and his tutorial fellow-student agreed. Knowing form so well ‘helped me kick them when they’re down’ Lehrer quipped.

‘Poisoning Pigeons in the Park’ with its outrageous schmaltzy waltz giving no hint of the dark delights ’corn laced with cyanide’ – and remains perhaps Lehrer’s most infectious song, as it were. There’s a particularly sinister lilt Lehrer has mock-confiding to his audience ‘course you do’ which is night-on inimitable. Bednarczyk’s way is to take these songs at a terrific lick and the virtuosity demanded of him in Lehrer’s piano-writing – I’d not appreciated this before – is fiendish. Bednarczyk’s more than on top of this.

‘When You’re Old and Grey’ is a warning song to the beloved that he’ll hate when she’s older. There’s a clutch of these songs crossed with murder ones, with Lehrer’s taste for the macabre lightly crossed with political subversion. The Vienneschnitzel waltz’ ‘quite Ivor Novello-ish’ he quips with its Strauss winks and moving from love of operetta and musical theatre to Lehrer’s hate of folk melodies. He reckons an experienced composer would beat them every time. To prove this he puts ‘Clementine’ through the wringer: Cole Porter, Mozart, coo jazz, and G&S.’ And if you think he’s disdainful of the latter, he of course recruits ‘I am the very model’ straight into his periodical Table Song his most verbally fiendish.

There’s more subversive fare in ‘Smut give me smut’ and ‘I’m for obscenity’ and a Christmas song as all the Jewish composers are so busy composing them there are few Jewish Festival songs (Bednarczyk tells us of one though doesn’t sing it).

He also mentions Lehrer didn’t really retire because Kissinger gaining the Nobel Peace Prize meant irony was dead, as he’d stopped essentially some years before. ‘The old dope pedlar’ is a scabrous timely assault on drugs (‘powdered happiness’), then banned as disastrously as they could be.

Lehrer hated ‘titillating the converted’ and liked Peter Cook’s rebuttal of protest as effective. ‘Yes very effective , I’m reminded of how Weimar Cabaret stopped the rise of the Nazis.’ Lehrer who appeared on That Was the Week That Was when he’d partly retired, wrote new songs for it though ‘Be prepared’ with its admonitions to pimp sisters and have sex with other scouts mightn’t pass censorship in some places. The BBC’s ban of 10 of his 12 released songs was the start of his phenomenal success.

Lehrer saw a flopped arthouse production of Oedipus Rex and of course this gave rise to one of his more famous numbers ‘He loved hi mother’ , which leads happily enough into ‘bright College Days’ when ironically at Harvard Lehrer had written upbeat numbers for the place. This is a little different.

It’s then we get that G&S Element Song with tis terminal rhyme on Harvard/discarvared’.

There’s a sub-genre of minor anti-love songs we hear less of including the parody song ‘She’s My Girl’ riffing on the luckless ‘He’s my man’ variety. It’s striking too how brief these songs are  – for instance compared to Flanders and Swann. More memorable is the ‘Masochism Tango’ referencing all kinds of humiliation but with a dark tango undertow.

National Brotherhood week’ spikes the faintly absurd ideals of this February festival with the real hate fest exploding the myths of tolerance, concluding savagely to note ‘all the whites hate the blacks… and everyone hates the Jews’ and comments like ‘haven’t been a good lynching in years’ which would Bednarczyk suggests have actually got Lehrer lynched. Bednarczyk reflected on the pertinence here over the past five-six weeks.

Catholic hypocrisy over eating meat on Friday (not lifted till 1965) elicited Lehrer’s rebuke that it was ‘fine for soldiers to kill a man but a sin to eat him.’ Bednarczyk learned ‘Vatican Rag’ with tis ‘genuflect genuflect genuflect’ refrain from a Sister, who gave hm a cast-iron alibi at school when upbraided for including it in a recital. It’s one of Lehrer’s three or so most famous songs and as Lehrer would say is a great subject to kick when it’s down.

The Cold War casts its pall over Lehrer as effectively as it did over Stanley Kubrick in his 1965 Dr Strangelove, which might just have been part-inspired by some of Lehrer. ‘We’ll all Go Together When We Go’ is his most iconic protest song though there’s more in this vein.

It used to be said Lehrer stopped when he was sued by Wernher Von Braun the rocket man, and his royalties went to him. This Lehrer stated in 2003 is rubbish. It’s remarkably prescient though in he early stages of the space race to writes lines like ‘’Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down? That’s not my department,’ says Wernher von Braun.’ The ultimate opportunist in Lehrer’s eyes the last line has ‘I’m learning Chinese says Wernher von Braun.’

Lehrer quipped too that he didn’t want to satirize G W Bush but vaporize him and his kind. Satire is like asking the mayor of Pompeii to make jokes about lava he riposted. So ‘Send in the Marines (support the status quo’) tackles U.S regime change (a hotter topic now when studies like Vincent Bevins’ The Jakarta Method are widely known and every U.S, interventions results in another right-wing dictator). For 1960 its an astonishing piece of bravura and for the GW era Lehrer updated his reference to ‘Tom Cruise and Mel Gibson’ as bonehead heroes.

Another even predates Rachel Carson’s 1962 Silent Spring about ‘Pollution’ and ‘everything’s fine/just don’t drink the water, breathe air’ and ‘birds gotta fly/don’t last long if they try.’

Returning to the nuclear topic ‘Proliferation’ escalates all those countries who need it with some very accurate predictions and darker ones for South Africa ‘one for the whites one for the blacks’ ending farcically in Alabama demanding the bomb. Again Lehrer caustically noted that so many great songs  had come from WW1. And WW2 it’s a pity WW3 will be over in eight minutes so why not write the songs now?  ‘So Long Ma’ features an eager pilot about to fly a nuclear bomb to oblivion.

‘I Got it From Sally’ allows Lehrer without a single bannable word being said to sing about the transmission of VD and include every sexual combination possible, which did get it banned. Lehrer adapted it for Tomfoolery his later show. And we end touchingly in the song most requested not to be sung ‘I hold your hand which like the first song is a grisly kind of Liebestod-murder with wink thrown in. Bednarczyk manages a beautifully eerie psycho-voice as he ends sotto voce.

My only regret is that the wonderfully memorable ’Oh Alma Tell us/all modern women are jealous’ – that song of Alma Mahler with her string of famous lovers and husbands – isn’t included. Perhaps a touch more context was felt to be needed though it stands up well after the publication of Alma Mahler’s diaries. Perhaps it might be simply imbued with cultural assumptions not easy to square now. I’ve seen it performed to a delighted audience though.

It hardly matters We’ve just had over two-thirds of Lehrer’s entire output in one show in an adrenalin-rush. The pianism might excel Lehrer’s and Bednarczyk’s singing is pretty idiomatic and superbly on-point. Another sovereign tribute. Bednarczyk brings Tom Lehrer swaggering out of retirement.