Tom Lehrer’s memorable “Revue” session

By Melinda Baldwin

Lehrer as Cold War commentator

A few of the songs in the Revue would become part of Lehrer’s regular performing repertoire. “Lobachevsky” is a fast-paced combination of monologue and singing featuring a fictional protégé of the real-life mathematician Nikolai Ivanovich Lobachevsky. “The Elements” manages to fit the names of all known chemical elements to the tune of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General.”

Tom Lehrer, in 1960
Tom Lehrer performs at UCLA in 1960. Credit: Associated Students, UCLA

The Revue also makes room for some of the social commentary that would soon make Lehrer famous. “We were of course aware of the role physicists played in the development of nuclear weapons, but I don’t recall our talking about that aspect very much,” Lehrer says of his years at Harvard.

Nonetheless, The Physical Revue contains some biting lines on that subject. In “Fugue for Scientists,” the singers debate which science made the most important contributions to atomic weaponry. “The atom bomb’s a bit / of genius you’ll admit,” sings the physicist. “Just think of all the people we’ve killed with it.” The chemist makes his own claim: “But listen here to me, / where would your A-bomb be, / if it were not for little old chemistry?” The mathematician counters: “But let me make the point / There’s things that should be ‘loint’ / Besides inventing ways to blow up the joint.” (“Loint” is a Brooklyn-accented version of “learnt.”)

Relativity” begins as a straightforward ode to Albert Einstein’s theory but concludes with the following verse:

So then if you are near when atom bombs appear, And you’re reduced to a pile of debris, You’ll know it’s largely due to Relativity.

Yes, you can place the blame on Relativity.

The nuclear age would become a theme in Lehrer’s later work, with songs like “Wernher von Braun,” “So Long Mom (A Song for World War III),” and “We Will All Go Together When We Go.”

Modern physicists will find much of The Physical Revue timeless. It’s not every musical that manages to set the formula for a derivative to song and teach listeners the ideal gas law. The songs reflect not only Lehrer’s deep affection for physics but also his critical take on the state of the world outside the laboratory—and the role science had played in building that new reality.