In January 1951, word began circulating around the Harvard campus that one of the graduate students had written a musical. The student was Tom Lehrer.
Lehrer would go on to become one of the sharpest satirical voices of the Cold War era. In songs such as “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park” and “The Vatican Rag,” Lehrer combined off-the-wall macabre humor with commentary about national and international affairs.
The prelude to that remarkable career came in the form of The Physical Revue, a 19-song musical about science, math, and life at Harvard that premiered on 13 January 1951 in a physics department lecture hall.
Songs in the graduate dorms
These days the 90-year-old Lehrer turns down most interview requests, but he agreed to share by email some of the story behind The Physical Revue. Lehrer tells Physics Today that his musical “began with a group of graduate student friends from various departments in the Harvard Graduate School.” Lehrer was working on a PhD in mathematics, David Robinson was studying chemical physics, Munro Edmonson was a graduate student in anthropology, Robert Welker was a graduate student in American studies, and Lew Branscomb was a physicist who had recently completed his PhD. “All of us liked to sing, and we did so whenever appropriate, often in my room in one of the graduate dorms,” Lehrer recalls. “Our repertoire included many songs with my lyrics, most of them set to tunes by other composers.”
After Lehrer linked the songs together with some lines of dialogue to create a musical about academic life at Harvard, the friends came up with the idea of performing the show in public. A myth later arose that the Revue was first sprung on an unsuspecting group of Branscomb’s undergraduates, but Lehrer says that wasn’t the case. He and his friends obtained permission to use a physics lecture hall in the Jefferson Laboratory as their theater. The cast let friends and colleagues know about the performance and hung a few posters. “Most of the audience had at least some idea of what to expect,” Lehrer says.
On the evening of 13 January, the cast wheeled Lehrer’s piano down from the graduate dorms and took the stage. Branscomb played “The Professor”; the other graduate students played characters such as “History Major” and “Chemistry Major.” Lehrer accompanied the show on his piano. “The show went over so well that we gave a repeat performance,” Lehrer recalls. Norman Ramsey, a Harvard physicist who would go on to receive the 1989 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on the separated oscillatory field method, captured audio from that second performance on 22 January with a wire recorder.
Branscomb soon left Harvard for the National Bureau of Standards (now NIST), but hype over the musical continued to spread by word of mouth. The remaining singers decided to hold a final performance in May 1952, with history graduate student Richard Schwab joining the cast. Five hundred audience members packed an auditorium in Burr Hall. The Harvard Crimson gave the performance a rave review; undergraduate Hiller Zobel, later a noted lawyer and judge, wrote that “the audience stopped laughing only long enough to listen to the next gag.”
“All she thought of was thermodynamics”
Ramsey’s recordings, along with the lyrics to Lehrer’s show, are available on PhysicsSongs.org, a website run by Walter Smith, a Haverford College physicist who collects songs about physics and writes some of his own with his wife, Marian McKenzie. Smith says the Revue recordings came his way after a profile of his website appeared in the Wall Street Journal. A graduate student named Eyg Furmaniuk wrote to Smith to ask if he was familiar with Lehrer’s “The Derivative Song.”
Subsequent research led Smith to Ramsey, Lehrer, Branscomb, and the other performers, all of whom gave Smith permission to post the tracks online. Although the sound is spotty in places—“The microphone was not located close to the performers,” Smith explains—and a few tracks can’t be posted because the tunes are copyrighted, the recordings offer a chance to imagine ourselves in the audience in 1951.
Lehrer’s songs reflect a biting yet empathetic take on life at Harvard. In “The Slide Rule Song,” the cast sings about good and bad ways to hide exam cheat sheets: “Don’t bring the answers in on bits of paper. … / If you hide the answers in your slide rule, / It’s eight-to-five that no one will find out.” “Any Questions?” is an intricate round featuring a professor and three perplexed students who each have too many questions to count.
Departmental rivalries also rear their heads in the show. Smith’s favorite song in the Revue is “Fugue for Scientists,” featuring a mathematician, a chemist, and a physicist all making claims for the superiority of their science. “I really can’t condemn / the guys who take up chem, / For learning how to cook may appeal to them,” snarks the physicist. The mathematician, meanwhile, brags, “Who else can do research while lying in bed?”
Several of the songs from The Physical Revue set Lehrer’s lyrics to popular songs from the 1940s and 1950s. “Fugue for Scientists” borrows the melody of “Fugue for Tinhorns” from the musical Guys and Dolls. The romantic lament “Don’t Major in Physics” is set to the tune of Kurt Weill’s “The Trouble with Women.” The first two verses are sung by young men who fell for physics majors but found that the objects of their affection were more interested in the lab than in love.
She didn’t like couches or hammocks
Or walks in the moonlight for two,
All she thought of was thermodynamics
So what, tell me what, could I do?
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.”
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.
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.
Editor’s note, 24 September: The article was updated to correct the areas of study for Munro Edmonson and Robert Welker.