Poisoning Pigeons in the Park: The Art of the Satiric Comedy Song

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Photo Source: Richard Termine
Artistic and musical director Rob Fisher and writer David Garrison have concocted a thoroughly delightful examination of satiric songwriting in “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park,” the latest entry in the 92 St. Y’s famed Lyrics & Lyricists series, this year celebrating its 40th anniversary. Garrison’s incisive historical commentary on the nature of satire, delivered with pungency and verve by veteran composer-lyricist Sheldon Harnick, is nearly as much of a joy as the wit and wisdom on display in the evening’s 32 songs, by such talents as Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Noël Coward, Stephen Sondheim, W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, John Kander and Fred Ebb, Randy Newman, Trey Parker and Marc Shaiman, Harnick, and, most important, the great Tom Lehrer, whose oeuvre supplies virtually a third of the program. In the words of Porter, “What a swell party this is.”

On hand to deliver the material are four top-flight singing actors—Judy Blazer, Chuck Cooper, Jeff McCarthy, and Debra Monk—who make certain not to miss a single comic syllable. Given the nature of the material, solos and duets dominate (it’s hard to land jokes in choral singing). Blazer is great fun singing Rodgers and Hart’s “To Keep My Love Alive,” about a woman with a unique alternative to divorce, and joins McCarthy for a delicious “A Little Priest” from Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd.” McCarthy plays his own guitar for a rousing rendition of Phil Ochs’ “The Draft Dodger Rag.” Cooper makes the most of Lehrer’s macho smackdown “The Hunting Song,” then scores big with a wonderfully nasty take on Newman’s “Short People.” The last is first in a trio of songs that deliberately push the boundaries of taste, and it’s followed by Blazer’s wicked version of “Every Sperm Is Sacred” (Michael Palin–Terry Jones) and McCarthy’s superbly dry “I Got It From Agnes” (Lehrer), written, as Harnick is at pains to point out, prior to the advent of AIDS. Monk is a standout, hilariously manic detailing her obsession with “Smut” (Tom Lehrer); all understated ebullience for Billy Barnes’ “A Little Lift,” a paean to plastic surgery; and brilliantly anarchic accompanying herself on drums for Randy Newman’s nuclear nightmare “Political Science.” All four join for a spirited “Politics and Poker” (Harnick–Jerry Bock), a jauntily iconoclastic “The Vatican Rag” (Lehrer), and a gleefully moronic “Blame Canada” (Parker-Shaiman).

Harnick, seeming decades younger than his 86 years, also performs three numbers, two of his own devising and one by the Gershwins, and each is a sly gem. “The Boston Beguine,” memorably introduced by Alice Ghostley in “Leonard Silliman’s New Faces of 1952,” considers the effect of banning books in Boston on a woman’s love life. “At the Basilica of St. Anne,” as Harnick informs us, was inspired by his distaste for religiously tinged banal pop songs of the 1950s. “Blah, Blah, Blah,” written in 1931 for the Gershwin screen musical “Delicious,” also spoofs the banality of popular songs and is proof positive that some things are eternal.

Fisher at the piano leads the sparkling band (Andrew Sterman, reeds; Bruce Bonvissuto, trombone; Jeffrey Carney, bass; Arnold Kinsella, drums), which goes to town on the witty if uncredited arrangements. There’s also no credit for the accompanying slideshow, whose images greatly enhance the commentary.

The show references Aristophanes, Horace, Juvenal, and Swift, yet the humor on display is ageless. Still, one can’t help noting that there’s a paucity of contemporary material. Lehrer, who attended the opening and received a thundering ovation, says that’s because “irreverence has been subsumed by mere grossness…. Irreverence is easy—what’s hard is wit.” Truer words….

Presented by Lyrics & Lyricists at the 92nd Street Y, 1395 Lexington Ave., NYC. May 8-10. Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 and 8 p.m.; Mon., 2 and 8 p.m. (212) 415-5440 or www.92y.org.