Math and science are all the rage in Broadway's Copenhagen and Proof, so why not a musical comedy about Fermat and his famous last theorem?
York Theatre Company has been presenting just that — Fermat's Last Tango — which opened Dec. 6 at its Manhattan home at The Theatre at St. Peter's. The world-premiere tuner, billed as having one great "number" after another (get it?), has a book and score by husband-and wife team Joanne Sydney Lessner (book and co-lyrics) and Joshua Rosenblum (music and co-lyrics). Previews began Nov. 21, with performances continuing to New Year's Eve.
The production notes ask, "What happens when a competitive, arrogant 17th-century mathematician just won't stay dead?" The show is inspired by the true story of Andrew Wiles, the Princeton professor who proved "Fermat's Last Theorem" — the 350-year-old problem regarded as the Everest of mathematics. The show is said to "take a whimsical, irreverent" look at the people behind the math.
The notes indicate, "The sneering, foppish Fermat returns from the AfterMath (where dead mathematicians go, of course) to torment the professor in his quest for a proof. Along the way, Pythagoras, Newton, Euclid and Gauss join in the catchy melodies, which range from operetta to blues to the tango of the title." In its development, the show had the title, Proof, and then David Auburn's play of the same name (about a Chicago math professor and his daughter) became a hit Off Broadway and then on Broadway. The name was changed to include the musical "tango" reference.
"When we started working on Fermat's Last Tango in December 1996, we had no idea that it would eventually be perceived as part of an unprecedented trend of stage works about math and science," Lessner told Playbill On-Line. "We were tremendously excited to see, last season, the success of Copenhagen and Proof, among others, and we, along with [York artistic director] Jim Morgan realized that the time for a musical that takes math as its milieu was now or never."
The cast, under the direction of Mel Marvin (Tintypes), includes Gilles Chiasson (Scarlet Pimpernel, the original Rent), Edwardyne Cowan, Mitchell Kantor, Jonathan Rabb, Chris Thompson, Christianne Tisdale and Carrie Wilshusen. Milton Granger is musical director, Janet Watson choreographs. Designers are John Michael Deegan (lighting), Lynn Bowling (costumes) and James Morgan (sets).
Composer-lyricist Rosenblum wrote the songs and incidental music for Quincy Long's hit Off-Broadway play, The Joy of Going Somewhere Definite at the Atlantic Theater Co. He has twice been a finalist in the ASCAP Grants to Young Composers competition and is a past recipient of two Meet the Composer Fund grants. Previous theatre pieces include Mortimer's Risk, a musical for children; Lesser Pleasures (premiered at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst); and Arabian Nights — like Fermat's Last Tango, a collaboration with his wife, Joanne Sydney Lessner. Rosenblum has conducted nine Broadway and off-Broadway shows, including Miss Saigon, Anything Goes, Arcadia and Falsettos, and he has conducted world premiere productions for the Metropolitan Opera Guild, the BAM Next Wave Festival, the Vineyard Theater, Playwrights Horizons, and Lincoln Center Theater. He is a graduate of Yale and the Yale School of Music.
Lyricist-librettist Lessner is the author of the plays Chess Set, Critical Mass and Crossing Lines, which was selected as an alternate for the 1995 Eugene O'Neill Playwrights Conference. She contributed book and lyrics to the musical Arabian Nights, which received staged readings at the York Theatre Company and Arts & Artists at St. Paul's. As an actress, she appeared on Broadway in Cyrano: The Musical, and Off Broadway in Romeo and Juliet, Company and That's Life! She earned a B.A. in music, from Yale.
Lessner said, "It's about obsession, a real-life quest that lasted 30 years, the fruit of which yielded the single most extraordinary contribution to modern mathematics. It's Rocky, Don Quixote, even The Fantasticks — boy gets proof, boy loses proof, boy gets proof."
She added, "We knew going in that the subject matter could be potentially forbidding, so we focused on keeping the piece accessible and, above all, fun. Josh had long toyed with the idea of writing a 'catchy' opera, and it turned out that the tuneful and rhythmic elements of our show superseded the fact that it was through-sung and had some classical influences. By the middle of the process it became clear that Fermat's Last Tango was a musical, not an opera; in addition to the tango, there are several recognizable dance forms. There's a rag, a grand waltz and even a hoedown for the four luminaries (Pythagoras, Euclid, Newton, and Gauss) who populate the AfterMath. I like to call them the 'singing and dancing dead mathematicians.' Our director, Mel Marvin, likens them to characters out of Monty Python's Flying Circus — so serious and full of themselves that they are incongruously funny."
Tickets are $45-$50. The Theatre at St. Peter's Church is at the Citigroup Center, 619 Lexington Ave. at 54th Street. For information, call (212) 239-6200.