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Piano Man writes songs from ‘Letters’

Greenblatt's 'Lehrer' opens Jan. 16, runs through Feb. 25

TORONTO — Maybe he should call it “One Piano, Two Hands.”

Richard Greenblatt, best known as co-author of the successful show “Two Pianos, Four Hands,” a musical memoir about how two men’s lives were affected by childhood piano lessons, is tinkling the ivories again in his latest work, which opens Jan. 19 and runs through Feb. 25 at CanStage’s Berkeley Street Theater.

Only this time, he has an invisible, though hardly silent, partner.

The show is called “Letters From Lehrer,” based on the songs of musical satirist Tom Lehrer as well as a series of letters he wrote Greenblatt.

Lehrer, a mathematician by profession, acquired a kind of cult celebrity in the 1950s and ’60s for a series of albums he released with scathingly irreverent songs about everything from drug addiction to Nazi collaboration.

Songs like “The Masochism Tango” and “The Vatican Rag” still have their edge after all these years, and a 2000 Rhino Records compilation of Lehrer’s complete works provided him with a whole new audience for his acid observations.

In a different vein, he provided material for the PBS children’s series “The Electric Company” in the 1970s. But for the past three decades, the 77-year-old Lehrer has largely distanced himself from public life.

Cameron Mackintosh was a huge fan of Lehrer’s work and brought it to the London stage in 1980 in a revue called “Tomfoolery.” That show opened Off Broadway at the Village Gate in 1981 and played around North America in the early ’80s, but then seemed to fade away.

Greenblatt never saw that show. Motivated by his lifelong love of Lehrer’s work, in 2002 he wrote him.

“It was easy,” says Greenblatt. “His name was in the book. He wrote back, and we started corresponding.”

When the idea came to put a show together, Lehrer told Greenblatt he would have to go through Mackintosh, who still owned theatrical rights to the songs.

The Brit producer’s office finally replied to Greenblatt and said, “If it’s OK with Tom, it’s OK with us.” That was in 2004.

“Tom gave me his permission to proceed,” recalls Greenblatt, “and I brought the idea to CanStage,” Canada’s largest regional theater.

Greenblatt at the keyboard will perform much of Lehrer’s material and also, in the words of the theater’s official release, “will weave Richard’s own dreams, artistic aspirations and political questions with Tom Lehrer’s life and songs.”

Greenblatt admits he’s only been given permission to use the material for this production. “We’re taking it a step at a time, and everyone’s waiting to see what happens once it’s opened.”

Considering the widespread appeal of “Two Pianos, Four Hands,” anything with Greenblatt’s name attached will be of interest, and he hopes “there will be a big future for this show. I’d like to take it to New York and then have other people do it all over the map.”

Representatives from Mackintosh’s office are expected to attend to make further decisions, but Lehrer is not planning to make the journey to Canada.

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