Corrections or additions?
This review by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the December 13,
2000 edition of
U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Is There Drama in Math? The Play Is Proof
The world of mathematics and science has found a
host on Broadway. Witness this year’s success of "Copenhagen"
and "Proof." Now it’s husband and wife composing team Joshua
Rosenblum and Joanne Sydney Lessner’s turn to get on tract with their
mathematics-intoxicated musical, "Fermat’s Last Tango." It
has just opened Off-Broadway at the York Theater.
Having just seen the musical that is based on the true story of Andrew
John Wiles, the Princeton mathematician and professor who proved
Last Theorem, be assured that it is more humorous and light-hearted
than you would imagine a musical about math could be.
"We actually had titled our show, `Proof,’ before we even heard
of the Manhattan Theater Club’s `Proof’" (reviewed in this issue,
page 30), says Rosenblum, who wrote the show’s music and
"The we came up with a better title," adds his wife Lessner,
author of the book and lyrics.
Before the performance, I sat with Rosenblum and Lessner at the
to talk about their quest to bring a sung-through musical structure
to an arcane story. The two met at Yale, where they both graduated
summa cum laude. Their stage show was largely inspired by two books
about Wiles’ quest, "Fermat’s Last Theorem" by Amir D. Aczel,
and Simon Singh’s "Fermat’s Enigma."
"I had known about the theorem and remembered the news coverage
of Wiles’ breakthrough in 1993," says Rosenblum, "but it was
after I read a book review of `Fermat’s Last Theorem’ by Amir Aczel,
which made it seem like such a wonderful adventure story, that I
wanted to set it to music." Rosenblum, and Lessner previously
collaborated on their first musical, "Arabian Nights."
Rosenblum knew there was some way to tell this story
as a musical — but wasn’t sure how. He was sure he would get the
answer from his wife. "Yes, I saw it immediately," she
"It was one of those moments when the hair stands up on the back
of your neck. It had all the major elements — the quest, a major
conflict, a life-long struggle."
"After reading the book, it opened my eyes to what math really
is, more than just numbers," adds Lessner. She says she realized
that if the story appealed to her, it would have even wider appeal
among the math savvy public. "Fermat’s Last Tango" can even
appeal to the hopelessly innumerate theatergoer.
"The historical sweep of this story is amazing," says Lessner.
"considering that Fermat dropped this gauntlet in 1637, and that
all the greatest minds — not only mathematicians — have
to find the proof. We built our musical on Andrew Wiles and his use
of the work of the greatest minds that came before him, and on the
mystery that surrounds Fermat’s own recorded statement: `I have
a simple and marvelous proof of this that I don’t have room to write
down in the margin.’"
Fermat’s theorem, long considered the "holy grail of
made the case that the Pythagorean theorem — the square of the
hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides
— was limited to squared numbers, and not to cubing or any other
After 350 years, and countless attempts by other mathematicians
the ages, it was Wiles who would eventually prove Fermat’s theorem
(which presumably was never written down) over an intense seven-year
period of concentrated study. During this period Wiles proved the
Taniyama-Shimura conjecture that stated for every elliptic curve there
is a corresponding modular form, to Fermat’s Theorem. Proving one
was said to prove the other. With such synchronicity, can music and
lyrics be far behind?
Admitting that she had, in fact, never been very interested in math,
Lessner says what interested her in this tale was the year that Wiles
spent between the time when he announced he had a proof, then found
a flaw, and set out to fix it.
Having worked in complete solitude for seven years, Wiles had suddenly
put himself in the limelight. And he had to continue his work,
humiliated, under the piercing gaze of the international press and
mathematicians around the world to fix its flaw. It is during this
frustrating year that the musical is set.
"The man is intensely private and reclusive," says Lessner,
who has not spoken or consulted with Wiles before or during the
of the show. "And it was the juxtaposition of his public and
life that we felt was so fascinating. And the suspense over whether
he is or isn’t going to fix it is very compelling." She has been
told that Wiles is considering coming to see the show.
"I’m sure that Wiles, who was driven to prove Fermat’s theorem
from the day he read about it when he was 10 years old, will enjoy
seeing this one segment of his life. I certainly don’t think he ever
thought that proving Fermat’s theorem would put him in the public
"We also have a very high regard for Wiles," says Rosenblum.
"We think of him as an intellectual hero." They assert that
their version of the story, although whimsical, is only playfully
irreverent, introducing such illustrious mathematicians as Pythagoras,
Euclid, Carl Friedrich Gauss, Sir Isaac Newton, and, of course, Pierre
de Fermat, into the musical equation. Fermat, who appears as a ghost,
has discovered a marvelous way for time travel. That the other
are prone to a little doo-wop at the drop of an Isosceles triangle
goes without saying, although not without singing.
For the purposes of dramatization and to protect the professor’s
Wiles and his wife’s name have been changed to Daniel and Anna Keane.
And, except for points heavenward — a math purgatory called the
"AfterMath" — the setting for the musical is the
hall and residence attic at Princeton University.
Keane, bombarded by an aggressively imposing press ("He must be
a little crazy") is challenged on a flaw ("Your proof contains
a big fat hole") that sends him back to his study and seclusion
for another year. Now, don’t you think that Keane coming up with the
final universally accepted proof, and on his wife’s birthday no less,
calls out for a song. As Anna, Edwardine Cowan comes close to stopping
the show with her satirically bluesy "Math Widow," making
it clear that "All I want for my birthday is a corrected
Fermat who pompously declares, "I will not share my glory,"
ultimately helps Keane in his struggle. When we first encounter the
members of the secret society of dead mathematicians, they are
like six-year-olds, each proclaiming their distinct greatness, as
well as expressing their suspicions of this young upstart. Gilles
Chiasson is wonderfully stuffy as Carl Friedrich Gauss; Mitchell
plays a petty Pythagoras; Christianne Tisdale is a Grecian formula
Euclid, and Carrie Wilshusen plays a presumptuous Sir Isaac Newton.
Eventually, in a hilariously skewed game show called "Prove My
Theorem" that Fermat hosts, the mathematicians offer a riddle-like
clue to help Keane: "Within your failures lie the seeds of your
The authors agree that math is a subject that most
aren’t interested in and that most people actually hate it. But
adds that because he and Joanna found both books so compelling, they
had to tell it "our way." They also credit Peter Sarnak, chair
of the Princeton math department and close colleague of Wiles, for
his help when they couldn’t get through to Wiles. Sarnack, who was
attending the play that night, sat in on a post-show panel that
the musical’s director Mel Marvin (who described the musical as "a
warm satire"), Harold Levy, chancellor of the New York school
system, and members of the cast. "Wiles is a private person, but
very interested in the play," he reported, adding, "And he
is the best guy in the field of elliptic curves."
With subject matter of this show is so undoubtedly esoteric, Rosenblum
decided to use popular musical styles of jazz, ragtime, tango, blues,
and the waltz to make it more accessible. The astute listener will
also detect shades of Gilbert and Sullivan, as well as Mozart, in
the score that has wit and lilt to burn.
Two of the musical highlights are "The Beauty of Numbers,"
in which the meek mild-mannered and bespectacled Keane, as excellently
played by Chris Thompson, waxes ecstatic on his numerical passions,
and "Your Proof Contains A Hole," in which the mathematicians
cavort in the costumes of their respective eras like a gloating
of London Savoyards.
Ready to steal the show with his florid flourishes and upstaging
is Jonathan Rabb (son of Princeton history professor Theodore Rabb),
as a foppish Pierre de Fermat, the 17th-century mathematician, who
appears out of the blue to torment and taunt professor Keane. Not
surprisingly, he is not eager or ready to share the honors of his
simple and elegant proof with Keane, who has, in his estimation,
used branches of 20th-century mathematics to make his voluminous 200
page proof. If any one number could be called the highlight of the
show it is, "I’ll Always Be There," a humorously executed
tango-a-trois, performed by Fermat, Keane, and Anna.
The 37-year-old Rosenblum, who composes primarily in the classical
idiom, is remembered locally as the conductor in 1996 of the Greater
Princeton Youth Orchestra. "Joanne and I have created a time
fantasy," say the versatile pianist and composer who has been
musical director for nine Broadway and Off-Broadway shows including
"Miss Saigon," "Anything Goes," and
Lessner writes novels, plays, and feature stories for Opera News,
performs on Broadway, and sings opera.
"We’ve been together for 16 years, married for 10 and have a
son, Julian (a budding lyricist)," says Lessner. "We started
out collaborating at Yale and are continuing to do so."
Like Wiles, Rosenblum and Lessner have a proof, albeit a musical one.
Ah, but have they solved the mystery? The simple and marvelous proof
of the pudding (pardon the pun) is in seeing "Fermat’s Last
I proved it. Now it’s up to you.
— Simon Saltzman
St. Peter’s, Lexington at 54. Andrew Wiles’ story becomes a new
$45 & $50.
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