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Do the Math

Fermat's Last Tango is a new musical about a 17th-century mathematician who just won't stay dead. logo
Chris Thompson and Jonathan Rabb
in Fermat's Last Tango
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Not since Schoolhouse Rock has the splendor of math been as affectionately serenaded as it is in Fermat's Last Tango. That's right, math. But don't look to this new musical for brush-up work on multiplication tables; the problem that's under consideration here stumped mathematicians for 350 years.

It was just four years ago, however, that composer Joshua Rosenblum rushed out in search of a book after a New York Times review convinced him it was ripe source material for a musical. This wasn't a sweeping novel of mystery and intrigue or the melancholy biography of a noted but misunderstood artist--although it had elements of both those genres. The book was Fermat's Last Theorem by Amir D. Aczel, and it sung to Rosenblum. With his wife and collaborator, Joanne Sydney Lessner, he quickly began working on a musical inspired by the true story of Princeton University math professor Andrew Wiles, who was thrust into the limelight seven years ago after he claimed to have solved Fermat's Last Theorem, a puzzle that had kept mathematicians at work on a solution since the 17th century.

Composer and co-lyricist Rosenblum was certain that other musical authors would have the same idea, and he wanted his show finished first. "As odd a subject as this seems, we have been told either directly or through the grapevine that at least three different well-known composers have considered this very idea for a musical," he asserts. Fermat's Last Tango chronicles how glory soon segued into embarrassment for Wiles when a hole was discovered in his proof. After another year of work, however, he managed to correct the flaw and redeem his name.

The musical is the latest theatrical venture to demonstrate the dramatic possibilities of science or math, following Michael Frayn's Tony Award-winning play Copenhagen and David Auburn's Proof. (In a rather amazing coincidence, Proof was the original title of Fermat's Last Tango). "Mathematicians are very passionate about what they do, and many people don't understand the passion of mathematics," says co-lyricist and book writer Lessner, an actress and playwright who does most of the talking during our interview. "Professor Wiles thinks it's interesting that we have keyed into that and are now trying to relay that in music--a passionate art form--so that the general public can get a sense of it." Lessner drafted the original book of the musical in just two weeks as she nursed her infant son, Julian, with a Boppy pillow (which freed up her hands to write). Although the ensuing years brought numerous revisions, the fundamental structure never changed.

The mischievous Fermat scribbled into the margin of a book a claim that he could prove that x to the "n" power plus y to the "n" power can never equal z to the "n" power if "n" is a whole number greater than two. But he maintained he didn't have enough space in the margin for his proof, and no written verification of it was ever discovered, leading some scholars to wonder if he really had found a solution. Says Lessner: "I thought, 'What kind of jerk would do that?' And I extrapolated this character of Fermat who is sneering, supercilious, arrogant, and a bit foppish, but overall quite charming and devilish." (After some research, Lessner learned that she had the right handle on the Frenchman.)

Thompson and Rabb (standing) rehearsing with
Joanne Sydney Lessner and Joshua Rosenbloom
Lessner and Rosenblum, who previously collaborated on a musical version of Arabian Nights, absorbed a copious amount of information about Wiles, Fermat and his legendary math problem, which sprinkles out during conversation. They cite other creative works that deal with the theorem, including a short story called The Devil and Simon Flagg (in which the problem frustrates Satan) and Tom Stoppard's Arcadia--Rosenblum was musical director of the Broadway production--which featured a math genius who appeared to have solved the theorem and which came to Broadway just as Wiles' revised proof was being validated. "It was fascinating to have that unfolding while we were working on the play," exults Rosenblum, a composer of theater and orchestral works as well as a Broadway conductor for Miss Saigon and Anything Goes.

One of the writers' greatest challenges in Fermat's Last Tango was finding a way to compellingly convey onstage the solitary endeavor of proving the theorem. Lessner decided to focus on the year during which Wiles struggled to correct his mistake while the world watched. "That's where the drama was to me," she insists. "Even more, the drama was in the person behind the original theorem, Pierre de Fermat. So it becomes a battle of wits between two men with competing agendas."

The musical journeys into the surreal: The Wiles character, called Daniel Keane, squares off against his tormentor, who doesn't want anyone's name other than his own associated with his theorem. Fermat whisks Keane off to the "aftermath," where he encounters an array of late, great math geniuses--Pythagoras, Euclid, Sir Isaac Newton, and Carl Friedrich Gauss--who debate about whether Keane will be allowed into their world after he dies. Keane sings an arithmetic love ballad titled "The Beauty of Numbers" ("Probably the only love song to math," Lessner surmises) and faces Fermat on a game show called Prove My Theorem while his wife vies for his attention in "Math Widow," a bump-and-grind number.

Earlier this year, when Lessner and Rosenblum realized the musical would need a name other than Proof in order to avoid confusion with the Auburn play, they were reworking a pivotal moment--the point at which the relationship between Fermat and Keane explodes--and found the solution to both at the same time. The climax, a number called "I'll Always Be There," became a tango trio involving Fermat, Keane, and Keane's wife. "It's an emotional struggle as well as an intellectual one," Rosenblum observes. "It's [Keane's] struggle to solve the proof and also their struggle for his heart and soul."

Lessner adds that, "Ultimately, his wife turns out to be the catalyst. Keane realizes that his wife and his family are what's really important. Once he's given himself permission to fail, he's able to see his way clear to succeeding. I think it's dramatically more palatable, and also more satisfying emotionally, to have the wife so involved in that moment of epiphany."

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