a PAW web exclusive column
Sound of Math
Turning a mathematical
theorem and proof into a musical
How do you make a musical
about a bunch of dead mathematicians and one very alive, very famous,
Princeton math professor?
Andrew Wiles, the Eugene
Higgins professor of math, gained worldwide fame for his 1993 solution
to Fermat's last theorem, which dates to 1637. The theorem states
that for the equation xn+yn=zn there are no positive whole numbers
that solve this when "n" is greater than 2.
mathematician Pierre de Fermat had noted the theorem in the margin
of a book and wrote that he had a marvelous proof, but that it would
not fit in the space. There is no record of Fermat's having ever
written the proof down, thus creating a mathematical puzzle for
hundreds of mathematicians over the years.
Jump three hundred years
to the 1980s and '90s: Wiles worked on proving the theorem exclusively
and secretly for seven years, and startled the world of mathematics
by publishing his proof, which was accepted, after a modification,
Which leads us back to
the original question: How do you make a musical about math?
In the musical The
Sound of Music, the nuns grappled with the troublesome novice
Maria - who talks and sings too much - and in exasperation sang
a song whose first line was "How do you solve a problem like
Would a mathematical
musical follow the same idea?
"How do solve a
problem like Fermat's?
Why do you know a proof
and not jot it down?
How do you sing about
the dead guy Fermat?
A mathematician! An illusive
Frenchman. A clown?"
"How do you write
a musical about math?
When do you sing and
when do you dance around?
What can you say about
the men of math,
Who're bright, but very
dead and not around?"
Those are the kinds of
silly lyrics that came to mind when news of a musical based on Andrew
Wiles and Pierre de Fermat was published last year.
Happily, composer Joshua
Rosenblum and his lyricist, Joanne Sydney Lessner (who is also his
wife), grappled with the problem and solved it magnificently, with
a story and song much more inspired than the verses penned above
(which they did not write).
The show, Fermat's
Last Tango, now on stage at the York Theatre Company in New
York City brings to vivid life not only Pierre de Fermat (outfitted
in courtly clothes and gold-and-red shoes), Andrew Wiles (portrayed
as Daniel Keane in corduroy pants, tweedy jacket, and horn-rimmed
glasses), but also the mathematicians Pythagoras, Euclid (who throughout
the show measures the angles her own body makes), Sir Isaac Newton,
and Carl Friedrich Gauss.
Many of the songs are
funny, and one of the most brilliant bits of invention is the place
the mathematicians go after death: the Aftermath.
Andrew Wiles and his
wife, Nada Canaan Wiles '83 *88, took their children to see the
show in December, and PAW asked him how he liked it. Below is his
I went with my whole
family, and yes, we really liked the show. My six-year-old was quite
captivated by Fermat (or Theorem as she called him) and kept trying
to tell me something during the performance. I couldn't hear what
she was saying but afterwards she told me that she had wanted to
tell me that he was lying and that he didn't have a proof!
I had not communicated
with the composers so the first I knew about it being on was when
some local publications (including the Prince) started calling
to ask me about it. I thought that a musical on such a theme would
be impossible but we all thought it was very cleverly done.
I think that putting
Fermat in the role of tormentor was very inspired and really was
the key to the success of the show - both as he personified the
struggle that research in mathematics involves and also as he gave
vent to some of the all too human characteristics of real life personalities
I think that it did
especially capture the feeling that one sometimes has when one is
doing mathematics that obstacles have been put there deliberately
to taunt you, but also the feeling of wonder at the beauty and simplicity
of it all when one finally sees the light.
I thought the Aftermath
very clever, as well as the use of the mathematicians to carry the
storyline. But we also really liked the portrayal of the personal
part of the story - the whole idea of the threesome at the tango
was beautifully done.
We came away feeling
that it had been very intelligently written (not something I could
say for every musical!) and that the cast really seemed to have
caught the spirit of the story,
York Theatre, 619 Lexington
Ave., N.Y., N.Y. 10022; 212-239-6200 (Tele-charge).