John Forster
Too Clever By 20%
Urban Stages
Dec 9, 2021

By Jennie Litt

John Forster delighted his audience with self-penned musical mischief in his one-man show at Winter Rhythms, “Too Clever By 20%.” Forster has worn many hats in his long and successful career—librettist, lyricist, composer, recording artist, producer—but in this show, Forster’s brilliant songs took their deserved place center stage.

Forster is the Albus Dumbledore of satirists—his gentle, elfin, slightly distracted presence belies a devastating mastery of his craft. No topic is safe from his wit: drugs, marriage, existential philosophy, the Middle East, the nature of paradox, the art of Bob Dylan. His humor is accessible, even when he’s rhyming “latitude” with “beatitude,” or “made a man o’ me” with “anomie”—and then he turns around and presents a song made up entirely of two-letter words. And it’s not just his lyrics that are funny; he finds humor in rhythm, pitch, vocal registers. His patter is deftly oblique, introducing each song from an unexpected angle to which each the song is a kind of punchline.

Forster spent the evening at the piano, accompanying himself and a series of guests that included cabaret star Marissa Mulder, songwriters Hillary Rollins and Tom Toce (who produces the Winter Rhythms Festival), and actor-director Paul Kreppel, who performed improv with Forster when they were both in college. Forster’s playing is lively, and he handled a variety of styles with vigor, tongue held firmly in cheek. His singing, like that of the late Dave Frishberg, is noteworthy for its humor and timing more than for its pear-shaped tones.

In “Tone Deaf,” a love story about a man who can’t carry a tune and a woman who can’t dance, Forster wrote the characters’ tonal and rhythmic shortcomings into of the very fabric of the song. “Jerusalem” managed to skewer Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in what amounted to a real-estate ad for the conflict-ridden city, dazzling with rhyme. Kreppel took sips of “helium” from a balloon, his voice ascending to the stratosphere and back, in “Helium,” a down and dirty takeoff on J. J. Cale’s “Cocaine.” “Boo Hoo,” a collaboration with Rollins and Toce, featured the three songwriters onstage.

Forster explained the origins of several of the songs, the most interesting being the genesis of “It Only Happens In New York,” which he dreamed in its entirety one night, convinced it was a Golden-Age standard. Once he’d realized the song didn’t actually exist, he transcribed what he could remember, only to discover that it sucked. Undeterred, he reworked it until he had realized the potential it had seemed to promise in his dream—a moody standard manqué celebrating the idiosyncrasies of NYC, including “a Brooklyn bar in a converted abbatoir” (how true!).

Marissa Mulder lent her caressing voice and entrancing stillness to the only serious song of the evening, the whimsical “Warp and Weave.” Other highlights included “February 31st,” accompanied by guitar and mouth organ, a Dylan parody of consummate brilliance, and the title song of Forster’s first solo CD, the perennial “Entering Marion,” an extended double entendre with a deeply rewarding surprise ending.

Gone are the days when the likes of Tom Lehrer and Allan Sherman toured the country playing sold-out houses and soared to the top of the charts—and that’s tragic. John Forster is that good.