BY JOSEPH PLANTA
Monday, 07 July 2008
VANCOUVER - Several weeks ago I had lunch with the broadcaster and journalist David Berner, who's now community liaison at Langara College. Among other things, we reminisced about his 1994 interview with musical theatre star Carol Channing. At the end of the interview Berner makes the observation that the music of Jerry Herman, who wrote the music and lyrics to Hello, Dolly! and other musicals such as Mame and La Cage Aux Folles, was in the end, optimistic.
The Pixar animated film Wall-E, set several hundred years from now, opens with a breathtaking panoramic view of the earth and its surrounding galaxy. As it zooms closer to earth, the viewer sees desolation. The cityscape has been replaced by towers abandoned and new ones erected by compacted scrap metals, since overrun consumerism has made the earth unsustainable. The several shots that open the film are punctuated by the chipper and cheery number "Put On Your Sunday Clothes" from Hello, Dolly!
We see Wall-E, which stands for Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class, a machine unit used to clean up the earth after being vacated by humans. After several hundreds of years of operation, he develops a bit of a personality and is comforted by an old VHS copy of the 1969 film adaptation of Hello, Dolly! which he views through a magnified glass in front of an iPod. With a trash can lid simulating a top hat, he imitates, as best a bulldozer can, the choreographed dance steps in the Gene Kelly directed picture.
That Jerry Herman's simple words and music have survived nearly fifty years after making their debut on the Broadway stage, and as the film suggests, several hundreds of years in Wall-E, is a testament to the work of the composer/lyricist who though not as critically acclaimed as say Sondheim or Lloyd Webber, but acclaimed nonetheless. His songs have become pop classics, such as 'Hello, Dolly!' which became a popular hit thanks to a recording by Louis Armstrong. In 1964, it was the first time in a while that a song from a Broadway musical had made the pop charts, knocking The Beatles out of first place on the Billboard list, and as it were, it would be the last time.
Herman's songs are spare and memorable, a very Broadway quality. Since Herman it has been in vogue for more complicated, perhaps more artistic songs, such as the work by Sondheim in the 1970s and '80s, which though moving and evocative has been considered pretentious. In fact, in 1984 the struggle between old style Broadway and more modern musicals was made manifest on the Tony Awards when Herman accepted his award for best score for La Cage Aux Folles and took a swipe at Sondheim, who didn't win for Sunday In the Park with George, much more of a critical darling, by saying that the traditional singable, hummable song has survived and triumphed. (Then again, Sondheim's irreverent Sweeney Todd, before it was made into a full adaptation with Johnny Depp, was portrayed in an excerpt in the little-seen Jersey Girl starring Ben Affleck and George Carlin, among others.)
In the course of the movie, Wall-E falls for EVE, which like the film's star, is an acronym: Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator. From watching Hello, Dolly! he realises that he wants what he's seen in one of the movie's penultimate scenes. In the film, Michael Crawford sings "It Only Takes a Moment," an underrated love song, obviously eclipsed by the prominent success of the show's title number. Again we see Herman's incandescent talent at making song writing seem so simple. His achingly simple sounding melody and effervescently simple lyrics make a point so precisely. Wall-E wants to hold EVE's hand, because what he's seen so many times, re-watching that worn video, is what he's always wanted to feel, and how he feels. The lyrics evoke much:
And that is all
That love's about
And we'll recall
When time runs out
That it only took a moment
To be loved a whole life long
The theme or themes of Wall-E have been much written about in the press already. Conservatives take umbrage with the fact that the film seems to take a swipe at consumerism, as well as that it's outright leftist propaganda and fear mongering. Frank Rich, the brilliant essayist in the New York Times writes yesterday that the movie "seemed more realistically in touch with what troubles America this year than either the substance or the players of the political food fight beyond the multiplex's walls."
In the end, if Jerry Herman's music resists the expulsion of humans to elsewhere in the solar system, it bodes well that the future is optimistic, as much as it says that his music is forever. And that's hardly science fiction.
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