By Maureen Lee Lenker
June 27, 2018 at 10:00 AM EDT
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“Out there! There’s a world outside of Yonkers…”

Ten years ago, the rousing first notes of Hello, Dolly’s Put On Your Sunday Clothes” burst back onto the big screen juxtaposed against starry animations of our galaxy, creating an unforgettable cinema moment.

WALL-E, the Pixar film about a trash-compacting robot left behind on a post-apocalyptic Earth, introduced one of the more unlikely pairings in film history by making the lovable title character a fan of the golden-age musical (specifically, the 1969 film adaptation).

Speaking to EW for the 10th anniversary of WALL-E, director Andrew Stanton calls the pairing “the craziest idea I have ever had.” He explains, “I had always wanted to open with something old-fashioned compared to this apocalyptic, futuristic setting. I had always defaulted to thinking it would be something like old swing music, and I had French swing music in my head.” However, Stanton ditched that idea after the 2003 release of The Triplets of Belleville, an animated film that prominently featured French swing music.

While trying to decide what to use instead, fate intervened. Stanton had portrayed Barnaby, one of the two idealistic young men singing “Put on your Sunday Clothes,” as a freshman in high school, and as a result had the musical in his iPod library. “Suddenly that song just came on and it struck me; it came on late at night while I was reading a book,” he remembers. “I turned to my wife and I said, ‘I think I have the strangest idea I’ve ever had.’ Once I had it in my head, I couldn’t drop it. I had to try it. I just kept waiting for it to fall apart. There were so many reasons why it wouldn’t hold. It was so incongruous that it was attractive, and so we worked it into the story.”

For Stanton and the team at Pixar, justifying the choice was easy. “WALL-E was so eclectic in what he was interested in because he’s just searching through the detritus of humanity, it could be whatever I wanted,” he says. “Once I knew it’s going to be this musical, we could be specific about that being something he watched.”

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Before the creative team could run with the idea, however, they had to secure the rights to the music and footage, owned by 20th Century Fox. “I was like, ‘Why I couldn’t have been inspired by Mary Poppins or something in the Disney canon?’” Stanton jokes. Numerous negotiations through official channels with studio lawyers fell apart. But once again, destiny was on their side. The CFO of Pixar at the time had formerly worked at Fox and maintained a friendly personal relationship with the top brass there. “He was able to cut through all the red tape and talk straight,” Stanton says. “He basically said, ‘We have nothing but good intentions. These things are just sitting in the vault, why not give it some exposure? And everybody wins.’ And that’s what happened.”

Once the rights were in hand, Stanton and his team could start reverse-engineering WALL-E’s fascination with the musical, and which numbers they would feature. Ultimately, they used two songs, “Put on your Sunday Clothes” and the love ballad “It Only Takes a Moment.” Stanton reveals that for a time they also considering “Dancing,” a number where Barnaby and Cornelius learn to dance. “I always thought there was going to be something poetic, floating in space, and I thought maybe ‘Dancing’ would work [where] what is now an instrumental piece that [composer] Tom Newman did with Eve and WALL-E dancing,” he recalls.

The film opens with “Put on your Sunday Clothes,” beginning in the vastness of space and then zooming in to WALL-E sorting through trash on a discarded Earth, while he listens to and hums the song. Later, in his home, he watches the song from the film and dances along, using metallic refuse as a hat. Stanton says the sequence came from years of careful planning and picking apart moments.

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“We were still working on all the details for quite a long time about all the story points, and we could carve these little moments around the song,” he says. “It was really mining the song and watching the movie for anything that looked memorable and definable. So it was easy to reverse-engineer, and tipping your hat is something that’s really clear. Let’s see if we can come up with some trash that looks like a top hat.… Once you know how you want it to all come together, you plant the seed early on. We just kept going back to it to mine stuff from it. There’s also this thing where we were like, ‘Well, we’re paying money for this song, we might as well use it for all we’ve got.’”

Perhaps even more affecting, WALL-E watches the romance blossom between Irene and Cornelius as they sing “It Only Takes Moment” and wishes for a partner himself. Stanton had already hit on the idea that holding hands would be WALL-E’s understanding of a pure expression of love and something he longed for. “I had read a book in the mid-’90s called Manwatching — it was by this guy that was a major observer of human poses and gestures. It was fascinating, and one of the things that is common all around the world in every culture to show affection is holding hands,” Stanton says. “I remembered it every since, and I just felt like there could be nothing more powerful in a movie where the dialogue was foreign to everybody — that that’s how he was figuring out what love was. It’s based on truth, and when you base things on truth, it gives you a lot more confidence to do something like that.”

With that in mind, Stanton turned to Hello, Dolly to craft a moment. “I needed to create a romantic moment for him to watch also out of that same source material, and ‘It Only Takes a Moment’ is a beautiful song anyway,” he says. “My story required him to be taught how to hold hands, and they never really do [in Hello, Dolly]. They do in one brief moment in a wide shot in the film, and so we actually lied and created a close-up.”

Stanton’s gamble worked, with the incongruous pairing of Hello, Dolly and WALL-E making for an earnest, lovable robot, who helped earn the director an Oscar for Best Animated Film. Stanton thanked his high school drama teacher in his acceptance speech, acknowledging her connection to the musical and its role in the film. Before that, he brought his high school friend who had portrayed Cornelius alongside his Barnaby to the WALL-E premiere.

Since the film’s release, the ties between WALL-E and Dolly have only grown stronger. While Stanton says he’s met many actors who’ve played Barnaby and Cornelius over the years, it was one in particular who convinced him the mash-up was kismet. After WALL-E debuted, Michael Crawford, the original Cornelius from the 1969 film (who can be seen in the footage in WALL-E), called up Stanton to ask him out to dinner. There, he told a story that blew the director away.

“[Crawford] said when he had to punch the very beginning of the song with the orchestra and say the phrase ‘out there,’ he was never getting it right, and finally [director] Gene Kelly had to come out of the booth and come over to him,” Stanton explains. “[Kelly] said, ‘Kid, you gotta sing this like it means more than the world. This is bigger than the universe, just think of the stars.’ And the take that they used was the one where he was thinking of the stars when he sang ‘out there.’ So when he saw the opening of WALL-E and it was just this field of stars, it just blew his mind.”

Hello, Dolly has recently risen to prominence again in the theatrical world, with the 2017 Broadway revival starring Bette Midler winning four Tony Awards. Stanton went to see the revival and ended up backstage, where he was blown away by the Broadway community’s love of his film. There he discovered that Tony winner Gavin Creel, who portrays Cornelius, has a dog named WALL-E, and one of the dressers working backstage even named her daughter Eve after the female robot in the film.

“I put it in those musicals that are like Carousel and The Music Man, where they get derided as nerdy and corny but they stand the test of time, and then when you watch them done well, especially a theatrical performance, you totally get it,” Stanton says of Dolly‘s enduring popularity.

For Stanton, the eclectic mix of WALL-E’s world — which in addition to the Hello, Dolly sequences includes blatant reference to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey — is what made the film work and helps it endure a decade later. “It’s the same ethos as hip-hop,” he says. “They’re grabbing stuff from all over media, from all walks of life, and from all different eras, and making it work now and giving it a whole new definition. I felt like we’re kind of doing that with this Hello, Dolly clip mashed up with this 2001 Kubrickian feel, plus our own [thing]. To me, that was exciting. It felt fresh in a weird way, recycling all this stuff in a different combination.”

The success of WALL-E was the result of years of hard work from the team at Pixar and a sprinkling of the creative genius of the minds behind Hello, Dolly — but it only takes a moment to see it was a match made in the stars.

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