NEW YORK - Jerry Herman, eyes welling with tears, could hardly believe what he was hearing as he watched the new animated blockbuster "WALL-E."
The composer of the Tony-winning musical "Hello, Dolly!" had licensed songs from the 1964 show to Pixar - The Walt Disney Co.'s computer animation arm - but he had no idea that his music and lyrics would factor so prominently in the story line of the sci-fi robot romance.
"I'm still blown away by the fact that two songs of mine that are close to 50 years old have been used as the underpinning" of the movie, Herman told The Associated Press in an interview from Los Angeles.
Writer-director Andrew Stanton used the tunes "Put on Your Sunday Clothes" and "It Only Takes a Moment" to express the psyche of the love-starved, trash-compacting robot WALL-E.
"My eyes were really wet at both the opening and the closing of the film, and just the wonderful way those songs were used to make him more human," Herman said. "That's really what they did."
Laughing, Herman said it was "so weird" that the songs would be used in a robot movie. But he said the theme of "Hello, Dolly!" - about a 19th-century widowed matchmaker who learns to live again - is relevant to the world of WALL-E, where chubby, unmotivated humans are pampered by robots in a giant space ship before a wake-up call jolts them out of complacency.
"It's about a basic need for people to go on with life and not shut themselves away and to make the most out of the time we have on this planet," Herman said.
For a film with little human dialogue, "WALL-E" was the box-office champion in its opening weekend, nudging the Angelina Jolie thriller "Wanted" to second place.
"WALL-E" opens with panoramic views of galaxies far away, using "Sunday Clothes" as a sunny soundtrack. But the song's exuberant lyrics - "Out there/There's a world outside of Yonkers" - take on new meaning when the scene shifts to the bleak atmosphere of Wall-E's homeland: garbage-ridden planet Earth.
In an interview with the AP, Stanton said he knew he wanted to juxtapose retro music with this futuristic setting, but discovered "a perfect fit" to his narrative when he stumbled upon the "Hello, Dolly!" repertoire and the lyric "out there." (In the musical, it is the song that a Yonkers store clerk croons as he and his apprentice plan their New York City adventure.)
"I thought it was a perfect counterpoint to have this sort of almost naive optimism in the song," Stanton said.
"But then it seemed even more appropriate the more I thought about it, because the song is about two naive guys (who) have never left their small town and they just want to go to the big city for one night, live it up and kiss a girl. And I thought, 'That is my main character." '
And in those first images of planets and stars, "you're meeting WALL-E's dreams before you ever get to meet WALL-E. And I love that. That was just so poetic to me," Stanton said.
The lonely WALL-E is the only 'bot of his kind left on Earth, an apocalyptic wasteland abandoned by the human race 700 years before. His daily routine is compressing garbage into neat cubes to stash atop towering piles. At the end of the day, aching for connection, he retreats to his evening hide-out, where he uses an iPod to watch a videotape of the 1969 movie version of "Dolly," starring Barbra Streisand and Walter Matthau.
WALL-E learns about love from the ballad "It Only Takes a Moment," in which Cornelius the clerk (Michael Crawford) expresses his feelings to Irene Molloy (Marianne McAndrew). The number ends with the lovers holding hands and strolling through a park, and our hero clasps his robot fingers together to simulate hand-holding.
That scene was the result of an a-ha! moment Stanton had while watching Crawford and McAndrew's duet: "I saw them holding hands and it was like a light bulb going off. Like, that is exactly the best way I could express the phrase 'I love you' from a character that can't say it. And then I was hooked. Then I said, "Omigosh, this movie ('Hello, Dolly!') is practically helping me tell my story."
By then, Stanton knew he had to "bookend" his movie with the two songs. They play repeatedly throughout the film, supplementing Thomas Newman's score along with songs by Louis Armstrong ( "La Vie En Rose" ) and Peter Gabriel ( "Down to Earth" ).
The 76-year-old Herman - who also composed the musical scores for "Mame" and "La Cage aux folles" - couldn't be more pleased.
"Boy, what a thrill for me," he said. "Because I've had so much happiness from 'Hello Dolly' through the years, I never expected to have this new layer of excitement."