This post might seem shameless, but the recent death of Gene Wilder got me thinking about how actors, artists, celebrities, or anyone else contributing to the cultural dialog affects others in ways that are unexpected.
Recently, I had the joy of performing a barbershop arrangement of “Pure Imagination” from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Wilder had originated the song and his performance in the 1971 film has become iconic. (The role and movie themselves have have become so much more than just a movie; consider the famous Gene Wilder/Willy Wonka meme.) “Pure Imagination” has gone on to become not only a well-recognized part of the popular music canon, but has also found its way into the Jazz repertoire.
The performance I participated in with Voices of Gotham speaks to the effect that Wilder’s performance had on American culture at large. When the chorus selected the song, we knew that once we started the refrain, “Come with me…” the audience would have a collective sigh of recognition and be transported by their own personal experience with Willy Wonka.
In my preparations for learning the chart, I often thought of that moment when the garden in the factory is revealed, and that moment right before Willy Wonka begins singing the song. My performance owes an enormous debt to Wilder—what I practiced and put on stage is due to his role in the movie, and his interpretation of the song.
Although “Pure Imagination” might seem like an unlikely choice for a barbershop song, the reality is quite the opposite. “Pure Imagination” reaches into people’s hearts because of the personal memories and expectations that so many Americans have of the tune; not at all unlike when O.C. Cash and Rupert Hall cited the 1903 hit, “Dear Old Girl” in their 1938 letter that eventually led to the creation of the Barbershop Harmony Society. In this way, we can see how performances in one medium have the power to reach out and deeply affect the choices made by performers in a seemingly unrelated genre.
What a great man he was. Thank you for singing with him in your heart.