It’s a chilly and wet Friday morning in East Vancouver, and Veda Hille is sitting next to Ben Elliott inside the Jim Green House studio next to the Cultch. Rehearsals are under way for East Van Panto: Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, and though Hille’s work (she’s responsible for music and lyrics) is largely done, she’s still happy to offer her thoughts to Elliott, the musical director, as he tries to work out the best accompaniment for the arrival of the Internet Troll that lives under the Ironworkers Memorial Bridge. Spouting lines like “White privilege is a myth,” the Troll pops up to hurl abuse at Snow White as she escapes the Queen of North Vancouver and heads towards the bright lights of East Van and the PNE, where she’ll meet the Seven Dwarves, who are actually aging ’80s rockers, as well as the SuperDogs.
In its five years, East Van Panto has offered a contemporary spin on Jack and the Beanstalk (2013), Cinderella (2014), Hansel and Gretel (2015), and Little Red Riding Hood (2016), and even though most of the cast and the creative team has changed production by production, there has been one constant: musician Veda Hille.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarves is the first production where Hille is not pulling double duty as musical director in addition to providing music and lyrics. In a small office upstairs from the rehearsal space, the acclaimed indie singer-songwriter sits down with the Straight to talk about what she’s learned about panto, pop music, and fairy tales for modern times.
The panto tradition relies heavily on reinventing songs of the day, but for her first East Van Panto, Hille wrote a few numbers as well.
“For the second one, we almost abandoned that completely because the response to the songs that people knew, that had been changed and made local, was so fun and satisfying,” Hille says. “We felt like in the first Panto, the real moment where everything kicked in was the version of ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ that became ‘Somewhere Just West of Cambie’.”
Hille says she doesn’t want to overintellectualize the process, but for her, reinventing pop songs for local audiences is like stacking satisfactions upon pleasures.
“In lots of other places that I work, we’re looking for the edge and looking for something that’s gonna shake people awake,” Hille says. “This is like a really nice blanket, a really fun disco blanket you can wrap yourself up in.”
Hille doesn’t want to give away too much about the song surprises in Snow White, but she concedes that Destiny’s Child’s “Bootylicious” is in the mix. In total, Hille estimates she spends about a solid month working on the music and lyrics for East Van Panto, from when she gets the “beat sheet” from the writer to summer workshops to completion.
Panto also lives in the back of her mind throughout the year as she tries to determine which summertime hits were so ubiquitous that people will want to make fun of them, while also being genuinely happy to hear them again. There are a lot of factors that go into making the perfect Panto song.
“It has to be a song everybody knows and loves; it has to fit in the right place in the arc of the piece; it has to have a good pun in the main title or chorus of the song that suits the script,” Hille says. “There’s a bunch of funny little check marks you have to make. I’ve been trying to get a KISS song in there for a while. But I don’t get to decide ‘This is where the KISS song goes,’ it has to be a convergence of all these things.”
Though KISS is her Panto holy grail, Hille also points out that there are a bunch of heavy hitters they’ve not yet used, including the Beatles and David Bowie. In part, this is what keeps her engaged, though she admits that over the course of five Pantos, she has contemplated calling it quits.
“I keep thinking that I have exhausted my store of pop songs and then it’s just never true, obviously, there’s so many good songs in the world, and every year I think, ‘Oh, maybe I shouldn’t do it this year,’ and then it’s really, really fun,” Hille says. “I will pass it off at some point because it’s not fair that I’m the one who always gets to do this.”
East Van Panto: Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, produced by Theatre Replacement and presented by the Cultch, runs to January 6 at the York Theatre.More