What About Tomorrow

The Story of What About Tomorrow?

By Charles Alexander, Producer

This year marks the 20th anniversary of What About Tomorrow?, a groundbreaking environmental music video. The music for the video is taken from a little-known song by Rock and Roll Hall of Famers Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, who are now more famous than ever because of the current global success of Jersey Boys, the Tony-winning play based on their lives. What About Tomorrow? is the most unusual use ever made of their celebrated music.

At the time I produced this video, I was science and environment editor at TIME magazine. Instead of having our customary “Person of the Year” in 1989, we had named “Endangered Earth” as “Planet of the Year” and compiled a 33-page special report on such dangers as global warming, deforestation and species extinction. The issue generated enormous interest, and I got invitations to address audiences from Maui to Moscow.

Working on one of those speeches in late 1989, I came up with a line something like “We have enough resources today, but what about tomorrow?” That made me think of a song called “What About Tomorrow?” which was an obscure track on Streetfighter, one of the Four Seasons’ least known albums. But it was written by those same two Jersey Boys, Bob Gaudio and Bob Crewe, who wrote “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Walk Like a Man,’’ “Rag Doll,” and “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You.” “What About Tomorrow?” is a typically melodic, eminently hummable Four Seasons love song. Yet I thought it could be much more. Within a day, I had rewritten the lyrics to make “What About Tomorrow?” into a call for environmental action.

After obtaining the permission of the Four Seasons Partnership (Frankie Valli and Bob Gaudio) in early 1990, I immediately set out to make my rewrite into an environmental music video. Time was short. I wanted the video to have its premiere on April 22, 1990, the 20th anniversary of the first Earth Day. Major commemorations were being planned, and I wanted What About Tomorrow? to be part of the occasion.

To perform the soundtrack, I recruited my friends Bill Oliver and Glen Waldeck, a folk-singing duo who had made a career of playing songs about the environment. I had seen them entertain the Sierra Club National Assembly and was so impressed that I profiled them in TIME, dubbing them “troubadours for Mother Nature.”

Oliver happened to hail from a musical hotbed: Austin, Texas. To arrange the music and gather musicians for the soundtrack, he lined up Reese Wynans, who at the time was keyboard player for the late Stevie Ray Vaughan. Wynans in turn put together an all-star Austin band. Percussionist Paul Pearcy, for example, had just been named one of the city’s top musicians at an annual awards dinner and has played on albums by Willie Nelson and the Dixie Chicks.

With the soundtrack in hand, I found a willing video producer in Sam Green, owner of the Edit Room in Washington, D.C. I had seen some environmental documentary work his company had done for the Smithsonian Institution. After listening to the song, Green and Jeff Consiglio, who became the director and editor, suggested that we could put together a video by using stock footage of nature scenes and filming original scenes featuring children, for whose sake we need to preserve the environment. Consiglio was just beginning a very successful career as an editor and director. He recently edited the documentary feature film War/Dance, which was nominated last year for an Academy Award, and also edited Weezer’s music video Pork and Beans, which won Best Short Form Video at the 2009 Grammy Awards.

To shoot the original scenes, Green and Consiglio hired skilled cinematographer Erich Roland. In recent years, Roland has shot footage for such prestigious TV shows as Frontline, Nature and American Masters. But perhaps his most celebrated year came just before he shot What About Tomorrow?. In 1989, Roland was camera operator on Academy Award-winning Driving Miss Daisy and cinematographer for The Johnstown Flood, which took home the Oscar for best documentary short subject.

Everything came together in time, and What About Tomorrow? had its premiere on Earth Day 1990 on the VH-1 national cable-TV network. It was also shown that day on several local TV stations, including major network affiliates in Cleveland and Indianapolis. A couple of weeks later I was interviewed about my video on Nine Broadcast Plaza, a show produced by Channel 9, based in Secaucus, NJ, and serving New York City. The substitute host that day was an up-and-coming TV personality named Matt Lauer.

In June 1990 What About Tomorrow? reached a global audience. It was included in a live concert show called Earth ’90: Children and the Environment. The show was broadcast in 60 countries and was hosted by John Denver in Tokyo, Olivia Newton-John in Paris and Debbie Gibson at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

It’s impossible to say how many times and places What About Tomorrow? has been shown since then. For a while, Oliver, Waldeck and I were spreading it far and wide. It was shown at the Hawaii International Film Festival. I showed it at a conference held by UNICEF in Florence, Italy. I’ve known several high school and college teachers to use it in classrooms. This testimonial came from Dr. Carl Finstad, a biology professor at the University of Wisconsin: “ I saw What About Tomorrow? at the recent North American Association for Environmental Education conference in San Antonio and thought it to be outstanding. I’ve never seen anything of five minutes duration that was as impacting and comprehensive in its coverage of environmental issues as this one. My plan is to use this tape as a final review in my Environmental Education class.”

Why is this 1990 video still relevant? Well, the environment is even more in the news than usual, as Congress struggles to pass the first U.S. legislation to fight climate change. Unfortunately, little has changed in two decades. In fact, such ominous trends as global warming and habitat destruction have accelerated. The environment is more imperiled than ever. The future in which our children and grandchildren will live is more in danger than ever.

For decades, the music of the Four Seasons has brought joy to millions. But few people realize that Seasons music has also been used to deliver a powerful and vital environmental message in What About Tomorrow?.

Some interesting footnotes to the What About Tomorrow? story:
In 1994 I showed What About Tomorrow? to Grammy-winning record producer David Foster. I was hoping that he would consider having one of his artists do a new cover version of the Gaudio-Crewe-Alexander creation. At the time, he was producing several tracks for Michael Jackson’s History double-CD, which included both greatest hits and new songs. This was well before the beloved Michael Jackson became the notorious Michael Jackson (though he is still beloved by millions as proved by the reaction to his death in 2009). Foster was noncommittal, but he kept the copy of What About Tomorrow? that I showed him.

When I bought Jackson’s History in 1995, I was shocked to say the least. On it there was a Foster-produced track called “Earth Song” that was obviously influenced by my video. Although the great Jackson had totally discarded the music of Gaudio and Crewe and written his own and had written a lot of new lyrics as well, he had a familiar lyrical conceit going on. My video had such lines as “What about the forests and fields?”, “What about the birds in the trees?” and “What about the babies to feed?” Jackson’s song had lines such as “What about flowering fields?”, “What about forest trails?”, “What about crying whales?” and “What about us?” “Earth Song” was recently featured in the Michael Jackson tribute at the 2010 Grammy Awards.

Since you can’t copyright the phrase “what about,” I never had any beef, legal or otherwise, with Jackson or Foster. In fact, I was absolutely thrilled that my video had inspired Jackson to deliver a similar environmental message to his vast audience.

I recently saw Foster again, and he categorically denied that my What About Tomorrow? had anything to do with Jackson’s similar song. I was sorry to hear that Foster was insulted by my question, because I see nothing wrong with taking inspiration wherever you find it, as long as you don’t simply copy something, which Foster and Jackson clearly did not do. My theory, and I’m sticking to it despite Foster’s denial, is that he has forgotten what happened in 1994. That was 16 years ago, and he’s produced thousands of songs. I’ve produced only one.

And another star later tuned into the same wavelength. At the New York venue (New Jersey Meadowlands actually) of the global Live Earth Concert on July 7, 2007, Melissa Etheridge sang an environmental call to action called “What Happens Tomorrow?”. In this case, I have no evidence that Etheridge ever saw my video (though I did send it to organizer Al Gore a few days before the show). I suspect it was just a case of like-minded people having similar inspirations.