!nsp!re – Danny Elfman’s “Music From The Films of Tim Burton”

This year, we had the opportunity for an incredible evening. On Halloween night, we attended the Nokia Theater to see Danny Elfman’s “Music from the Films of Tim Burton”.Elfman and BurtonI have long been a fan of both artists. I never got to see Danny Elfman perform with Oingo Boingo during their legendary annual L.A. Halloween shows. It was only fitting that this show was on Halloween night in a city that dearly loves him.

Danny has said in interviews that looking back does not excite him; that he prefers to stay focused on the future. But on this, the 20th anniversary of “The Nightmare Before Christmas”, it felt like an assessment of accomplishments was in order. Danny worked with his arrangers to craft an evening’s worth of music, pulled from his 28 years of film scores; and asked Tim Burton to provide his character sketches as well as film footage of their work together. They performed several dates in London earlier this month and came to L.A. to play the Halloween show. The Oct. 31st date sold out quickly so Oct. 29 and 30 were added. The show was played by the 94-piece Hollywood Symphony Orchestra (many members of which have performed on Elfman’s score recordings) and the 49-voice Page L.A. Choir

Act 1 included Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, Sleepy Hollow, Mars Attacks, Big Fish, and Batman/Batman Returns. Of these, Sleepy Hollow and the Batman suite were incredible standouts. The arrangement for Sleepy Hollow wove the different themes together in a brilliant tapestry of dark, majestic music; and soaring above it all, a young boy (couldn’t have been more than 12 years old) with an angelic, crystalline voice. Batman took me back to my first time seeing the film in 1989. Full of gothic mystery and thrilling bombast, the score felt new to me. While I am a huge fan of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, I had forgotten just how much I loved Burton’s take on the dark knight.

Act 2 included Planet of the Apes, Corpse Bride, Dark Shadows, Frankenweenie, Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and Alice in Wonderland.

The arrangements for Corpse Bride and Edward Scissorhands were exquisite, showcasing the surprising variety of music found in each. The music from Edward Scissorhands is achingly beautiful, full of melancholy and a bittersweet longing for something simpler, something real.

Danny Elfman sings "Poor Jack"
Danny Elfman sings “Poor Jack”

And then, the opening notes of The Nightmare Before Christmas began. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get emotional. I have loved this film for twenty years; and out of the Tim Burton canon, the character I identify the most with is Jack Skellington. Jack is a creator; he is enthralled with doing something “new”. He longs to do something different. He is a child of wonder – and I’ve always been inspired by the sheer innocence and purity of his intentions. As the overture came to it’s conclusion, the man who gave voice to Jack Skellington strode across the stage, stepped up to the mic, and began singing “Jack’s Lament”.

“Oh, somewhere deep inside of these bones
An emptiness began to grow
There’s something out there, far from my home
A longing that I’ve never known…”

Acting the part, grabbing the mic, shaking his fists, stalking the stage, Danny Elfman became Jack – pouring his soul into the songs. It’s SO rare to see someone nakedly giving a performance of PASSION these days. No auto-tune, no back-up dancers, no exploding set pieces, no fancy lights; just pure, raw emotion. The next song, “Jack’s Obsession” was wonderful, sung with the confusion and curiosity it deserves. Danny followed that by introducing Catherine O’Hara (the original voice of Sally). Her thin, ghost-like voice beautifully captured all of the wistful vulnerability in “Sally’s Song”. The orchestra then launched into “What’s This?” as footage from that scene in the film unspooled on a giant screen with Danny playfully singing along, evoking the wonder and joy of seeing Christmas for the first time. He closed the set with “Poor Jack” (probably my favorite song from the film). As he traced Jack’s confusion, regret, and despair, his voice caught with emotion. As Jack’s regret turns to resolve and acceptance of who he truly is, Danny reached down deep and bellowed, “That’s right, I AM THE PUMPKIN KING!”.

It was like he had waited his entire life to sing that live; and the roof nearly lifted off the theater from the audience reaction. This is a man who clearly misses being on stage; and whose audience clearly adores him.

Finally, after the orchestra played the music from Alice in Wonderland, Danny came back out onstage for a rousing finale with “Oogie Boogie”. Catherine O’Hara joined him for bows. Just when it seemed like bows were over, out walked Tim Burton. I nearly died. The three stood and bowed, along with conductor John Mauceri, soaking up the adulation.

Since the show, I’ve thought a lot about long working relationships; how one person can enhance another person’s art; how artists can inspire each other; how one person looks at a blank page and sees images, whereas another person looks at a blank page and sees music. Danny has said in interviews that his working relationship with Tim is not easy; that each film is a little bit of a struggle. I understand that – sometimes you have to work through challenges to get to the core, to what’s good. Regardless of the difficulty it’s very obvious they inspire each other in a myriad of ways.

I came away from the show uplifted, enthralled, inspired, and determined to embrace a higher level of passion.

Katherine O'Hara, Tim Burton, Danny Elfman, conductor John Mauceri
Catherine O’Hara, Tim Burton, Danny Elfman, conductor John Mauceri

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