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Master of fright, demon of light Danny Elfman brings 'The Nightmare Before Christmas’ to the Bowl

by Alex Cohen and Lori Galarreta | Take Two®

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Jack Skellington looks at some Christmas lights in Christmas town. Courtesy Walt Disney Pictures

Here in Southern California, there's no shortage of Halloween treats, especially at the Hollywood Bowl. 

That's where, for the next three nights, there will be a live screening of Tim Burton's "The Nightmare Before Christmas." This animated dark fantasy film from 1993 centers on Jack Skellington who lives in a place called Halloween Town. 

Jack, the pumpkin king, is adored by town residents, including his love interest Sally, for his abilities to frighten folks each fall.

Jack's Lament

Yep, Jack's grown tired of spooks and scares. Then one day comes across a portal to a place known as Christmas Town and he's smitten.

Jack hatches a plan to kidnap Santa Claus and take his place, but it doesn't work out quite according to plan. 

The soundtrack for the film was written by musician Danny Elfman, who will also be singing the part of Jack Skellington at this weekend's Hollywood Bowl shows. 

Elfman has been hard at work preparing for this weekend, but he took some time to chat with Alex Cohen about the film and upcoming shows.

He began by explaining how he and Tim Burton created the film:

"Tim would come over to my house with drawings and we spent a number of months not sure how to start because neither of us really had a blueprint for how you begin this kind of project."

They started with the songs. Elfman tells how Burton would explain his story ideas and then show the drawings he'd put together:

"'I'd go, 'oh, oh okay great,' and I'd go off and I'd spend about three days writing a song, and he'd come back and go 'oh, yeah, okay great,' and I'd write the next song. We kind of did this every couple of days for a month until we had 10 songs."

Their lack of experience in penning movie musicals actually proved to be a bit of a boon, Elfman believes, because it liberated them from some of the standard musical cliches and conventions you see in animated films.

"I wanted the songs to have a feeling like they could come from just about any age. It's hard to tell, is this from the 30's? Could this be from the 60's? Could this be from the 80's? Could this be from Gilbert and Sullivan or Kurt Weill from 1917?"

The result was a fabulous soundtrack and music much unlike what Elfman had spent most of his career making. Back in the 1970's, Elfman fronted a new wave group called Oingo Boingo. 

Elfman told me the more he worked on "The Nightmare before Christmas," the more he wanted to leave Oingo Boingo and the closer he felt to protagonist Jack Skellington.

"I really felt a kinship with Jack being the kind of king of his own little land and really wanting out of it."

Get out he did. The band broke up a few years after "The Nightmare Before Christmas" came out and he went on to have a successful career composing music for films, including more than a dozen with Tim Burton.

The pair was so strong that they were often approached to do concerts of their movie music, but  Elfman says he had no interest.

But then the Royal Albert Hall in London called, and Elfman said yes. The concert organizer wondered if the musician wanted to be part of the show.

"He asked me 'would you consider singing a song or two?' And I said 'yeah, sure, why not?' and I said it rather flippantly. And then six months later when it was closer to actually doing the concert I remember asking, 'did I say I would do a song?' and he said 'yeah,' and I said 'let's cancel that.'"

This would be the place to mention that, believe it or not, Danny Elfman suffers from pretty terrible stage fright. 

"I hadn't sung in 18 years. I'd never sung any of these songs live so I kind of tried a few of them...and oh...these are really hard to sing."

But tickets to the Royal Albert Hall had been sold. The show had to go on. He recalls sitting backstage, petrified.

"I was sitting there, trying to get myself ready to walk out and kind of thinking, maybe I should just turn around, go out the exit and find a bar. And Helena Bonham Carter was sitting behind me, she was on the floor, she was going to sing Sally for "Sally's Song" and she's looking at me going 'Danny, what's up?' And I'm like 'uhh, I don't know if I can do this,' and I remember she looked at me and she goes, 'come on. Come on. F**k it, right?' and I said, 'yeah, absolutely, f**k it.' That's the story of my life!"

Elfman says the night turned out magically. 

"I remembered there's a feeling you get on stage when it's good, where you feel like you can fail and it'll be okay. They're not going to kill you, they don't hang people...it's like if you goof up, it's okay, you'll start again, you'll be fine. And that feeling kind of came back and  everything was good."

And so, Elfman decided to take it one step further, to perform as Jack for all of the songs in "The Nightmare Before Christmas" screened in front of an audience with a live orchestra at the Hollywood Bowl. 

Last year on Halloween weekend, he was joined on stage by other vocal performers in the film, including actress Catherine O'Hara, Paul Reubens, aka Pee Wee Herman, and Ken Page, who plays a character named Oogie Boogie.

Oogie Boogie's song

In addition to the film and the musical performances and the movie, there's trick-or-treating and a costume contest. It's quite the Halloween Carnival—two of the shows have already sold out. 

But this will be the last time Danny Elfman performs "The Nightmare Before Christmas" at the Hollywood Bowl. 

So, why not make it an annual tradition?

"...because, the word annual rubs me wrong. I did a Halloween show with Oingo Boingo for like, 15 years and it was like every Halloween we're doing a Halloween show and I got to a point where I hated the fact that it was expected of me, it was anticipated. I mean people would be telling me in July, 'hey man, I'll be seeing you at your Halloween show, and I'm going 'this is wrong,.' I don't like being this scheduled and predictable and doing what I'm supposed to be doing and knowing that far in advance what I'm going to be doing."

That news was heartbreaking, but understandable.

After all, Danny Elfman felt that connection to Jack Skellington when he first wrote the music. and he still does. Like the pumpkin king, Elfman is always relishing in the new and unexpected. Something celebrated when Skellington first finds himself in Christmas town. 

"The Nightmare Before Christmas" with Danny Elfman will be performed Friday night, Saturday and Sunday at the Hollywood Bowl

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