There’s a monster at the box office, and its name is Pennywise the Clown. “It,” based on the 1986 Stephen King novel, broke the record for biggest opening weekend for a horror film with $123 million, and is now officially the highest-grossing R-rated horror film of all time.
The very first thing you hear in the movie is the voice of a little girl — four-year-old Elodie Barker — singing a nursery rhyme.
“She sings all the time,” says Barker’s mom, Harriet Fraser, a former doctor who now sings with the Los Angeles Master Chorale. “She has since she was tiny. She has a sweet, lovely voice, and just makes up songs about everything.”
A few months ago, Fraser got an email from a vocal contractor who was looking for five and six-year-old singers.
“I didn’t know it was for this film at the time,” Fraser says, “and I thought, Well, she acts like a five-year-old. So I did a little recording of her singing ‘Row, Row, Row Your Boat’ and sent it along. And then the email came, and he said: ‘This is what it’s for. We need both parents to sign off on it — it’s a kind of strange thing to have little children in.’”
The idea of using the old English nursery rhyme, “Oranges and Lemons,” came from director Andy Muschietti, and was executed by composer Benjamin Wallfisch.
“[Muschietti’s] approach, I think, was to try and find a sound for Pennywise that is somehow the sound of him thinking, the sound of him contemplating the idea of attack — or actually attacking,” Wallfisch explains. “What was fascinating about using something as seemingly innocent and innocuous as a children’s play song is that incredible dichotomy between what’s on the surface and what is under the surface.”
Wallfisch gathered an untrained chorus of young girls and boys at Capitol Records for a decidedly un-creepy day of singing. Fraser says Elodie had a ball.
“She doesn’t know, obviously, what it was for,” Fraser says. “She called it her rehearsal. She said, ‘I’m going to my rehearsal.’ I mean, she’s just full of joy when she’s singing.”
Wallfisch had the boys and girls sing the song in a dozen different ways.
“We just asked them to characterize,” the composer says. “So we had them sing it as if they were yawning and very tired, or screaming as if they were really angry, or whispering it like it’s a secret to their neighbor.”
“Oranges and Lemons” usually plays when Pennywise is baiting his next victim, and Wallfisch manipulated the vocals and added disturbing orchestration.
The nursery rhyme was only a small part of the “It” score. Wallfisch wrote two hours of orchestral and electronic music, including themes for the friendship and puppy love that blossoms between the kid heroes, and a shapeshifting melody for the shapeshifting monster.
“I almost discovered later that the sort of ghost of ‘Oranges and Lemons’ kept appearing in the other tunes — which is exactly what I hoped would happen,” Wallfisch says. “There’s that sense of an omnipresent DNA, where even though you have distinct character themes and distinct narrative themes, they’re all linked by this central, malevolent tune.
“The middle gesture [of ‘Oranges and Lemons’] turned itself into the first gesture you hear in the composed score, which is this Derry theme...
“And weirdly, too, in the Pennywise theme, there’s that rising [idea]. Somehow they’re all part of this weird rising-of-three-notes idea, which all stems back to ‘Oranges and Lemons’ — that strange song.”
But how can the sound of an adorable little girl singing a nursery rhyme be the cutest thing in the world ... and the creepiest?
“This pure sound coming out of a small human being is so touching and intimate,” says Fraser, “and it can be then manipulated into something amazingly joyous or manipulated, with visuals, into anything you want it to be.”
Fraser says she didn’t have any reluctance letting little Elodie contribute her voice to this terrifying scream-fest — “although I will never see the film,” she says with a laugh.
"It" is not her kind of movie.