The Nightmare Comes Alive: Danny Elfman’s Music from the films of Tim Burton

In a string of Halloween concerts, composer Danny Elfman and director Tim Burton celebrate 28 years of wonderfully macabre film music magic

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by Linda A. Rapka

“‘Twas a long time ago,
Longer now than it seems
in a place that perhaps
you’ve seen in your dreams…”

These lyrics as sung by gangly, ghoulish Jack Skellington in the opening scene of Tim Burton’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas” fittingly describe the nearly three-decade long collaboration between the director and composer Danny Elfman.

Celebrating 28 years of their wonderfully macabre partnership, a series of film music concerts debuted at London’s Royal Albert Hall before landing at the Nokia Theatre in downtown Los Angeles the nights leading up to Halloween.

“Danny Elfman has been approached many times over the years to create a concert of his scores to be performed live,” said Richard Kraft, the film composer agent who represents Elfman and who co-produced the concerts. “He was never very happy with how his music had been presented in live performance in the past, so finally decided to devote the time and energy to work on creating it himself. That involved re-conceiving almost everything from scratch with an ear and eye toward putting on something special that worked as a stage show.”

Initially intended as a one-off concert Halloween night, two additional dates were added after the first show sold out within hours. Fans eagerly snatched up tickets to what would mark Elfman’s first live vocal performance in the U.S. since his New Wave group Oingo Boingo split in 1995.

Led by celebrated Maestro John Mauceri, the live 87-piece Hollywood Symphony Orchestra included several of the same musicians who performed on Elman’s first Burton score, “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure,” in 1985.

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Bruce Dukov, who has served as concertmaster on Elfman’s last 41 scores including seven directed by Burton, entered into this project with excitement—and a touch of trepidation.

“I started thinking to myself, what am I getting into here? How are we going to do this?” he said. “The energy required of you to play something like that, especially live, is tremendous.”

Compounded with the complexity of the music itself was the minimal rehearsal time. Prior to the first concert, the orchestra had a single string rehearsal, one rehearsal with full orchestra and choir, and the dress rehearsal.

“Having a 50-voice choir and huge orchestra with some specialty instruments was a really ambitious undertaking,” said Alan Kaplan, trombonist who has played on between 15 and 20 Elfman/Burton films harking back to “Beetlejuice.”

“It’s a testament to just how great John Mauceri is that we could rehearse all of the material in just two days and play it without the use of clicks or any headphones at all! When that enormous crowd at Nokia reacted it was pretty hard to hear anything else.”

Reaction from the audience (which comprised many a Pee-wee and Beetlejuice in full costume) was almost as remarkable as the concert itself.

“What really struck me during the concerts was looking at the audience and seeing how moved people were,” said Ed Meares, principal bassist who has been with the Elfman/Burton team since “Pee-wee.” “I’d look out and see them weeping, joyous. And I realized, for many people, this is the soundtrack of their lives, this collaboration. They grew up with ‘Pee-wee’ and ‘Batman’ and ‘Edward Scissorhands’ and Jack Skellington. The music that Danny came up with for Burton’s films is hard-wired into their emotions. And when Danny came on stage to sing the songs from ‘Nightmare Before Christmas,’ backed by a huge orchestra and chorus playing the original film music, all that pent-up emotion was released. They went nuts.”

“I was blown away,” said Kraft. “The AFM Local 47 musicians were awesome. They nailed it. Not once was the musicianship an issue, giving us time to focus on the other aspects of the production.”

The working relationship between Elfman and Burton is one of the longest and most successful in the history of film. Their first collaboration came in 1985 while Elfman was still fronting Oingo Boingo. Burton and Paul Reubens, the performer who created and portrayed Pee-wee Herman, invited Elfman to write the score for their first feature film. Elfman, apprehensive at first because of his lack of formal training, decided to dive in with both feet. His score for “Pee-wee,” a mashup of Nino Rota (who wrote for Federico Fellini) and Bernard Herrmann, who composed for the stop-motion animated films of Ray Harryhausen, struck a balance between excitement, suspense and whimsy.

Their next collaborations—”Beetlejuice,” “Batman,” “Edward Scissorhands”—allowed Burton to insert more of  his own surreal and darkly cartoonish aesthetic, and Elfman delved deeper into his own macabre sensibilities, further cementing the pair’s working relationship. Elfman has scored all but two of Burton’s major studio releases, which include “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” ”Sleepy Hollow,” “Big Fish,” ”Alice in Wonderland,” “Planet of the Apes” and “Frankenweenie.”

Steve Bartek, Elfman’s lead orchestrator, says the successful and lasting relationship between the composer and Burton is explained by the duo’s shared sensibilities. “They respect each other’s vision and work, and share many aesthetics and tastes,” he said.

“Everybody has a slight morbid fascination with death and the macabre,” said Dukov. “Danny and Tim take it another step beyond that and go into a really bizarre world of macabre. Danny’s looking outside of the box all the time. Burton’s also like that. It was just a perfect match between the two of them. They feed off each other.”

The overwhelming success of these and similarly themed concerts such as John Williams night at the Hollywood Bowl and the repertoire of the film-music-centric Golden State Pops Orchestra shows there exists a huge appetite for experiencing film music in a live setting.

“The great music written for motion pictures, television and video games is becoming the new symphonic repertoire,” Kraft said. “It is well-known, thematic, accessible music covering a wide range of genres, emotions and colors. Concerts like these are a wonderful opportunity to remind people that our local musicians are extraordinary. I feel it is extremely important to create opportunities to recapture and rebrand Los Angeles as the media music capital of the world.”

“I think it is absolutely fantastic to perform these popular movie scores on stage,” Kaplan said. “Seeing the people react tells us that people do appreciate movie music and the people who create it.”

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“The best music is made here in Los Angeles!” #ListenLA, a project of Local 47 aimed at promoting and growing scoring work in Los Angeles, joined in the fun with a display booth at the Danny Elfman/Tim Burton concert series. Manned by project co-coordinator Linda Rapka, the display served to applaud our musicians performing at the concerts and also to promote our talented Los Angeles film scoring community.

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