Danny Elfman: 'I wanted the music in Nightmare to feel like it could have come from any time or place'
- Kelly Apter
- 9 November 2019
In the 25th anniversary year of The Nightmare Before Christmas, we speak to the composer about performing the much-loved score live
Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas re-invented animated musicals for a whole new audience. In its 25th anniversary year, we talk to composer Danny Elfman about the joys and challenges of performing the score live in the UK for the first time.
It's been 25 years since The Nightmare Before Christmas first hit cinema screens. It's still watched by adults and children alike – why do you think the film caught the public's imagination?
I simply have no idea. When it first came out, Disney dropped all its support under the belief there was no audience for it. The fact that they turned out to be wrong is one of the great surprises of my life. Back then, they did a screening for children and they didn't understand it at all – so Disney came away with the idea that kids hated it.
But at that point, when you said to a kid you're going to see a Disney musical, they expected something like The Little Mermaid. So it's a great pleasure for me years later, when I see videos of people's kids who are 5 or 6 years old singing songs from The Nightmare Before Christmas, which they love.
The score you wrote for the film has a Christmassy feel, but it's also ghoulish. Do you recall what you were aiming for?
We didn't know what we wanted musically, we just knew what we didn't want – which was to sound like a Disney musical. And we didn't want it to sound like a Broadway musical, either. I wanted the music in Nightmare to feel like it could have come from any time or place, so the influences were very mixed up.
Tim and I decided to start with the songs, and he would just tell me the story a little bit at a time and show me his wonderful drawings – and I would just hear the song in my head. All the songs for the film, which is a good chunk of the story, were written in 30 days. Three days per song, it was a wonderful quick thing.
You sing the songs of Jack Skellington in the film, who loves Halloween but is intrigued by Christmas. Are you a fan of Christmas / Halloween yourself?
The funny part for me, was working on something with Christmas in the title, when I grew up in America being such a Halloween kid. Christmas was a very sad time for me every year and as an adult, I would actually go through a bit of a depression around that time every year, which is not uncommon. Just this forced sense of joviality and buying. I only learned to get over that when I had my own kids and I began to say OK, it's really fun for them.
Halloween on the other hand, was a chance to run amok and be ourselves, it was my favourite night of the year. People would answer the door and pretend to be scared, and when you're a little kid that feels so great when you think you've scared them with your costume. The night was ours, it belonged to the children.
So I entered The Nightmare Before Christmas with a lot of mixed feelings – Halloween was this joyous time for me and Christmas was a sad time. So I had to kind of reverse myself to get into this mindset.
You sang in a band for years, and performed in the 'Elf and Burton' shows – but in recent times you've been performing The Nightmare Before Christmas songs live alongside the film – that sounds technically challenging. Is it?
Yes, it's really hard! It's very exact – I'm looking at a counter the whole time, counting out bars and beats. And my tempo is very specific – I can't just jump in at any tempo I like, which is what I'm used to, I really have to calm myself down. The first time I did it, I thought I would explode. I had all this adrenaline, and that makes me want to sing faster, but I had to slow it down.
And then, in between songs I have to just be patient and sit there, and I realised the first time that I'd never done that before. It's closer to being in a play where you have to patiently wait for your next entrance.
In the UK you'll be performing with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (in Glasgow) and the London Philharmonic Orchestra. The film's behind you – can you see it on a monitor somewhere?
Yes and no. When I'm sitting between songs, I have a monitor in front of me which has bars and beats on. When I'm singing, I can't sit and watch them, but if I'm holding a note I might glance to see what Jack is doing to make sure I'm on track.
But if I'm not behind the conductor, if I move forward and can no longer see him, then I'm on my own – as he always reminds me, 'I can't help you out there!'. But I love charging about, and it's just too difficult for me to stay still behind the podium, which is the sensible thing to do, so I frequently take a gamble and just charge out and hope that I can stay in sync properly.
You often perform alongside Catherine O'Hara, who voiced Sally in the film – what's it like singing with her?
I honestly don't think I could do it without Catherine. It's really difficult without her – I've only done it a few times and it makes a huge difference. That last number we sing together always gets to me. We recorded this 25 years ago and here we are singing it together.
And of course Ken Page is there, too. When I wrote the 'Oogie Boogie's Song' we did a lot of auditions, and when we heard Ken sing I said that's exactly the voice I was writing this for. And Ken's so good – he just comes out and locks into that character, he's such a seasoned pro.
The Nightmare Before Christmas Live has played before some big audiences in the US – were you surprised at its success?
We've played the Hollywood Bowl eight times. The first time they told me we were doing the Bowl, I said that's insane – this should be in a 500-seat theatre, 1500 seat max, not a 17,000 seat venue. And of course, me being Mr Pessimist, I was expecting to go out there and play to 250 people. So when the first night sold out and they added a second, I was pretty stunned. Because it was hard to know how strongly people felt about it.
The only reason it got its revival, was Tim and I went to Tokyo for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and there was Nightmare paraphernalia everywhere, there was even a nightclub that was Nightmare themed. And we thought this thing seems to have some life.
So coming back from there we began to speak to Disney and say you know, we really think you should re-open this possibility. And the second time around, Disney – much to their credit – got it. They said now we understand. Which they didn't when it first came out, because there was really nothing for them to relate it to. And then, a decade later they began to understand and really got behind it, which helped lead to its second life.
The Nightmare Before Christmas In Concert, SSE Hydro, Glasgow, Mon 2 Dec; The SSE Arena, Wembley, London, Wed 4 & Thu 5 Dec.