Saying Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas has become a modern holiday classic, isn’t saying much. It is simply has. Originally conceived from a 1983 Burton poem, the film didn’t find its way into theaters until a decade later. The expanded story and film was directed/animated by Henry Selick with original lyrics and music by Danny Elfman. I remember seeing the film no less than five times in the theater during its initial release, so yes, I liked it quite a lot–and still do. At the time, Nightmare received fairly widespread critical acclaim–Roger Ebert called it “a feast for the eyes and the imagination“–if not scoring pure box office gold financially. That was over twenty years ago. The Disney Company, to their credit, have since embraced the affectionate creepiness and timeless themes of the tale and popularized Nightmare beyond all expectations: reissues, re-releases, soundtracks, merchandizing, etc.
Underlying the ongoing success of the film is, and has always been, the songs and voice of Danny Elfman. And, for the first time ever in the U.S., he (along with the original cast) performed Nightmare as a live concert (the entire film) at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, California–on Halloween night, no less. In front of a sold out crowd, Elfman and company weaved a little holiday magic of their own.
Over the last few years, Danny Elfman has made an annual Halloween trek to Southern California for concerts featuring his Burton film scores, with accomplished conductor John Mauceri up front. While the October concerts were apropos for the Nightmare material, they were also reminiscent of the Halloween stints Elfman’s band, Oingo Boingo, made in Irvine, California up until the group’s demise in 1995. I attended these recent symphony performances, as I’m sure many others of my age did, with not a small amount of nostalgia for those Halloween parties gone by. Mauceri would run through a catalog of melodies from Burton’s movies, then, towards the end of the night, Elfman would appear and sing a few numbers from The Nightmare Before Christmas. These songs were always the show-stoppers, the ovation-getters. Watching the Burton music concerts, I’d catch myself wondering out loud, “Wouldn’t it be great if they’d put together a show reprising all of Nightmare?” Now, a day later, I’m still aglow with what I saw and heard Saturday night.
At the Bowl Saturday, it was Nightmare from beginning to end, and then some. The original film was projected overhead as returning conductor, Mauceri, led a full symphony through the score without a hitch. Watching the movie on the multiple screens, it was easy to forget the music was live–a credit to how skilled and synchronized the musicians were. Additionally, the live orchestra gave the score a life it could never have in a studio recording or during a Blu-Ray viewing. Elf man’s compositions are playful, and this is highlighted by his frequent incorporation of the xylophone (think The Simpsons or Edward Scissorhands). It’s active, and it takes on a vividness and color on stage. His scores are percussive in nature, and because of that, they have a force that can only be experienced in-person. This music, as successful as it is as a film score, is concert music. Live music.
Although Elfman himself is a dynamic and talented performer, the best moments of the evening came from the several secondary performances and characters. First among these was Ken Page, who reprised his role as Oogie Boogie and gave a more than perfect rendition of the villain’s theme song–his voice, every bit as powerful as it was in 1993, and full of that evil charisma. Catherine O’hara, too, gave the crowd a near perfect performance of Sally’s Song, with all its sweet vulnerability and charm. If that wasn’t enough, Paul Ruebens, the original voice of Lock, showed up to sing alongside Elfman and O’hara in a rousing version of “Kidnap the Sandy Claws.” Hearing all the original voices, those that had me returning to the theater again and again twenty-two years ago, was indeed Christmas on Halloween.
The Halloween show (the one I attended) sold out in minutes. It sold out so fast they added an additional show on Sunday, Nov. 1st. That show, too, played to near capacity at the Hollywood Bowl–almost 20,000 seats. The success of these show speaks to the ongoing–and growing–love of The Nightmare Before Christmas. Even with the aging of many performers associated with the film, not a note was missed, nor a memory tainted.
It may be a childlike selfishness making me say this, but I want more of these concerts. I want this every Halloween. Given the size and extent of the production, this is unlikely…but it doesn’t stop me from hoping. But make no mistake, it is not mere nostalgia. The songs and music of Nightmare are enduring and should be shared with generations to come. And besides that, Elfman, O’hara, Page, and all the others are giant talents. I want to see them again because they’re good, damn good.
For us old folks, Danny brought Steve Bartek out on stage and played Deadman’s Party at the end of the night. Seriously, who could ask for more?
(Yes, I just said that)