This last November 1st I had myself a late Halloween “trick” and an early Christmas “treat.” The event was a trip to Los Angeles to see Danny Elfman, the cast members, and live orchestra perform the score from Tim Burton’s stop-motion animation classic The Nightmare Before Christmas at the Hollywood Bowl. It was a truly spectacular show from start to finish, with an encore that had Elfman bringing out Oingo Boingo’s guitarist and composer Steve Bartek for a rendition of one of their most well known tracks, “Dead Man’s Party,” the first time they played the song together since the band’s last show 20 years earlier.
Danny Elfman began his career as leader of the musical theater group The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo in the mid 1970s. The band shortened their name to Oingo Boingo in 1979 and released their first proper album in 1981, Only A Lad, one of those debut albums that perfectly define an artist. I first saw the group after their next two album releases Nothing to Fear (1982) and Good For Your Soul (1983) opening for The Police at one of Bill Graham’s last “Day on the Green” shows, which included The Fixx, Madness and The Thompson Twins! Oingo Boingo stole the show that day with their amazing live act, using all manner of drums and percussion, a full horn section, and the Elfman/Bartek one-two punch on guitar. Elfman’s stage moves and vocals were amazingly energetic and perfectly on pitch. The entire audience was caught up in the jubilation of the show. The band continued to record and tour into the mid 1990s, ending their run at the Universal Amphitheater in Los Angeles in 1995 for the last of what had been many thrilling shows staged annually on Halloween night. These concerts always seemed appropriate given the frequency of Elfman’s references to frightening, dramatic subjects, best exemplified by the 1985 album Dead Man’s Party.
After the band broke up, Elfman went on to focus on film scores; he has been nominated for four Academy Awards. Steve Bartek has been orchestrator for most of these scores. The first one was composed while Elfman was still in Oingo Boingo, for Tim Burton’s Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, and their collaborations continue to this day, most recently for the movie Big Eyes. Their projects often include strong themes of dark fantasy, including those found in Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, Batman, and in particular, one of their best realized works, 1993’s The Nightmare Before Christmas.
Nightmare is in many ways one of Tim Burton’s most personal creations and his deepest collaboration with Danny Elfman. Burton wrote the poem on which the story is based back in 1982, a couple of years before leaving the Disney studios. He and Disney finally inked a development deal in 1990, attracting Henry Selick to the director’s chair. It’s a very well regarded film, a sort of cult classic that has been rereleased many times, even in 3D.
The musical follows the story of lead character Jack Skellington, the “Pumpkin King” who has grown tired of being in charge of Halloween year after year. Stumbling on a portal that leads to other holiday worlds, he explores the land of Christmas, returning with a plot to take over the holiday and reinvigorate his life. Of course these plans go horribly wrong, as the residents of Halloween town don’t know the difference between a trick and a treat! But in the end, Santa saves the day. Jack is redeemed, even “getting the girl” at the coda, as he admits his love for his rag doll costar Sally. Besides composing all of the music and songs for the movie, all of Jack’s numbers are sung by Danny Elfman. The cast of this delightful holiday movie included Chris Sarandon as the speaking voice of Jack, comedienne Catherine O’Hara as Sally, William Hickey as Doctor Finkelstein, Ken Page as Oogie Boogie, Paul Reubens (Pee-wee) as Lock and many others. It’s a heartwarming holiday tale full of Burton-esque imagery, both beautiful and strange.
Most of those cast members were on hand at the Hollywood Bowl for the live performance of the soundtrack. After an introduction by the orchestra, the movie began, and the rest of the music and vocals were performed in sync with the film. Elfman’s voice has not diminished over the years, and despite some reportedly serious hearing loss, he was in good health, animated and pitch perfect. It was particularly fun to see Ken Page reprise his role as the Oogie Boogie man, and to have Catherine O’Hara perform her songs as Sally. Having most of the remaining cast and added singers line up as a sort of choral section helped make the backing vocals, and especially the sometimes annoying parts of the obnoxious Halloween brats Lock, Shock, and Barrel more fun and relatable. For the encores, Elfman came out to reprise “Oogie Boogie’s Song,” one of his stated favorites, and to join Catherine and others for a reprise of “Kidnap The Sandy Claws.” Finally, Steve Bartek joined him for that rendition of “Dead Man’s Party.” The orchestra was brilliant, the staging festive, and the night was everything any of us could have hoped for. Should it happen again next year, it would be a very good time for all fans to make the trip to Los Angeles!