Danny Elfman: "Jack Skellington Is a Fun Guy To Be" (Q&A)

The celebrated composer dicusses returning to Halloween Town for a live performance of 'The Nightmare Before Christmas’ at the Hollywood Bowl on Oct. 31.

It’s been over two decades since composer Danny Elfman last served up one of the raucous annual Halloween concerts with Oingo Boingo, the eclectic rock band that Elfman fronted for years before he turned his talents to movie music. Elfman has no plans to reunite the band, but fans can still see him in concert in a performance of the entire score and songs to the Tim Burton-produced, Henry Selick-directed 1994 stop motion fantasy The Nightmare Before Christmas —  which will be synchronized to the film — at the Hollywood Bowl on Oct. 31. The composer says he was skeptical at first, but was relieved when tickets for the Halloween performance sold out the day they were put on sale. A second show was quickly added for the following night. Elfman, who will sing in character as “Pumpkin King” Jack Skellington, talked to The Hollywood Reporter about why he decided to return to Halloween Town 22 years later.

You’ve been performing some of the songs from Nightmare in the series of Tim Burton/Danny Elfman concerts you’ve toured with over the past couple of years, but how did The Nightmare Before Christmas at the Bowl come into being?

As with everything else, it was random and not really thought out. I was sitting with the promoter of the Burton/Elfman concert a year ago in Tokyo having dinner. I was thinking "man, that was fun playing in Tokyo." I really loved it, and I knew we couldn’t take the Elfman/Burton show back there every year so I thought I had to come up with something else. So without really thinking about it I just blurted out, "How about Nightmare Before Christmas Live?" I thought I could do it with a small crew of live singers and cover all the voices like we did the original. About six months later I got a call from [Elfman’s agent] Richard Kraft saying, “We got it — Tokyo, we got it!” I said, "Got what?" He replied, “The Nightmare show.” I said, “What did I say?” He said, “You said you could do it with you and four singers.” It seemed like a fun idea, but then logistically working out how we actually do this, it was a lot more complicated than I was imagining.

What did you learn from the first performance in Tokyo?

[Conductor — and former Hollywood Bowl principal conductor and director] John Mauceri reminded me, there are no breaks in the music — there might be 35 cues but there’s maybe only three breaks.  He said, “There’s no places to turn pages and bring up a new cue on the stand. This is really impossible — if we blow a song we’re screwed.” But we did two shows there and he found that it was in fact doable, but very tricky. John pointed out something which I didn’t know: he said, “I think this is the first time anyone’s done this. Tried to do a live, 10-song musical with orchestra in between, all in synch to film with no breaks.”

How is this different for you as a performer from the Elfman/Burton concert?

It’s very disciplined — when I’m doing Elfman/Burton and I sing Jack’s songs, I only sing one in sync with the picture: “What’s This?” The rest, the orchestra follows me. I could start any tempo I want and John will follow and I don’t have to think about it. Here I’m really paying attention and counting my bars — it’s like I can’t miss a beat. It takes a lot of concentration, but having done it twice, I’m feeling much more confident. The opening night in Tokyo, we really didn’t know if we were going to pull it off and it seemed like it might just have been a crazy idea I came up with over too much sake. But I enjoyed the fact that I was doing Jack Skellington and not Oingo Boingo — I wasn’t bringing back something I used to do or having a reunion and doing songs I’d already grown tired of many years ago.

Does this satisfy your itch as a live performer or could you see yourself doing other things?

I actually don’t have any itch to be a live performer; that’s the funny thing. I remember for a decade just enjoying the fact that it’s Halloween and I can go trick-or-treating with my kids. There wasn’t the anxiety of oh, it’s the Halloween show and I have to relearn 23 songs and get my voice back in shape. I’m enjoying bringing Jack Skellington to people. I’m presenting this one specific character that I created for one specific project. Jack is a fun guy to be and I think I’m doing few enough of the shows that it’s working out well — I’m not going on tour for six weeks doing Jack. My one concern about going to the Bowl was the number of seats — I thought there was no way we were going to sell out the Bowl. So the fact that it sold out the first day they put tickets up for sale was ridiculous. I kept saying, "There’s something fishy here." I was kind of suspicious. I said, "This has got to be a computer mistake — we sold 700 tickets and not 17,000 and this is going to go down as a huge fiasco." But they kept reassuring me and we had to add another show. It’s the interactivity at the Bowl that makes it unique, and I guess that’s why it did so well.

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