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Danny Elfman can relate to 'Nightmare Before Christmas' hero Jack Skellington

Danny Elfman can relate to 'Nightmare Before Christmas' hero Jack Skellington
Danny Elfman says when he was writing songs for "The Nightmare Before Christmas" hero Jack Skellington, he related to the character's life goals. He'll sing the role (as he did for the film) during screenings at the Hollywood Bowl. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

As Danny Elfman recalls, composing the music for Tim Burton's 1993 stop-motion animated movie "The Nightmare Before Christmas" was an unusual process that involved writing the songs first and the script later.

"Tim would show me sketches and drawings, and he would tell me the story, describe it in bits of phrases and words," Elfman said. "And I would say, 'Yeah, I got it.' Three days later, I had a song."

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The process repeated itself, with Burton describing scenes and Elfman going off to write music "until we had 10 songs."

Only after the music was nailed down did the screenplay take shape, followed by the animation.

For Elfman, the music came easily, because he could emotionally relate to the protagonist, Jack Skellington — the Pumpkin King who has grown tired of the Halloween realm and wants to take over Christmas.

At that point in his career, Elfman was near the end of his relationship with Oingo Boingo, the popular band for which he had served as frontman for nearly two decades.

"It was exactly the time of my life where I was saying to the band that this might be my last year," the composer said.

"They didn't believe me, but I felt like Jack from where I was in life … I was writing from my own feelings of being the king of my own world and from which I wanted out."

Oingo Boingo ended, but Elfman's affinity for Jack endures. He will return to "Nightmare" territory this weekend, when he sings the role live in two screenings of the movie at the Hollywood Bowl.

He will be joined by an orchestra, a chorus and a cast of singers who will perform the supporting roles live to the movie.

Elfman first attempted a live "Nightmare" orchestral performance earlier this year in Tokyo.

"They really love that picture in Japan," he said.

Most of the movie's approximately 75-minute running time features music, with one cue following another in the style of a stage musical. "It's almost continuous," said Elfman. In Japan, "it went off really well, much to everyone's surprise."

They didn't believe me, but I felt like Jack from where I was in life ... I was writing from my own feelings of being the king of my own world and from which I wanted out.


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John Mauceri will conduct the orchestral accompaniment. The former lead conductor of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra has worked with Elfman several times.

For Mauceri's final performance as the orchestra's music director in 2006, Elfman composed an overture that Mauceri himself conducted. Two years ago, they embarked on a series of Burton-themed concerts that have taken them around the world.

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"Nightmare" represents a new kind of challenge for the veteran conductor. "I've never wanted to conduct an entire movie — I still don't," Mauceri said in a separate interview. "I do it because it brings joy to audiences."

He said he has a monitor above his score so he can keep track of the movie while conducting. He also wears an earpiece that gives him various audio cues.

"The movie doesn't care where you are — it's the soloist," said Mauceri. "If you're slightly behind, you have to conduct faster to where you belong, and once you get there, you're too fast. So it takes huge technique to do it. The only gratification is the audience's response."

The Bowl concerts will feature an overture and intermission number. There will be pauses at the end of some of the songs to allow the audience to applaud.

"I'm happy to have a moment to wipe my brow," said the conductor.

Elfman said: "It's a challenge that no one in the audience is aware of — it requires quite a technical bit of conducting virtuosity on John's part."

The four-time Oscar-nominated Elfman is currently working on the sequel to Burton's "Alice in Wonderland" and will premiere a new violin concerto in Prague next year.

"It's hard to talk about it," he said of the concerto. "It's a commission. With any of those of nonfilm works, the beginning is so intimidating to me."

Elfman said that working in movies has made him accustomed to working on deadlines: "I like to say that if it weren't for deadlines, I'd still be working on 'Pee-wee's Big Adventure.'"

The Bowl concerts will feature a Burton-themed costume contest for the audience. But you won't see Elfman dressing up in character.

"No, I won't dress as Jack," the composer said. "I am as thin as I'm going to get, but I'm nowhere as thin as Jack Skellington."

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