Nadia and I attended the World Premiere of Danny Elfman’s Music from the Films of Tim Burton at London’s Royal Albert Hall last Monday, October 7th. The love we share for music and films started long before we ever met and we each have a history with many of the films they did together. But I would be remiss if I didn’t say that Nadia is the bigger fan. It has always been a dream of hers to hear Danny Elfman’s music and last Monday morning when she looked at me with a shimmer in her eye, how could I say no. When the lights when down and the music began, I was overcome with emotion as I watched one of Nadia’s dreams come true. It was one of those rare moments that I will forever cherish. Since I could not do justice to this magical night, I have asked Nadia to write a post to honor what we saw. So sit back, relax, and enjoy this wonderful account! *warning – it’s a long post! 🙂
A poem by Nadia, unapologetically based off the great work of Clement Clarke Moore:
‘Twas the night of “Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas”,
when all through Royal Albert Hall;
Not a creature was stirring, as they were all engrossed and enthralled;
The instruments and singers were warmed up with care,
In hopes that Mr. Elfman soon would be there;
The audience was nestled all snug in their seats,
While visions of Jack Skellington danced with their feet;
Alright that is enough, on to more important matters: Details. Monday morning we had only just become aware of the Magical Night that was Mr. Elfman and Burton via a fantastic London site called the Londonist. If/when you come to visit, we will undoubtedly utilize it for the treasures and gems of all things London. But I digress… Once apprised of this world premier concert, I knew we couldn’t miss it. Did I leave class an hour early? Yes. Did I have to fake an emergency call to the USA for family business? Yes, but all for good reasons you see. The music of Danny Elfman, the films of Tim Burton, the surprised guest appearance and singing of Helene Bonham Carter??? These are good reasons.
The beginning. We arrived just in time to secure our £10 standing room only tickets. You read that right; SRO at a classical music concert hall. Cut throat it was. But we prevailed and procured a few feet of space along with three other gawkers on stage right, very high up overlooking a rail. It was quite perfect really. So high up, we saw the entire stage front to back, the choir, the digital screen, hall lights dancing across walls, even the moon. It was magical. This was easily one of my “Top 10 Bucket List” items of my life, not just London. A comparable experience being when we watched John Williams conduct his Harry Potter, Star Wars and ET scores with the Boston Pops. I thought I knew what to expect, I thought I knew how I would feel, but really nothing prepared me for the emotional journey of that night.
Movie music buffs may disagree, but I’ve always felt the music of John Williams, and the likes, to be a bit safe for me. Erring on the side of caution, his music tends to be in more traditional key and time signatures, major melodic phrases, long thematic arcs etc. And Elfman, to me anways, always seemed to be a bit off kilter. Strong uses of 3/4 time (aka the waltz) or 5/8, 6/8, 12/8 and then back to a 3/4, loads of diminished and augmented surprises here and there, and a strong use of subdivision, which lends so beautifully to driving movie music. Williams writes music; Elfman writes himself as music. That’s the best way I can describe it.
To the night. The opening scenes of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, spliced with memorable scenes of other Burton films, pierced the digital screen. Naturally a great musical opener, as the opening titles consisted of choral and orchestra in a mixed meter fashion gradually building through a crescendo of on and off beat again sixteenth note measures for what seemed like minutes. The visual was also a good pick as Charlie was probably one of Burton’s few films that featured a rich plethora of color, digitization and a more mainstream crispness than his other works (i.e. Sleepy Hollow). I couldn’t tell you how long or in what variations Charlie melodies were played as I was in shock to be hearing and seeing and hearing again a score I’ve spent countless hours listening to, believing in, and being comforted by. Surreal in the truest sense.
Next up, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. Often forgotten as a Burton/Elfman collaboration, but truly one of the best. It really flexed the goodness of all things Elfman including his traditional “Elfman-ess” ie Large Marge Melody, but also his musical playfulness, which can be heard in any scene featuring Pee-Wee’s red bicycle. Visually, we enjoyed the breakfast scene towards the beginning of the movie, which as a child of the 80’s, I can assure you was everyone’s favorite sequence. A deep dive into Burton’s creative imagination indeed. Pee-Wee wrapped and went straight into Beetlejuice. Those who know the film, starring a young, very young, Baldwin and the great Geena Davis, can attest to its darkness. Fast, off beat heavy, insane violin runs and a driving percussion section sell the movie. Although, I must be fair in that I may or may not have loved this movie regardless due to the acting between before mentioned actors and Winona Ryder and Michael Keaton. But good for me, I’ll never have to find out! This was the first film that Burton provided his own concept art. For example, side by sides of Beetlejuice as a snake/stair rail in concept art and finished production were equally terrifying and unnerving. It was a testament to Burton’s imagination and determination to get his movies made just as he had envisioned them.
Going with the dark theme, we happened upon Sleepy Hollow. To me, this is where Elfman changed his game a little bit. This could have easily been a Hans Zimmer or James Newton Howard score (see Dark Knight). Was it lacking anything in particular? I suppose not, but I’ve always felt it to be a good piece of writing, less so a great expression of an artist. Speaking of which, insert Mars Attacks! here. Definitely not a crowd favorite, but after coming off some heavy stuff it was a great mental break. We then turned into the open waters of Big Fish. A lovely score, if just a bit sad, but moving nonetheless. A great transition piece to the first score that solicited cheers, whooping, and clapping from the audience; Batman and Batman Returns.
Easily one of Elfman’s greatest scores, as well as Burton’s greatest films, it was nothing less than stellar. The concept art was amazing and with the addition of Royal Albert Hall’s massive 6-story organ, second largest in the UK, the music was phenomenal. Pedal tones resonating in the bones… that’s all I can say. We then came to intermission. I looked around me and saw bright eyed, star struck, idyllically/madly grinning grown adults and recognized something special was happening here. It was a beautiful moment, and not one I shall soon forget.
We return to the second half with a slew of great songs from Planet of the Apes, Corpse Bride, Dark Shadows, Frankenweenie, and finally the trifecta of Nightmare Before Christmas, Edward Scissorhands, and Alice in Wonderland. Now, to be fair, do I think Alice is top three material? No, but it was an appropriate ending in the context of the concert and featured a lovely boy singer (forgive my lack of technical term here, drawing a blank) which completely embodied the creepiness of the “Alice” theme. After Frankenweenie a stagehand appeared bringing out an additional mic and music stand. Cheers went up. We knew what was going to happen. Out, from stage right, bounced an enthusiastic Danny Elfman. Dressed in a funky suite with red tinted glasses, he nervously shook hands with the conductor and first violinist (a standard in orchestra settings).
He took the mic and belted out all songs in Nightmare featuring Jack Skellington. The original soundtrack is actually him signing, something he hadn’t done live on stage in some many years. He was nervous, and commented in between songs that he had forgotten how theatrical Jack’s singing was, with extreme tests of his range and tone limits. As if Elfman singing Jack wasn’t enough, Sally’s Song (an iconic one, some argue the most of the whole film) looked like it would be passed over. Catherine O’Hara played the originally Sally, also a good friend of Burtons (she played Lydia’s mother in BJuice) was nowhere to be seen. Then, as if by collective audience mental will, the infamous stagehand returns with another mic and stand! No we all say, this can’t be true! Catherine here? Now!? She is going to sing! But alas, no, something even more surreal happens. Out comes Helene Bonham Carter with a midnight blue and black dress, some version of dreads/not-combed hair, and what seemed to be extremely pale, almost white face make up. A true embodiment of Burton, which considering she shares children with the guy isn’t too hard to imagine. She claims she’s never sang with an orchestra live before and looks of nerves only rivaling that of Elfman himself, also long time friend of Helena. While her singing was not O’Hara, the audience accepted, loved, and relished every minute. She nearly ran, literally ran, off stage not a second more after the song concluded.
We then went straight into Edward Scissorhands, which is just too emotional for me to write. The music, the film, the climax and consummation of love and friendship displayed over the film through music? Just wow. We concluded with Alice in Wonderland, which was ironic due to scenes of Helena as the Red Queen being so commanding, stately even. Like I said, not my favorite Elfman/Burton collaboration but a fitting end…. Or was it? Of course there was the theatrics of the stage, orchestra stand/sit, conductor go away/come back, Elfman come out again/goes back stage (this happened like three times) but FINALLY, we heard the song we had all been waiting for… Danny Elfman singing as villain Oogie Boogie from Nightmare. He traded in a traditional mic for a retro 1950’s Jazz style type and got down to business in the bluest of musical senses. The song, written as a duet with Santa Clause (or Sandy Claws for cultural accurateness) was supplemented by none other than the conductor himself, donned in a red Santa hat. It was a crowd pleaser and perfect cap to the night!
The last production of curtseys and recognitions took place and wrapped with Carter and Burton joining Elfman on stage in a mass of such great cult following proportions, audience members could not contain their excitement. People pushed toward the stage taking pictures, waving, holding up small children to get better views. It was beyond words, which is why I leave you with a picture. The magic of the night was truly a once in a lifetime experience.
Thank you for indulging my selfishness and greed of attempting to relive this journey through writing. It is something I hope to never repeat and never forget, as it could never be done in this time, in this way, with these strangers ever again.
PS – It should also be noted the program booklet of the night was equally moving with excerpts from long time Burton/Carter/Elfman friend, Johnny Depp. He ended with, “So, a match made in the stars, you might say. Tim and Danny, it was simply meant to be”. (A nod to the love story of Jack and Sally from Nightmare before Christmas)
PSS – Feel free to read this review of the night!
PSSS – Here are a few photos that we took from that night