Last Wednesday, I took the boys to see the Nightmare before Christmas – Live to Film. It was the projected film, with live music and vocals by the original cast voices. That meant Danny Elfman, in person, belting out the part of Jack Skellington, in front of a full two hundred piece orchestra and backing vocal chorus, below the projected film. It was amazing.
Featuring famous Canadian Catherine O’Hara!
Nightmare, along with Edward Scissorhands and Beetlejuice, are part of the goth canon for my generation. Burton’s early work is what fits with the whimsical, dark faeryland aesthetic of second generation goth, both due to the constant reference of death in imagery, and the elongated lines, dark curlicues, and stark contrast stripes. That is the the Tim Burton aesthetic, and Nightmare, with its horror theme, Halloween imagery and Danny Elfman soundtrack, is a pinnacle of goth entertainment.
It’s also worth noting here that, while Oingo Boingo are considered goth adjacent, I do not believe they are considered goth canon. Except for “Dead Man’s Party“, and that I heard more as the Last Dance cover at Bar Sinister. Paul, however, enjoys Oingo Boingo quite a bit, and, as he remarked to me at the end of the movie, this was the closest we would get to an Oingo Boingo concert for a long time. The fact that it wasn’t an Oingo Boingo concert though did not stop us from occasionally quiet-yelling “PLAY DEAD MAN’S PARTY” or “ONLY A LAD!”
Ben is not yet a fan of Oingo Boingo (Paul is working on it), but he loves Nightmare and even asks to watch it in off season (That’s my baby.). He likes the movie so much that he even took a second run at watching its cousin film, the recent adaptation of Gaimans Coraline. (Still too scary.) This event appealed so much to our family that I invested in the mid-range seats at the Barclays Center so we could actually see the performers.
We walked in to find genius product placement: Hot Topic ads featuring Jack Skellington. I dislike the appropriation of Jack Skellington as this sort of bad boy symbol in general, and I squarely blame Hot Topic. Still. Genius product placement. Then again, Nightmare does inspire some things that sound like a Hot Topic imploded into a quasar of overkill.
Marilyn Manson is also NOT GOTH.
I read retroactively that “Barclay’s Center will become Halloweentown!” and that costumes were encouraged, but I didn’t see anything themed or otherwise. I did see a handful of outfits and Jack Skellington T-shirts, but no effort on the part of the venue was visible as we walked halfway around it to get to our seats.
We sat down just in time for the warm up: Disney’s Silly Skeletons, with a live score performed by the orchestra. I forget how deeply disturbing some of these early cartoons are. Multiple points in this were nightmare fuel:
I SERIOUSLY CAN’T EVEN IMAGINE WHAT THIS IS.
The next piece was a medley of the score, with what I assume were Tim Burton’s original pencil crayon drawings. Ben was very impressed at the drawings and asked if Tim Burton was also an artist. We had just finished explaining that yes, he was, but he was best known for directing movies, like the original 1987 Batman and Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure but by then the movie had started.
Overture with drawings, which someone kindly posted on YouTube
Right away for the opening number, five cast members filed onto stage, whom we assume were all original score, launching right into “This is Halloween”. It wasn’t until Jack’s first song that Danny Elfman came out, singing “Jack’s Lament” with an incredible intensity. I haven’t seen Elfman sing live before, so therefore I was amazed by his depth of sound. Also, like everyone else on stage, he was clearly having a freaking blast. Despite singing a lament despairing of the sameness of every day in Halloween Town, Danny Elfman was still downright joyful.
That would prove to be the theme for the evening. I have rarely seen a performer enjoy themselves as much as this cast was. Ken Page, singing the Oogie Boogie song, was delighted to be there, and was having so much fun with his performance that it took all the fear out of that most nightmarish of characters. Catherine O’Hara came out and sang “Sally’s Song”, perfectly note for note as she did a quarter century ago, emoting Sally’s tragic longing while still having a good time being on stage. There is something to being at a show where the performers have that contagious joy at being there.
I was just so impressed with this production. I can’t even begin to imagine the work to take the score and sound layers apart and put them back together to sync up to the orchestra and singers. To do so, the original creators of the idea must have had to determine where the live music and voices would cut in, and give direction to sound engineers to specifically take track layers out at those moments. It must have been incredibly detailed work that would require stress-testing with performers.
For that matter, I can’t imagine being in an orchestra performing an entire score all at once. That’s insane, two hours of performing a score straight through without more than the intermission break, plus the opening cartoon and overture. How would you have the entire score on your stand and manage to turn the pages and keep up and play flawlessly for that long? I am blown away with the caliber of musicians that performed this soundtrack, beginning to end.
LIVE FULL ORCHESTRA.
For all these reasons – for the concept of seeing a live-to-film movie perfectly edited, for the joy of the performers singing on stage, for the quality of the musicians who performed, I was so glad we were able to go. It’s our way of celebrating the holiday season: by watching a movie where Halloween nightmares try to reproduce Christmas and end up terrifying everyone. Every family has its traditions. This was a particularly special way for us to celebrate ours.