There’s a moment in The Nightmare Before Christmas that moves me emotionally, sometimes even provokes tears. It’s right at the beginning, during the climax of the stop-motion musical’s opening number, “This Is Halloween,” and follows a hushed moment when Corpse Kid and Mummy Boy peek into a glowing green fountain. “In this town we call home,” they sing, low strings and woodwinds swelling between their harmonies, “everyone hail to the pumpkin song.”
Here, protagonist Jack Skellington rises from the fountain, bony hands woven over his heart, a satisfied smile resting on his skull. His bat-shaped tie bounces back into place and his pin-striped suit drips dry as the rest of Halloween Town sings triumphantly around him, waving their arms and celebrating another successful holiday. Suddenly, this twisted, shadowy setting with its eerie monsters, doesn’t seem scary at all.
My sons howl next to me on the couch, “There’s Skeleton Jack!” while I bite back my tears.
This haunts me, of course—the way the music in this scene, full of “la-la-las” and cymbal crashes and celebratory tambourines, affects me so much. Though music has always moved me, I’ve never found musicals appealing—at all, ever. There’s something so melodramatic about them, often at the expense of nuance and finesse. To me, musicals tell too much, even as they show, and sometimes reveal their stories through cheesy, forced rhymes.
Still, I can’t deny my love for The Nightmare Before Christmas. Certainly, the dark imagery is appealing to me, in part, as is the stop-motion approach. But I know in my heart the reason I love Jack Skellington is the same reason why I hate every other musical: The music. My appreciation, then, begs this question: What is it about this musical that is appealing to me, a person who hates musicals?
I have always suspected that some of the answer lies in my age. I saw the film in the theater when I was in fourth grade, old enough to understand the story but still young enough to get lost in Tim Burton’s askew nightscape. I remember eating at Burger King after the matinee—chomping on a plain hamburger, spinning in my plastic seat—and humming “This Is Halloween,” or maybe “Kidnap The Sandy Claws.” These songs stayed with me for weeks, evoked the shadows of Halloween Town and the terrifying friendliness of its citizens.
I didn’t know then that the universe had seemingly conspired to make this film so meaningful for me.
See, in addition to Ghostbusters and The Goonies, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Burton’s first full-length film, was among those that my mom would put on to shut my brother and I up when we were pre-schoolers. For that reason, it remains one of my favorite films, despite its eccentric protagonist and the sort of surrealism only recognizable in hindsight. Its music is memorable as well; many people can sing “Breakfast Machine,” playing while Pee-Wee gets ready for his day (er, sticks tape to his face) and his kitchen makes him a Rube Goldberg breakfast.
The man who composed Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Danny Elfman, also wrote the music for The Nightmare Before Christmas, along with many other films before and after (and many of Burton’s, including Beetlejuice’s stabbing strings, the rich horns on Batman’s score, and Edward Scissorhands, with its delicate darkness). The difference between these other scores and The Nightmare Before Christmas is that Elfman performed on the latter; he actually sang Jack Skellington’s vocal parts.
It was startling, then, some 20 years after the release of The Nightmare Before Christmas, when I recognized Jack Skellington’s voice singing in my dad’s car.
We were stuck in Chicago’s famous pre-dawn traffic on the way to O’Hare International Airport, and the voice was singing about something with which Skellington might concern himself: “I was struck by lighting walkin’ down the street / I was hit by something last night in my sleep / It’s a dead man’s party, who could ask for more? / Everybody’s comin’, leave your body at the door.” Instead of strings slipping and swelling beneath these lyrics, instead of timpani rolls and sweeping harps, guitars winced and shrugged, squirmed beside a bass like a centipede and a drum set (part electric, part acoustic)—it was a rock song. Otherwise, it was all there: The incessant polyrhythms, chirping like insects at dusk; the reckless time signature, seemingly adding beats as needed; the high/low vocal octaves that gave the chorus an operatic quality. Of course, I recognized the song. It was “Dead Man’s Party” by Oingo Boingo, the band led by Elfman in the 1980s. In the lightless backseat of my dad’s SUV, I listened carefully to the song, only sensing its connection to the Pumpkin King, but finding myself mesmerized nonetheless.
Thus began my obsession with Oingo Boingo.
As I dove into their discography, I found a lot of my childhood—songs that seemed intrinsic to my existence. “Home Again” and “Where Do All My Friends Go?,” the first two tracks from 1987’s Boi-Ngo, felt instantly familiar, as did the smirking, zombie-handed Boy Scout stomping through the dusk on the cover of 1981’s Only A Lad, the band’s first full-length. Once the nostalgia wore off, though, I found myself genuinely enjoying each Oingo Boingo album. The songs hopped from style to style—one song soulful and swaying, the back-up band on a Motown track; another a plowing, swerving punk rock song; yet another a mischievous ska song, something that’d suit the third wave; and still another whose buzzing synths and janking chords epitomized ‘80s coliseum pop. Most of these songs contained some combination thereof, all of them antsy, ADD and unmedicated, and all of them brilliant.
But it’s weird being an Oingo Boingo fan. They embody the dorkiness of 1980s new wave, with all the phony drums and cheesy keyboards. And when you dive deeper, you find the songs more challenging melodically and lyrically than you’d expect from a band who played Rodney Dangerfield’s party in Back To School—songs like “Wild Sex (In The Working Class)” or “Violent Love” or “No Spill Blood,” and especially “Little Girls,” sung from the satirical voice of a pedophile. An album like 1982’s Nothing To Fear might start with a song like “Grey Matter,” which finds Elfman wailing on a marimba as he preaches the necessity of independent thought, and end with “Reptiles And Samurai,” whose lyrics literally clarify the difference between the two. It’s probably no wonder that Burton tapped Elfman to write the music for Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, considering his ability to summon the absurd within the dramatic, the playful within the serious.
When the connection between Elfman, frontman of Oingo Boingo, and Elfman, the composer, became clearer to me, it was easy to hear the latter in the former, especially on songs like “Nasty Habits” and “Little Guns,” whose bottom layers (which bubble like something wicked in a cauldron) evoke the Pee-Wee soundtrack, or “Islands,” which contain same menacing layers that soar throughout Batman.
But on one specific Oingo Boingo song, The Nightmare Before Christmas seems suddenly so apparent. On “No One Lives Forever,” from 1985’s Dead Man’s Party, the bass and piano pound each downbeat and the guitars grunt and whinny like wild animals. The track is filled with disembodied voices and leads like gnarled tree limbs, aggressive gang vocals and waxy horns. On each verse, Elfman’s voice reverberates, sinister and nimble, as it recounts life’s impermanence. But during the chorus, layers of harmonies suddenly evoke the friendly ghouls of Halloween Town, chanting together in rhythm: “Let’s have a party, there’s a full moon in the sky / It’s the hour of the wolf and I don’t want to die / I’m so happy dancing while the Grim Reaper / Cuts cuts cuts, but he can’t get me.”
With this context like this in mind, it was suddenly so easy to hear the Oingo Boingo in The Nightmare Before Christmas. It’s there in “Making Christmas,” in the low end oom-pahs, in the woodblocks and xylophones chattering in the background, in the bright organ that seems to suddenly electrify the song—and especially in the way the vocals, told in straight quarter notes, allow the rest of the song to rattle around it. It’s there in “Sally’s Song,” the musical’s most beautiful composition (and one I didn’t come to appreciate until adulthood). Here, Sally’s voice lilts and sways, toddles like a rag doll as saxophones wheeze around it. But its beauty lies in its ominous minor key, often a feature of Oingo Boingo’s songs, and conflicted lyrics—as Sally confuses her concern and feelings for Jack.
On other songs, Elfman’s former band is less present compositionally, but its lyrical irreverence is on full display. On “Kidnap The Sandy Claws,” for example, the voices of Lock, Shock, and Barrel (better known as Boogie’s Boys) scamper up and down the song’s airy chords. Lock says, “I say that we take a cannon / aim it at his door and then / Knock three times and when he answers / Sandy Claws will be no more,” to which Shock replies, “You’re so stupid, think now / If we blow him up to smithereens / We may lose some pieces / And then Jack will beat us black and green.”
Soon after, we finally meet the boogie man and, during “Oogie Boogie’s Song,” a ragtime number pulled from a cobwebby saloon, Oogie Boogie replies to Santa’s stern warnings with incredulity. “Oh, brother!” he sings, “You’re something! You put me in a spin / You aren’t comprehending the position that you’re in / It’s hopeless, you’re finished, you haven’t got a prayer / ‘Cause I’m Mr. Oogie Boogie and you ain’t going nowhere.” Certainly, the actors performing these songs deserve credit for their portrayal, but Elfman’s knack for evoking these ignoble and vile voices (demonstrated in his earlier material) is part of the magic of these songs.
And, of course, there’s a bit of Oingo Boingo on “This Is Halloween” as well.
It’s clear to me now that my childhood has primed me to appreciate The Nightmare Before Christmas. I learned Elfman’s music—both his rock songs and orchestral compositions—during my formative years; his melodies hid under the stairs of my subconscious, much like Burton’s creatures. Certainly, this is part of the reason why I love this macabre musical.
But I don’t think that answers my question—about what makes this musical appealing to people who hate musicals—in a satisfying way. After hearing the full spectrum of Elfman’s output, though, it has become clearer. It’s Elfman; the way his mind stacks chords, threads rhythms through songs, sticks odd beats and measures where they don’t belong—and his ability to create the emotional landscape that makes Burton’s darkest settings so much more rich. It’s possible to see that The Nightmare Before Christmas is such a different musical because of its composer—Elfman (and Steve Bartek, Oingo Boingo’s guitarist who has helped Elfman orchestrate his vision), who approached Burton’s story with the same twisted, clever mind that made Oingo Boingo so strange and engaging.
Let’s give credit where credit is due: Burton is responsible for imagining Halloween Town, Jack Skellington, and Sally, and this magical story about ambition, about aiming high and falling short and living for the learning. But now I see that Elfman is the reason why I’m biting back my tears the moment I see Jack triumphant’s rise.