“Curiosity killed the cat, you know,” says Dr. Finkelstein to Jack Skellington, who has come to borrow some lab equipment to help isolate the magic ingredient in Christmas.
“I know,” says Skellington in The Nightmare Before Christmas, the surprisingly enduring cool kid of holiday films.
It’s been more than two decades now that orchestras have been experimenting with the live-to-screen experience as a bridge between their usual world of pure art and the pop culture realm they endlessly covet. But bridges are easy, and gateways into a long-term Pops habit are another thing altogether.
There’s no question that the Philly Pops cut the average age of its audience by more than half Thursday night with its live-to-screen foray at the Met Philadelphia. I don’t know who was cuter, the date-night Skellingtons and Sallys who came costumed to kill, or the 4-year-old sitting in front of us in Nightmare Before Christmas PJs bouncing and air-conducting to the closing-credits music.
The Met, though, is no orchestra hall. If there was a musical added-value aspect to having a live orchestra play Danny Elfman’s score (with the existing vocal tracks), it wasn’t clear to me — as wonderful as this score is. Mixed and amplified through a slightly muddy electronic sound system, the music sounded not all that different than it does on the soundtrack.
The bigger reason for these kinds of experiences is social. Finding yourself in a large room surrounded by hundreds of others who share your passion is an increasingly rare pleasure in our antisocial age of social media.
Tim Burton’s stop-animation classic The Nightmare Before Christmas has had a particularly ardent fan base since its release in 1993. To have an occasion as a 55-year-old to relive it, or as a 30-year-old to convey that passion to your children, is not something to be sniffed at.
It’s also the perfect vehicle for an orchestra. Not many films weave together long stretches of music that command your attention the way this one does.
Elfman’s sweet-sad harmonic progressions and Broadway-esque vocals are a sophisticated mix of influences. A Mahlerian turn here, a Kurt Weill echo there, Elfman and his orchestrators manage to make creepy just another word for endearing. This is a score that asks the musical question: Don’t monsters yearn and love like the rest of us?
Ultimately, what makes it all work so well is that Elfman nails one of opera’s most potent devices: transformation of the individual and how that plays out musically. And it’s kind of delicious that he is able to send so many listeners on their way singing the first four notes of the dies irae without them knowing it (“mak-ing-Christ-mas”).
The Pops was led by conductor Stuart Chafetz, and while the more informal atmosphere of the Met lends itself to listeners popping up for snacks and drinks, it was clear the audience appreciated the presence of a live 69-piece ensemble (contrabassoon, accordion, and all). Most of the audience stayed through the end of the closing-credits music, and they applauded at the appearance of Elfman’s name on the screen.
A printed program (there was none) with the names of the musicians would have sent a message about the value of having a live orchestra there.
When the Philadelphia Orchestra accompanies live films in Verizon Hall, the bigness of the sound makes the presence of a live orchestra known. Here, oddly, it was in Elfman’s quieter moments that the orchestra was most prominent — a harp piercing the darkness, or a flute sonority that, in its Sally-like solitude, recalled a certain lost sweetness of youth.
The Philly Pops also performs “The Nightmare Before Christmas” live to screen Friday, Oct. 25, at 7:30 p.m. at the Met Philadelphia, Broad and Poplar Sts. Tickets are $29.95 to $99.95. Information: 215-875-8004, phillypops.org.