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Puppet score tugs at Elfman’s heart strings

by Carvin Knowles

September 20, 2007 | 8:00 pm

Composer Danny Elfman. Photo by Jimmy Lenner, Jr

Composer Danny Elfman. Photo by Jimmy Lenner, Jr

Danny Elfman loves Halloween. You can hear it in his music for "Tim Burton's The Corpse Bride" and "Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas" and in dozens of his other film scores, including "Sleepy Hollow," "Edward Scissorhands" and "Beetlejuice."

His newest contribution to the Halloween celebration is a small, intimate score for a quirky and macabre marionette morality play, "The Fortune Teller," which will make its West Coast debut Oct. 18 at UCLA's Freud Playhouse, running for two weekends as part of UCLA Live's sixth International Theatre Festival.

The play tells the story of a group of Victorian characters representing the Seven Deadly Sins who convene at a dead millionaire's mansion to claim their inheritance, as forecast by a mysterious fortune-teller.

It fits with Elfman's general love of the spooky side of life: "Halloween was always my favorite time of the year," he said with a brightness in his voice that wasn't there for the rest of a recent interview. "Christmas was the loneliest time of the year for a Jewish kid," because everyone goes out of town to celebrate with their families. "But Halloween was the great common bond that brought all America together. No religious connotations. It was the night I looked forward to all year. You could be whoever and whatever you wanted."

'The Fortune Teller" was created by avant-garde artist Erik Sanko, a friend of Elfman's and a composer in his own right. "Danny's one of my best friends," Sanko said in a phone interview. "He wrote our wedding music for us. And who else you gonna call to write music for a puppet play?"

Sanko said he loves marionettes because they are "creepy." And that creepy quality is also what drew Elfman to the project early on. "He's been collecting my puppets for years," Sanko said.

Unlike his huge orchestral film scores, Elfman's music for "The Fortune Teller" is a mishmash of orchestral samples, metallic percussion, accordions, banjos and calliopes, which Elfman assembled very quickly. "The soundtrack is all me at home," he said. "I found myself literally out of time. [Sanko] called me up and said, we're starting rehearsals."

"I work well under the gun. I whupped it out really fast for him. I went into auto-writing mode, very fast and very simply.... I wrote it fast, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang."

Elfman's rapid composing frenzy resulted in a series of themes that often resemble darker versions of the Russian composers Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev.

The connection to these composers has personal history, too. Although he grew up in a secular family and is not religious, Elfman said he feels strong ties to his heritage.

"My strongest link to my Jewish background is musical," he said. "I found myself drawn to Russian and Eastern European musical roots. I got into Gypsy music, and I discovered that the difference between that and klezmer was very narrow. It's very much a part of my consciousness. I feel a kinship with Russia, even though I've never been there."

"Thank God, Tim Burton doesn't analyze these things," Elfman laughed. "The theme for 'Edward Scissorhands,' which is my second most recognizable work, is this Russian-style music for an American monster. It feels very Jewish."

Elfman claims that his talent is entirely genetic. "Anybody who spends time around orchestras will tell you that Jews tend to have the musical gene. You see how hard it is to do an orchestra call on Passover.

"If you look at Jews on a large scale," he said, "you'll find a large percentage are musical. That's not cultural, it's genetic. It's in your blood. It's a part of our Jewish roots.

"I was given a musical gift. I just lucked into it. I never took a lesson. As a teenager, I wanted to get into film. I didn't pick up an instrument until I was 18. I thought I'd missed my chance.

"I was hanging around with lots of musicians, many of whom were much better than I was, but I learned very early that I could hear things better than them," he explained. "So I seized the opportunity and tried to make the best of it."

Elfman's religious background was minimal. "I sang at my bar mitzvah, and that marked the end of my experience. My mother still has Passover every year and still has a script with the four questions for the kids. It's the Elfman family raucous Passover."

But his music has often reflected the American Jewish experience. The songs he wrote for the '80s ska band, Oingo Boingo, and later for "Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas," speak of alienation, which doesn't just apply to the experience of youth culture.

"I didn't have many Jewish friends. I went to Hebrew school, but I didn't have a whole lot of reference for it. I felt like an outsider," he said. "I grew up in a multiracial, multiethnic neighborhood. I was a double minority, being white and Jewish. I was called 'Albino Boy.' I had no pigment and red hair. I couldn't fit in."

Despite what the Internet might say about him, Elfman was born in Los Angeles and grew up in Baldwin Hills, where he attended Audubon Junior High School. "After doing bios for years, I started making stuff up," he said. "I used to say I was from Hungary or Texas. The Amarillo one stuck. That was just one sick moment."

His family eventually moved to the Westside, and he attended University High School.

As a child, Elfman's bedroom walls were plastered with pictures of movie monsters. "I grew up on horror films. I collected Famous Monsters in Filmland magazines.

"I grew up around the block from a theater. Each weekend, we were all drawn like a magnet to the theater. We watched almost completely fantasy, horror and science fiction. Whenever they would show Disney movies, we would boycott the theater," he said. "We wanted Roger Corman and Vincent Price and Peter Lorre ... as early as I can remember."

Elfman's respectable body of Halloween and horror-themed work places him in good company. Other "Halloween Jews" include Carl Laemmle, Boris Karloff, Rod Serling and composer Bernard Herrman.

For "Fortune Teller" director Sanko, the collaboration with Elfman was a "dream come true. Everything he gave us, we used. It was the most graceful experience that I can imagine."


 

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