A Harmonious Nightmare

Writer Joseph J. Airdo

Photography Courtesy of The Phoenix Symphony

As Stuart Chafetz glanced around the concert hall, he saw several people dressed as Jack Skellington the Pumpkin King, and just as many made up to look like the character’s humanoid ragdoll girlfriend, Sally. He even saw a few Lock, Shock and Barrels—the mischievous trio of trick-or-treaters who serve as henchmen to creepy villain Oogie Boogie.

It was then—the first time that he conducted an orchestra performing the score from “The Nightmare Before Christmas”—that he truly understood the massive cultural impact of the 1993 stop-motion animation film.

Did You Know?

Rise of the Pumpkin King

The concept of “The Nightmare Before Christmas” originated in a 1982 poem that Tim Burton wrote while he was working as an animator at Walt Disney Feature Animation. Burton unsuccessfully attempted to develop the idea as a television special for several years before Walt Disney Studios finally gave it the green light to become a major motion picture in 1990.

Off with Their Heads!

Filmmakers constructed 227 puppets to represent the characters in “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” To allow for the expression of every possible emotion, each puppet had multiple heads—400 in the case of Jack Skellington.

A Scary Success

During its first theatrical run in the U.S., “The Nightmare Before Christmas” earned $50 million—a box office total that has since increased to $75 million as a result of multiple re-releases. In 2001, Disney considered producing a computer-animated sequel but later dropped the idea at the advice of Burton, who wished to preserve the purity of the original film.

“I had no idea of the impression that it has had on so many people,” Chafetz says. “It has become a cultural phenomenon—kind of like a modern-day ‘Rocky Horror Picture Show.’ It also indicated to me just how much movies with orchestra resonate with the community.”

After having presented “The Nightmare Before Christmas” to sold-out audiences last year, The Phoenix Symphony will return to Halloween Town for five performances Oct. 31–Nov. 3. Each presentation will feature a screening of the film projected onto a big screen while the orchestra performs its score live on stage.

“It was a slam-dunk all around,” says the symphony’s chief marketing director, Todd Vigil, of last year’s performances. “Not only did we have a sold-out crowd, but it was a diverse crowd that included a lot of kids. We had a lot of people in attendance who we do not normally see at the symphony.”

Due to the strong attendance and even stronger patron feedback, The Phoenix Symphony decided to present the event again this year. Like last year, patrons are encouraged to dress up as their favorite characters from the film. A pair of photo booths will be available to commemorate the event.

Chafetz, who has also conducted “The Nightmare Before Christmas” in concert for the Atlanta and Honolulu symphony orchestras, is thrilled that The Phoenix Symphony has invited him to come back and lead its performances again this year.

“It is a score that is quite intense, intimate and fun, but also incredibly challenging,” says Chafetz, who will also be conducting the concert this month for Columbus Symphony in Ohio and The Philly Pops in Pa.

Because the score from “The Nightmare Before Christmas” frequently changes tempos and styles of music, Chafetz and all of the members of the orchestra must be on the top of their game to ensure that the music always remains in sync with the movie.

“It is a lot of responsibility—a lot more than a traditional symphony where you have a little wiggle room for interpretation, or you can take the tempo that you want,” Chafetz explains. “There is no give-and-take, and it is challenging for a conductor to line everything up. The moment that you get off by an eighth-note, it is all over—and, trust me, there is nothing like that feeling.”

On the other hand, there is no better feeling for a conductor than when everything lines up perfectly and the musicians are playing completely in tune with the movie—so much so that the audience forgets that the orchestra is even there. It is from those moments that Chafetz measures his success on stage.

“That is the biggest compliment I could receive,” says Chafetz, whose favorite musical number from the film is “What’s This?” for its ability to capture the holiday spirit and wonderment of the season.

Chafetz believes that his experience conducting “The Nightmare Before Christmas” has given him a newfound appreciation for Danny Elfman, the composer of the film’s score.

“Danny Elfman’s brilliance is his ability to take traditional instruments and make them sound non-traditional,” Chafetz says. “His music is dense. There are a lot of low octave notes as well as contrabass clarinets and other utility instruments that you do not normally have in a regular symphony orchestra.”

Vigil hopes that “The Nightmare Before Christmas” will be presented each year around Halloween, and become an annual tradition for The Phoenix Symphony.

“We will see how this year goes, but I am optimistic that it will be even bigger and better than last year,” says Vigil, adding that The Phoenix Symphony is looking at additional films to incorporate into its programming. “We have a long list we would like to do if these concerts continue to be well-received by audiences.”

The Phoenix Symphony saw a record number of new people attend its concerts last season, thanks in part to innovative programming like “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” This season’s lineup includes “Home Alone” in December and the 1931 Charlie Chaplin classic “City Lights” in April.

Vigil says that presenting major motion pictures live in concert is a substantial investment for The Phoenix Symphony. They are expensive to perform, and come with a lot of rules and regulations from studios and rights holders. However, he wholeheartedly believes that the performances are worth the extra investment.

“Orchestral scoring for movies is so fantastic these days,” Vigil says. “It is part of the music of our time. One way that we can share that current music with both our existing and new audiences is by showing the full film and having our orchestra perform the score live. It is a very unique experience.”

Chafetz concurs.

“Film score composers have become modern-day Mozarts and Tchaikovskys,” the conductor explains. “These film scores resonate with the audience and transform them just as a Beethoven, Strauss or Mahler symphony does.”

New audiences who are drawn to the symphony by events like “The Nightmare Before Christmas” end up being so enthralled by the orchestra that they return for other performances—and more people in the seats means more energy on the stage.

“Everyone is even more stoked to play when they look out into the hall and see a packed house,” explains Chafetz, likening the phenomenon to a sports team performing their best in front of a packed stadium or arena. “It is really cool when the entire place erupts in applause.”


The Phoenix Symphony Presents “The Nightmare Before Christmas”

Oct. 31–Nov. 3 | Phoenix Symphony Hall | 75 N. 2nd St., Phoenix | $25+ | 602-495-1999 | phoenixsymphony.org

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