I’ve done some jobs in my time. These include singing Christmas carols in a Dubai shopping mall (a blog in itself), producing a charity gala starring Hugh Jackman (before he was Wolverine), Richard Wilson, Annette Crosbie, Paul Scofield and the Fabulous Tiller Girls and the worst piece of acting I have ever pulled off — a Roman senator in a fringe production of Camus’ Caligula. I actually feel queasy thinking about it now, twenty years on.
But in October last year, I toured with Danny Elfman. Danny Elfman! Did I say, Danny Elfman? It wasn’t only me; there were 45 of us singing ooh aah, the BBC Concert Orchestra, an angelic and terrifyingly composed boy soprano and Helena Bonham Carter. When Christopher Dee, chorus master of the Maida Vale Singers and a great mate of mine rang to drop that little nugget into the conversation: “Hi Shaz, how are you, fancy touring with Danny Elfman?”, it took a while to sink in. “Gosh,” I said, or something like it. “That’s exciting.” The more I thought about it, the more exciting it became. Were we actually going to sing Edward Scissorhands/Batman/Alice? His music for the Tim Burton films were so much part of my geek landscape that it seemed inconceivable that the other MVS wouldn’t be as excited as I. And some were – Facebooking variants on ‘OMG, Danny Elfman’. But when we arrived for the first rehearsal, I was frankly stunned by the amount of people who said they’d not only never heard of him, but had never watched a single Tim Burton film. How could this be? How could anyone alive not have seen Nightmare Before Christmas, or listened to the theme from The Simpsons? “Oh, did he write that?”
We were handed our music, some of us treating it as holy writ until we actually opened it. As expected, plenty of ooh aah, with occasional made-up Latin-sounding words. And no cues. None. Lots of 85 bars rest and then an expectation that you could pick, say, a high C out of the air at the right moment. Columbia Artists (DE’s management) and, presumably DE himself had booked us from the circling shark pool of other singers, so cocking it up wasn’t an option – certainly not for long. The charming and patient Marc Mann, DE’s official choir trainer, wearing a trademark flat cap and increasingly tense expression, attempted to fast-track us to competence before the orchestral rehearsal that afternoon. A mood of controlled hysteria hung in the air as we sang/bluffed our way through Mars Attacks! (ee-oh, ee-oh) and the angelic but tricky Scissorhands notes. Then we hit Beetlejuice. Remember the singing in that? No, me neither. Marc put it to one side to worry about later, a bit of a mistake. By the end of the three-hour session, there were two pieces we hadn’t even looked at, Beetlejuice being one.
After lunch we joined the BBCCO, visibly enlarged for the occasion. John Mauceri, American maestro and fully deserving of the title, looked like the Central Casting version of your favourite uncle/young granddad. Silver-haired, funny and unflappable, even when faced with a click track, film clips to time everything to, full orchestra and a group of singers who’d only laid eyes on the music that morning. We immediately adored him.
And then the orchestra started to play; the world lit up – I was in a Tim Burton fairytale. The first thing we did was Sleepy Hollow – lovely score, not too shabby singing. We glanced at one another. Might we actually pull this off, with the Royal Albert Hall gig in two days’ time? Batman was up next, a true “OMG! Batman! By Danny Elfman!” moment for me. The piece we all fell for was Alice’s theme from Alice in Wonderland – not the best Burton film, but god, how we loved singing it.
I then fell in love with the theremin, a DE staple, iconic in 50s SF film, The Day the Earth Stood Still and of course, Mars Attacks! (don’t forget the !) I badly wanted one and immediately checked out the price on eBay. Imagine one of those in a Streetwise Opera workshop. The woman playing it, Lydia Kavina, is one of the world’s leading theremin players and was taught by Leon Theremin, the cousin of her grandfather. Did you know that the theremin was originally invented for Russian-sponsored research into proximity sensors? No, me neither. I stalked Ms Kavina throughout our time together as she patiently answered my stupid questions and suffered my puppy-eyed adulation every time she stroked her hands up and down the crazy, fabulous instrument.
Back in the rehearsal, just when we thought we were home free, John Mauceri said: “OK, let’s look at Beetlejuice.” We looked at it. And that was all we did, pretty much. Hardly a note, hardly a pick-up. 45 singers mouthing like fish. Astonishingly, no-one appeared to notice, or if they did, were too polite to say anything. We finally got it right at the RAH gig which was fortunate.
DE turned up the following day, nervous as hell, not having performed live for almost twenty years. Black-coated, bright red hair, pale skin and geek-chic glasses, he looked exactly as expected. Then he sang ‘What’s This?’ from Nightmare Before Christmas (having sung the role of Jack Skellington in the film) and another OMG moment. Everyone cheered and he smiled for the first time. We immediately adored him too.
During the break, I was sitting on the stairs outside the studio, looked up and saw Helena Bonham Carter. She drifted by, wearing a black net dress, black lace-up boots and looking like a star. She smiled at me. I smiled back. Then, naturally, I tweeted about it. She was performing Sally’s Song from Nightmare, just for the RAH gig. Now she’s no singer, let’s be honest, but it looked great and she is whoppingly beautiful and married to Tim Burton, so who cares? Love her.
The RAH gig had been sold out for some months and the roar that went up with every piece played was spectacular. Film clips and Tim Burton’s own hand-drawn sketches were being shown behind us on a huge screen; we craned round to see, although I had been warned by several of my ‘dog-watch’ friends that the dog in Frankenweenie dies not once but twice, so when the sweet, sad music started, I stared resolutely ahead, trying to think of something else. For I will not watch any film where a dog dies, as many of you know. I still cried, though, because I knew the dog died.
The films that got most screaming adulation were Mars Attacks! and Batman, but when DE stepped on stage it suddenly became a stadium rock concert, or perhaps the Second Coming. He was fabulous, flawless, hilarious as he sang Jack’s Lament, What’s This and Oogie Boogie Man (look it up). A cry of “I love you Helena” came up from the circle as HBC came on, and she smiled and waved and was also fabulous. At the curtain call, Tim Burton came on to join them and the place erupted. By this point, even the ‘Who is Danny Elfman?’ brigade of the MVS were cheering. “This is the greatest moment of my life,” he said as he received a triple standing ovation. And it wasn’t over yet, for the next morning, we were off on tour.