Danny Elfman and Phoebe Bridgers on ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ live in concert: “It’s such a cool thing to be part of”

The duo discuss bringing the Christmas classic to Wembley Arena, as well as Danny's recent work on 'Wednesday' and Phoebe's collaboration with SZA ‘Ghost In The Machine’

29 years ago, Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas introduced the world to a vibrant musical extravaganza set in Halloween Town. The spooky flick follows “Pumpkin King” Jack Skellington as he sets out to Halloween-ify Christmas, much to the horror of living rag doll Sally, who’s had a psychic vision that his little festive escapade is going to end in tears.

The quirky musical may not have been an instant classic, but over the past three decades The Nightmare Before Christmas has become a holiday staple – one that’s inspired lyrics in a Blink-182 anthem (2004 alt-rock belter ‘I Miss You’) and whose stars Jack and Sally are regulars at the likes of Disneyland. In fact, the film is now so popular, last week composer and voice of Jack Danny Elfman took to Wembley Arena alongside the BBC Symphony Orchestra for a concert version of The Nightmare Before Christmas, with indie legend Phoebe Bridgers taking on the role of Sally.

The Nightmare Before Christmas concert saw an audience of different generations come together to celebrate the film’s messages of expression, belief and togetherness, with the movie’s iconic music performed live on-stage. “I was a little nervous,” Elfman tells NME ahead of the second of two shows. “[Wembley Arena] is such a big place and that’s a little bit intimidating. I still think of Nightmare as a little show that should be in a little theatre, in front of maybe 100 people. Doing it like this is always a shock to me.”


“I think I blacked out for most of it, I was so nervous,” adds Bridgers, sat backstage at Wembley Arena and already in full Sally costume. “But [last night] was awesome once my eyes focused in on everyone, and [I could see] everybody smiling. It’s such a cool thing to be a part of.”

Sitting down with NME in a dressing room at Wembley Arena, as thousands of people took their seats in the main room, the pair spoke about the legacy of The Nightmare Before Christmas, as well as Elfman’s work on Wednesday, Bridgers recent collaboration with SZA and their plans for 2023.

Danny, you put on a similar concert last Halloween with Billie Eilish as Sally. What keeps you coming back to The Nightmare Before Christmas?

Danny Elfman: “When the movie came out it didn’t do well. It was misunderstood…The perception [was that it was] weird, scary and kids wouldn’t like it. Ten years after it came out, I was in Tokyo with Tim Burton doing Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, and there was Jack and Sally merchandise everywhere. He said ‘I’ve never even seen this stuff before’ but it became clear that there was this life around [Nightmare], beyond when it first opened, and it really bloomed after it. It was such a wonderful surprise for me, because I put so much of myself into it and to have it [disappear] in a cloud of misunderstanding was disappointing.

“Now, I get generation after generation of people coming up to me with their kids and that feels so good. I don’t know what keeps driving it. I was surprised when Phoebe accepted the job. I’m always surprised when anyone wants to be a part of it [because] I still look at it at this weird, little thing we did.”

And what’s your history with The Nightmare Before Christmas, Phoebe?

Phoebe Bridgers: “I grew up with it. I’m 28, and what is it, 30 years old? It was one of my favourite movies as a kid. The only part that really terrified me was the bugs. When [Oogie Boogie] is bugs, that’s so scary. I had such a crush on Sally. It’s such a beautiful, beautiful movie, and all the handheld camera [filming] is so wild. It broke so many rules of animation and it’s iconic. I feel like it informed stylistically a lot of me gravitating towards goth stuff as a kid.”

Did you have any nerves about taking on the role of Sally?

Bridgers: “I have nerves right now, because I’ve got to do it again tonight. They’re big, or tiny, shoes to fill.”

So Danny, why Phoebe?


Elfman: “Because she’s amazing. Again, I’m constantly shocked that people respond so well [to Nightmare]. I’ve worked on 110+ films and if any one of them I could have a second life, it would be this one. I normally put three months into a film [but] for this one I spent two and a half years and [poured] a lot of my own psyche into the thing. I have this personal attachment [to it] and for me to be able to go to Phoebe and say ‘would you be interested?’ and her say yes, I’m just very grateful, that’s all. I’m not grateful about many things. I’m sarcastic and cynical about virtually everything, except this.”

And you’ve just finished work on another huge series, with Wednesday. How was that?

Elfman:Wednesday was just fun. It was like returning to an old [classic]. I grew up on The Addams Family, but I also really dug the Charles Addams cartoons too. To do a variation on these well-known characters was just fun.”

It’s broken so many records. Are you surprised by the reaction?

Elfman: “Completely; but you’ve got to realise, I’m surprised by everything I do having any success. When Batman came out, I was composing to a cut that was so dark, I could barely tell what was happening half the time. I thought, ‘this is going to be a little cult film at best’ but the fact it was a hit, that shocked me. I expected Wednesday, like Batman, to be a little cult thing [same as] The Nightmare Before Christmas. I never in my wildest dreams imagined I would be doing songs live, in front of more than 100 people. It’s crazy.”

Phoebe, you’ve just released your fifth annual Christmas cover with your take on The Handsome Family’s ‘So Much Wine’ with all proceeds going to the Los Angeles LGBT center. Why are those covers so important to you?

Bridgers: “Well, I like fucked up holiday songs. I always have. I remember being so inspired when I went to Nashville and saw where Elvis had done his Christmas album and, because he’s a crazy person, he had to make it feel like Christmas in July. It’s also a cool thing to do for charity every year, and it’s fun. I like tradition.”

Elfman: “Oh god, Fucked Up Holiday Songs. I just found the title of my next composition!”

And ‘Ghost In The Machine’, your collaboration with SZA from her new album ‘SOS’ just dropped. How did that come about?

Bridgers: “That record is insane. She just sent me a DM and it all happened so fast. I’m not really used to that. Personally, I sit on stuff for so long, it takes me years to make albums, so I like being involved and seeing someone else’s world from [a different] angle. She’s so effective and cool, and a great hang.”

Let’s talk 2023. Danny, you’ve mentioned trying to bring your Coachella set From Boingo to Batman to Big Mess and Beyond! to other cities. Were you surprised by the reaction to that performance?

Elfman: “I’m surprised they didn’t drag me off the stage, and tar and feather me. When I walked out to do that set [at Coachella], I felt like I was walking out to a firing squad, and the fact it didn’t happen, was extraordinary to me.”

At this point in your career, do you still like putting yourself in positions where it can go either way?

Elfman: “I like being out of my comfort zone, and I was way out of my comfort zone that night and that’s good for me. I know I can write film scores forever, but I [can] get too comfortable doing that. When you’re an artist, comfort is death in its own way. You’ve got to force yourself out [of that], if you want to stay alive.”