November 19, 2019

Elfman circles back to the circus

Danny Elfman is a huge success, but he doesn’t want you to know it.  Humility is a hard thing to hang your hat on when you’ve accumulated four Academy Award nominations, taken home a Grammy, and an Emmy and written some of the most popular theme music of all time, notably for “The Simpsons” and his many collaboration with filmmaker Tim Burton.  But that doesn’t stop Elfman from trying.

Sitting in his magnificent recording studio and loft, a hidden gem in one of the sketchier parts of the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles, the composer projects the calm demeanor of a man who’s wonderfully secure with where he is in life.  “Finally, at this point in my career, I can say I’m in the circus,” Elfman says, and laughs. 

His newest work, a collaboration with the seemingly unstoppable Cirque du Soleil, is IRIS, a salute to cinema playing at the Kodak Theater.  And while Cirque and the former Oingo Boingo leader might not seem to be the most natural collaborators – Cirque previously turned to music icons like the Beatles and Elvis Presley for inspiration – it’s turned out to be a match made in circus heaven.

As Elfman tells it, his collaboration with Cirque was actually a happy sort of accident.  He was in New York, and a friend invited him to see a dance performance.  When Elfman arrived at the show, he realized it was a solo piece and started to panic, but his friend assured him that he’d heard it was fabulous. “I was just imaging the worst… and it was this amazing show by this artist Phillipe Decoufle…it wasn’t at all what I was imagining. It was really entertaining, and I came out thinking, God, I’ve gotta work with this guy someday.”

Six months later, a call came in to Elfman’s film agent telling him Cirque du Soleil wanted him to collaborate on their new show.  Elfman’s agent asked if he was interested. “I said, ‘who’s the director?’ And they go, ‘Oh, somebody you wouldn’t have heard of, a French choreographer named Phillipe Decoufle.’” Elfman accepted the job on the spot.

For Elfman, the chance to work with the circus was a homecoming of sorts.  “I began performing at the age of 18 and did eight years of theater before I ever started a band,” says Elfman. “The first troupe I ever performed with was, ironically, a French musical theatrical troupe called Le Grande Magic Circus, so in a way this was bringing me back full circle. I was a theater street performer for years, I banged out there on the pavement, I blew fire and played trombone and fiddle, and I have a whole part of my life that goes back to that.”

Elfman’s past exploits proved a great way to connect with Cirque’s owner and creative force, Guy Laliberte, who also worked as a fire-breather in his youth.  But even Elfman’s past experience didn’t mean things were easy. “There really were moments where I thought it was impossible, I thought the whole thing was a failed idea; and then I’d go to rehearsals, and every time I went to a rehearsal I’d get pulled into their energy, and their heart, and their commitment, and I’d come back all inspired, going ‘this can be done and this will be done, and if they can commit this energy and dedication to what they’re doing, I can certainly do the same.’”

However, the process of composing for circus was new to Elfman.  He was used to collaborating with directors, tailoring his music for a single artistic vision, but with Cirque du Soleil, he found himself working one-on-one with some of the performers to give them what they needed. “It was really quite a constant collaboration with Phillipe, and then also with Shana [Carroll, the acrobatic performance designer], and in collaboration with the specific acrobats.”

Danny Elfman. Photo by Mehdi Taamallah/ABACAUSA.COM

One of the performers, an incredibly skilled acrobat who does an awe-inspiring routine where she seems to defy gravity while balancing on one hand, came to Elfman with a specific request. “I need something with a pulse,” she told him.  So he set to work writing her a piece that would complement her routine.  It’s one of the most beautiful, emotional moments in the show.

Elfman found working on IRIS thrilling. “I’ve been to a lot of Cirque shows,” he says. “I never feel that anything can go wrong. They’re beautiful in their mechanized precision, they’ve got these stages that do these incredible things, a million gallons of water, you’ve got the entire stage lifting into the air and turning vertical and 180 degrees and stuff like that, and here there’s absolutely nothing fancy about what the stage does…it’s all human, and you feel that they can fail at any moment.  This show is much more circus than any Cirque du Soleil show that I’ve seen.”

Elfman has now witnessed performers slip up in preview performances of IRIS, and he’s also seen the crowd’s thrilled reaction when they succeed on the second try.  “It reminds me of when I was in the theater, and we were doing an incredibly difficult musical solo, and my trumpet player had to end with this high note that was really hard, and he missed it. It was the end of the song, and he went for it again, and he missed it, and he went for it a third time, and by that point all of us were having heart attacks backstage, and he hit it—and I’ll tell you, I’ve never seen a bigger reaction in all the years of performing in my group than I did in that moment.  That’s the real stuff, and I love that part of it, it’s terrifying.”

The irony of IRIS being staged at the Kodak Theatre hasn’t escaped Elfman.  He’s often said that he doesn’t believe he’ll ever win an Oscar, and having his music grace the stage where the annual Oscars ceremony takes place, night after night, is a strange treat. “It’s funny, because I’ve always avoided going to the Kodak,” says Elfman, who now finds that the theater feels like a bit of a second home after going there daily to run the soundboard for the preview performances of IRIS.

“I really don’t like going to awards ceremonies,” Elfman muses.  “If you give me a choice between attending the Grammys or the Academy Awards or any of these ceremonies or having a root canal, it would be a tough choice.”

Elfman credits some of his aversion to awards shows to his Judaic roots. “Modesty in one’s accomplishments is actually, I’ve learned, a Jewish tradition, and I wasn’t taught that, but it’s like a core part of my belief,” he says. “I can never sit there and go ‘I’ve done a magnificent thing, my child’s the most beautiful child on the planet.’ I just can’t do that.”

Growing up in what he describes as a “not atypical Jewish family that wasn’t particularly religious,” Elfman remembers the religious rituals that dotted his childhood. “We celebrated Passover and the major holidays.  I was bar-mitzvahed, like most kids in my generation.”

Elfman’s quick to point out that his Judaism only extends so far, though he’s proud to talk about it, and speaks thoughtfully on the subject. “I’m not a religious person, and I cannot pretend that I am.  On the other hand as soon as I became a composer, I was deeply aware of the Jewish cultural roots that are embedded in my DNA.”