Composing wizard Danny Elfman talks sweeping, gigantic ‘Oz’ score
“The Wizard of Oz” features some of the most beloved songs in movie musical history: “Over the Rainbow,” “We’re Off to See the Wizard,” “Ding-Dong! The Witch is Dead.”
But with Disney’s March 8 release, “Oz: The Great and Powerful,” director Sam Raimi and composer Danny Elfman were quite conscious of putting a wholly unique stamp on a project inspired by author L. Frank Baum’s original books, not the Oscar-winning 1939 movie.
In one instance, though, that directive proved especially tricky — when writing a song for a sequence in which a group of happy Munchkins welcome James Franco’s Oz to the Emerald City, Elfman found himself in something of a predicament.
“These Munchkins are little people in a joyous town of fantasy singing an up-tempo welcoming song. There really aren’t that many ways to apply that,” Elfman said during a recent interview in his home studio in Los Angeles.
It was one of the few hiccups Elfman (“Silver Linings Playbook,” “Alice in Wonderland”) encountered in penning the roughly 75 minutes of music featured in the movie, which recounts the tale of just how Oz journeyed from dusty Kansas to the glorious Technicolor world beyond the rainbow.
In the screenplay, credited to Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire, the strong storm blows Franco’s magician con-man into the distant land where he encounters talking China dolls, flying monkeys and several witches, including Mila Kunis’ Theodora, Rachel Weisz’s Evanora and Michelle Williams’ sunny Glinda.
The movie’s fantastical CGI imagery hadn’t quite been completed, though, as snippets from the film flashed across a trio of monitors inside the Barbra Streisand scoring stage on the Sony lot in Culver City on a Saturday afternoon in mid-December.
A full orchestra played along to the sequences while Elfman, nursing a cold with a mug of green tea, sat beside his orchestrator Steve Bartek at a massive sound board, offering various suggestions to the musicians. “I need a little more of the bassoon”; “Let’s try playing the trombone — oh, what’s the word — a little straighter?”
“Danny has a grand arsenal of musical abilities,” Raimi said in a separate interview. “He’s able to create a sweeping gigantic sound that can really describe a tremendous scale and help us create this very unique world that Frank Baum wrote about, the land of Oz.”
Elfman hadn’t worked on one of Raimi’s film since 2004’s “Spider-Man 2,” but in his studio, the composer said the score came “lightning fast” — he wrote the bulk of the music in only about six weeks.
“‘Oz’ was very clear, what the tone was,” he said. “We’re going to take an approach that’s old school but not self-consciously old fashioned. Let the melodrama be melodrama, let everything be what it is. I also think there’s the advantage that I’m able to write narratively, and when I’m able to write narratively I can also move quicker because that’s my natural instincts, I can tell a story in the music.”
As for that Munchkin song? Elfman said in the end, he opted to sing that number himself — and he did not alter his voice to give it any kind of familiar ring. No Lollipop Guild retreads here, but maybe not a radical departure from the past either.
“They’re still singing, and they’re still merry,” Elfman said.