Showbiz Analysis: Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s Paul O’Neill on Capturing the Power and Magic of Christmas
(photo by Lewis Lee)
For Paul O’Neill, creator of the multi-platinum rock theater experience Trans-Siberian Orchestra, it has long been about challenging himself to do what he loves in a magnificent and ever-changing way. As TSO marks its second decade of show-stopping success, the lyricist, composer, producer and creative visionary is ready to hit the road again on TSO’s winter tour, The Ghosts of Christmas Eve(presented nationally by Hallmark Channel). Parade caught up with O’Neill to talk about his fascinating journey and the TSO holiday experience that continues to captivate audiences all over the world.
Paul O’Neill (photo by Bob Carey)
’Tis the season for the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. TSO has become a favorite holiday staple for rock and contemporary fans and their families since first hitting the road in 1999. With live performances grossing over $575 million and over 10 million CDs sold, the rock phenomenon that began in 1996 has proven that being pegged as “seasonal” just might be the best Christmas present ever.
“When the band, you know, hit the road in ’99, it exploded beyond our wildest expectations,” O’Neill says. “And the Christmas trilogy, it hit just a nerve…we just lucked out…I’d like to say that this was all planned. It wasn’t, it was just complete luck.”
Luck or not, O’Neill’s ability to blend his inspiration, fascination, rock know-how (a guitarist, O’Neill’s pre-TSO career included talent management and concert promotion for rock’s elite), and creatively explosive ideas, is not typical or ordinary. And his ideas have been brewing for years. O’Neill admits that some of his earliest memories are grounded in witnessing the power of Christmas. From watching two New York City cabs collide on Christmas Eve (he was 5 at the time) and the drivers settle their differences with kind words and good wishes, to learning of wartime Christmas cease-fires, O’Neill has held onto the positive Christmas stories from his childhood and harnessed that goodness quotient in his work with TSO.
“I was just fascinated by this power, that not only affects the way people treat each other on the most personal and intimate of levels—you know, your family, your friends, your neighbors, strangers in the street…the way nations and states treat each other. And I was just fascinated by that…I was just trying to capture that,” explains the composer.
Catch a glimpse of TSO’s 2016 Winter Tour magic.
You could say that Charles Dickens, one of O’Neill’s influencers, had a little bit to do with TSO’s trilogy approach to Christmas. “He wrote five books about Christmas,” explains O’Neill. “And he kept them to about 50 pages.”
How does a trilogy fit in? “[Christmas] was too big for Dickens in one book, so it’s too big for me in one rock opera.”
For O’Neill, it is all about creating incredible music, easy-to-understand stories and breathtaking visuals. Equally as important to him is that the TSO live experience be affordable to fans and magnificent from any seat in the house. That’s why there are no astronomical ticket prices or behind-the-stage seats. He credits the TSO team and musical mix of seasoned rockers and non-jaded young musicians with keeping the enthusiasm and optimism palpable.
O’Neill laughs when I remind him that CBS Sunday Morning called their 2015 TSO story “Deck the halls with fireballs.” When it comes to onstage pyrotechnics, he seems like a kid in a candy store, ready to sample the next big thing to give the show a bigger blast of power.
“We were the first band to have the trusses move in time to the music. No band had ever done that before. And then we were the first band to have stages at both ends of the arena,” notes O’Neill. “There’s a lot of special effects companies—pyrotech companies out there, and they know that if they ever invent something that’s incredibly great, and stupidly expensive, there’s one band dumb enough to take it and that’s us,” says O’Neill, “because I just love the look in the audience’s face.”
November 17, Paul O’Neill will have the opportunity to watch those reactions all over again when TSO’s The Ghosts of Christmas Eve Tour kicks off in Youngstown, Ohio, and Council Bluffs, Iowa. What can fans expect from TSO’s can-you-top-this performance style? O’Neill admits its going to dazzle and amaze, but he’s not sharing any of the details. “We tend to try to keep it super top-secret until the first show, because we always like to surprise people.” Of course, along with the surprises, are the poetic musical messages and memories that O’Neill and TSO have been creating since the ’90s. When the lights go down, those are the important gifts that fans always take home.
Nancy Berk, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist, author, comic and entertainment analyst. The host of the showbiz podcast Whine At 9, Nancy digs a little deeper as she chats with fascinating celebrities and industry insiders. Her book College Bound and Gagged: How to Help Your Kid Get into a Great College Without Losing Your Savings, Your Relationship, or Your Mind can be seen in the feature film Admission starring Tina Fey and Paul Rudd.
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