Feature: Trans-Siberian Orchestra

By GARY GRAFF  |  Nov. 18, 2002 at 11:41 AM
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DETROIT, Nov. 18 (UPI) -- He comes from the world of big, bombastic rock 'n' roll, but Paul O'Neill says "the Frank Capra in me" exerts a stronger influence.

That's why O'Neill remains committed to the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, a performing project he launched during 1996 with the rock opera "Christmas Eve and Other Stories."

Since then there have been two more albums -- 1998's "Christmas Attic" and 2000's non-holiday themed "Beethoven's Last Night" -- and TSO has become a holiday touring tradition, with two separate companies of 30 performing the music O'Neill creates with his partners Robert Kinkel and Jon Oliva.

Last year's TSO tour played 65 shows in 54 cities, selling 175,000 tickets and grossing $6 million to become one of the five top Christmas-themed shows in the country. This year's tour, which kicks off Thursday, is playing 60 shows in five and half weeks -- many in larger venues -- and is expected to play for 300,000 people and pull in up to $12 million.

Cleveland, according to O'Neill and TSO manager David Krebs, remains the tour's strongest market.

TSO, which also placed songs in the film soundtrack for "The Grinch" and on the "MTV TRL Christmas Album," is getting additional push this year from its TV special, "The Ghosts of Christmas Eve." After first airing on the Fox Family Channel, the show -- which features Ossie Davis, Jewel and Michael Crawford -- is now running on PBS. There's even a proposal to put TSO on ice -- really.

Clearly, O'Neill is operating with a Santa's bag of projects that never seems to empty.

"When you write stuff, you always hope it will be successful, but this has taken off beyond all our expectations," says O'Neill, 46, a New York native who was the guitarist in the house band for "Hair" on Broadway 20 years ago and went on to produce two albums for Aerosmith and lead the hard rock group Savatage. And, yes, he's met the New York Yankees star who shares his name.

"We tell stories," O'Neill explains. "No matter what kind of music we're into, as human beings it's part of our nature; we love a good story. So kind of like 'Jesus Christ Superstar,' 'Phantom of the Opera,' this is storytelling, and it mixes so many kinds of music. It just really works."

TSO also allows O'Neill to accomplish certain creative goals.

"As a writer, you're always trying to reach people deeper, emotionally," he says. "I always believe the arts can inspire people, make people feel better about themselves. It's easy to make people feel bad, or worse about themselves. But to make them feel good, that's...hard.

"People like Frank Capra, Ridley Scott, even Francis Ford Coppola always try to give good messages. That's something we try to do, too. It's not always what we accomplish, but we try."

TSO has largely realized that purpose, however. The group's "Christmas Eve Sarajevo 12/24" -- originally recorded by Savatage in 1995 and re-done for the first TSO album -- and the poignant video that accompanied it provided a timely reminder of the human toll during the years of civil war that ripped through the former Yugoslavia. The song itself was inspired by the true story of a local cellist who played in the street amidst harsh fighting.

The song's video was re-edited last year to include images from the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and their aftermath.

"We just wanted to go with a more patriotic theme about America," explains O'Neill. "We're not forgetting the rest of the world, but right now we need to remind ourselves what we are as Americans and what we stand for. We, as Americans, have been around for more than 200 years; we overcame the Civil War, we overcame World War II and we'll overcome this."

O'Neill admits that taking a tour amidst fears of more attacks is "scary," but like the cellist in Sarajevo, there was no question that TSO would cancel its engagements.

"No way," he says. "That would let those idiots win, and I just think people need music, entertainment, now more than ever. People need to show no fear and go about their lives normally and not let the psychopaths of the world win."

O'Neill flits between the two touring companies, although he took it easy last year after the 2000 travel schedule "nearly killed me. I got 20 hours sleep in all of December." He spent seven days in the hospital recovering from sleep deprivation and dehydration -- and realizing he wasn't the rock 'n' roller he used to be.

"The doctors were all like, 'You're not 20 anymore,'" says O'Neill, who has a 4-year-old daughter, Ireland Wild. "When I was 20, it was easy. But it was worth it."

While he hasn't quite committed to the ice show yet -- he hasn't ruled it out, either -- O'Neill says TSO has several projects on its docket. He's finished writing three more albums and is likely to finish another Christmas effort -- the last of a trilogy, he says -- before tackling more non-holiday subjects.

Meanwhile, there are plans to put a production of "Beethoven's Last Night" on the road during the summer of 2002.

So while he gave up certain aspects of his career to become rock 'n' roll's king of Christmas, O'Neill has no worries that he'll run out of things to do with TSO.

"I think the music industry sometimes needs to approach the public a little bit more like the movie industry quite often does," he says. "They make a lot of movies for everyone -- like 'Amadeus' and 'Ben Hur,' where everyone comes to see it and walks away going 'Whoa, that's a great movie.' I think we're kind of showing you don't have to compartmentalize it as much in the music industry, either.

"I'm just keeping my fingers crossed, and hopefully it will go on and on, and I won't ever have to get a real job."

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