When he was young, Trans-Siberian Orchestra mastermind Paul O’Neill had trouble reading anything more sophisticated than Cat in the Hat
. In the first grade, he was in danger of falling behind.
But then his mother spent a summer teaching him phonetics, and the floodgates opened as O’Neill, whose parents forbid him to watch TV, started devouring the books around the family’s home. As he toured with Aerosmith in the ’70s, he started collecting letters and developing his esoteric sense of the world.
Those literary sensibilities would inform the prog band Savatage, which originally recorded “Christmas Eve Sarajevo 12/24” in 1995. The song would reappear on TSO’s debut, 1996’s Christmas Eve and Other Stories
, and launch the band into the behemoth that it is today.
Twenty years on, O’Neill says he feels like he blinked and two decades passed. Trans-Siberian Orchestra performs at 3:30 and 8 p.m. on Thursday at the Covelli Center. The tour then returns to Northeast Ohio for performances at 3 and 9 p.m. on Dec. 31 at Quicken Loans Arena.
“I would love to say that we planned for the Christmas trilogy to resonate like this, but it was just pure luck,” says O’Neill in a recent conference call. “Of course, we did everything backwards. Normally, you have like five or six other platinum albums, then you take on Christmas. It’s all worked out. The only problem is just production that you have to change every year and take it to another level. It just becomes distracting because in rock there’s a rhythm. You write an album no matter how long it takes. You record it no matter how long it takes, and then you tour for one or two years, and then you start the whole pattern again. With the success of the winter tours basically every October we shut everything down and just start to put together this monstrous air carrier and take it out on the road. Then, after New Year’s, [we] sleep for a couple of days and then [go] back in the studio.”
This year, the group will revisit last year's show, The Ghosts of Christmas Eve, which centers on a runaway who breaks into a vaudeville theater on Christmas Eve. The rock opera features tunes such as "Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24," "O’ Come All Ye Faithful," "Good King Joy," "Christmas Canon," "Music Box Blues," "Promises To Keep," and "This Christmas Day." This year’s tour will also include an all-new second set containing some of TSO’s "greatest hits and fan-pleasers."
The Ghosts of Christmas Eve grew from a TV special the band did for Fox, who had asked the band to play its 2000 album Beethoven’s Last Night
for an hour.
“I said, ‘If you give me an hour I’ll give you a movie,’” O’Neill recalls. “They said, ‘Do you have a script?’ I said, ‘I’ll write it tonight.’ We took it pretty simple, runaway from the Midwest comes to New York City, breaks into an old band in Vaudeville Theater. There she was discovered by the caretaker played by Ossie Davis who uses the ghost and the spirits of the band and theater to turn her life around. We were really lucky, because people like Jewel and Michael Crawford joined us to play some of the ghosts. It was only supposed to run once and then run again, but it did so well for Fox they ran it multiple times.”
The show took off in syndication and between public TV and Fox affiliates, it runs pretty much every year. Last year, while figuring out how to stage this year’s incarnation, O’Neill says he decided to design the stage so that it looked like an old movie palace.
“The show starts with the curtains coming up and there you would see the legendary Ossie Davis who is no longer with us, but is in heaven somewhere,” O’Neill explains. “You kind of feel like you were in an old movie theater back in the ’20s or the ’30s. By the third song, the band is on the stage, and you’re in the present. Basically, during the whole rock opera, you’re going between the past to the present.”
Every year, the band ups the ante in terms of the technology it uses. It relies on lasers and pyrotechnics to overload the senses. This year is no different in that respect.
“We always try to keep it secret so it’s always a surprise,” says O’Neill when asked about what new technology the tour would use. “The show that we’re doing this year we couldn’t do five years ago. The show we were doing five years we couldn’t do five years before that. Technology has been moving in such leaps and bounds and brings extra weight. It’s one of the reasons we were able to use the catwalk to connect the back and the front of the arena. The way the lights got so light, LEDs, it just gave us that extra maneuvering room. It also allowed us to save. These new LEDs are just so efficient the way they use power. We used to have carry two tractor trailers of generators because a lot of the buildings couldn’t handle our electrical poles. Two years ago, the lights got so efficient we were able to drop the generators which left more room for pyro.”
O’Neill says improving the visual experience from year to year has proven to be an enormous challenge since TSO hits the road every year for an extensive tour.
“Actually, a couple of our crew members used to work for Pink Floyd and one of them said, ‘Paul there is a reason why Pink Floyd toured like once every five years,’” he recalls. “I’m discovering why. It’s a good problem to be having, and it’s also one of the reasons why at the end of every tour we take quite a bit of the production and pretty much cut it up which forces us to have to come up with something new, something different. Progressive rock is always expected to be pushing the live stage show. When I was kid growing up in New York City, I’ll never forget the first time I saw Genesis when they invented the Vari-Lite which changed colors, moods. Everyone was like, ‘What the heck is that?’ They didn’t just rent them they were involved in the design and financing it. It was Genesis I think that sparked the arms race of special effects on the stage. It basically helped take it to a different dimension.”
While many shows that emphasize production values charge exorbitant ticket prices, O’Neill says he strives to make a TSO ticket affordable.
“There should be no financial strain to come see this band,” he says. “I get that from Disney, and he’s someone that doesn’t get a lot of credit for TSO, but he deserves it. I’m a big fan of Disney. In the 1930s he was taking his daughters to an amusement park, and he saw kids wanting to go on the roller coasters and their parents saying they couldn’t afford it. He decided that one day he was going to build an amusement park that was so clean, so safe, so different that everybody would want to go to it. But once they paid off all the bankers, he was going to have just one ticket — and once you bought that ticket every ride was free. With Trans-Siberian Orchestra, we agonize to keep it affordable and that’s also one of the reasons why we do matinees also. We put matinees on and it works. We realized besides keeping the ticket affordable you have to make it easy for people to get there, fit it into their schedules.”
In today's world of short attention spans and overnight successes, it's all the more remarkable that TSO has sustained its popularity during its remarkable 20-year run.
"[We want to] keep the show interesting enough that people want to come back to see it and enjoy the story over and over again, see what’s new that we add onto it," says O'Neill. "The key is never to get complacent, never to forget that the people that own this band are the fans, and the minute we forget that is the minute the band starts to decline. Again, that’s true for corporations, that’s true for governments, that’s true for anyone. Again, we just feel really, really lucky that we get make our living doing this instead of being stuck in a cubicle making widgets."