December 22, 2000
- Washington, DC, FL
Trans-Siberian Orchestra's Holiday Tales
THE ROAD from the orchestra pit, where Paul O'Neill was the guitarist in a 1980 Broadway production of "Hair," to center stage as composer-producer of "Trans-Siberian Orchestra's Chrismas Eve & Other Stories" goes right through the hard rock band Savatage.
It's an admittedly unusual adventure, which seems entirely appropriate for someone whose instinct for storytelling came from growing up in a large Irish family in New York City.
"My parents had 10 kids and when we were children, we weren't allowed to watch TV," O'Neill recalls. "If we got an hour a week, that was a lot. As a kid, I thought that was a major form of child abuse.
"But my father, who was a great man -- fought in five major battles in World War II, came back home, worked a full-time job, put himself through college at night, got his doctorate in history and eventually became a college professor -- every night when we'd go to bed, he would weave these incredibly intricate fairy tales right off the top of his head."
It probably didn't hurt that O'Neill was also surrounded by history books and Irish folk music, "which is very story-oriented," he points out. Other youthful inspirations included songwriters Harry Chapin and Jim Croce and writers Victor Hugo and Oscar Wilde. After a musical apprenticeship of high school bands, cover bands and work-for-hire on Broadway, there was a long detour from creating music, though O'Neill judges that a major influence, as well.
"As a teenager, I was very lucky to get a job at a company called Leber-Krebs, probably the biggest and most successful rock managers of all time [Aerosmith, Def Leppard, Scorpions]," he says. O'Neill worked his way up to vice president at Leber-Krebs before leaving to promote the first rock festivals in Japan and Far East tours by the likes of Madonna, Sting and Bon Jovi.
"It was a great education in music because, through management, you got to learn every side -- radio, marketing, sales. And through international promoting, I learned that a great song is a great song. A song that blows away a kid in New York City is going to blow away a kid in Tokyo or Berlin or Cairo."
It was David Krebs who put O'Neill back on the creative track in the mid-'80s. "He took me aside and said 'Anyone can promote, anyone can manage; you can write and that's all you should do.' "
Though he did some production (including Aerosmith's first two live albums), O'Neill began to focus on his writing, particularly after hooking up with the hard rock/metal band Savatage in 1986. Eventually, he and they gravitated to the rock opera form.
"We were always looking for a way to take the music to a deeper emotional level," O'Neill says. "That's when we started getting attracted to the rock operas, because then you can put the song in the context of a story. Like 'I Don't Know How to Love Him' is a beautiful love song, but when you realize it's Mary Magdalene singing to Jesus [in 'Jesus Christ Superstar'], it takes on a whole new angle."
Rock opera, melding the storytelling of opera and theater to the "compactability" of rock albums, has been a much-abused form since the Who's "Tommy" in 1969 (think Queensryche, Iron Maiden). "Streets," Savatage's first effort in 1991, dealt with the travails of a troubled rock star (the themes would soon become much more ambitious). Ironically, it was originally written by O'Neill as a Broadway musical -- until Savatage guitarist Criss Oliva (who was killed in 1993 by a drunk driver) found it in a desk drawer with an accompanying demo tape.
"And he said, 'Paul, we should rock this up a little bit and do it as a Savatage rock opera!' He was the one who pushed me into doing it."
Though it continued to release traditional rock albums in the interim, Savatage revisited rock opera with 1995's "Dead Winter Dead," which addressed the civil war in Bosnia and was set at Christmastime in the Sarajevan war zone. Ultimately, it was radio's embrace of one particular song, "Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24)," that led to the formation of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra.
"Christmas Eve" was inspired by a true incident in which a young couple -- a Serbian boy and Muslim girl -- tried to escape Sarajevo by crossing over that city's one remaining bridge.
"When the girl was shot and killed by a sniper, the boy refused to leave her and he got shot, too," O'Neill says. "Their two bodies lay there the whole day, still holding hands, and nobody could move them because they were afraid to go on the bridge."
The public reaction to the song encouraged O'Neill to pursue a long-held ambition to create a Christmas rock opera, but he and Savatage knew they couldn't do it alone. Singer Jon Oliva (Criss's brother) is "a great musician and writer, and has so many different facets to his voice that we were able to take on a lot of the different characters" in Savatage's rock operas," O'Neill says. "But even with the incredible talent within that band, there were limitations, and we wanted to take it to the next level. So we decided to start a brand new project -- Trans-Siberian Orchestra."
With TSO, "the music was all that mattered," he adds. "We'd write the story, then the songs, and then we would go find the best possible singers to sing those songs and the best possible players to play those songs . . ."
Writing with Oliva and Bob Kinkel, O'Neill interpreted and expanded upon a number of seasonal standards and wrote new songs for 1996's "Christmas Eve & Other Stories." They used Savatage, but also orchestras, choirs and special guest vocalists.
"One song had a Motown feel and Savatage wasn't going to do that," O'Neill laughs, "so we got Ken Williams, who wrote the Main Ingredient classic, 'Everybody Plays the Fool.' We wanted a Broadway feel, so we got Marlene Danielle, who was in 'Cats' for 16 years. TSO allowed us to go a million different places that we would never have been able to go normally."
The first TSO album went gold and spawned a sequel, 1998's "The Christmas Attic," which used symphonic and rock elements to spin an enchanting tale about God's youngest angel and a 14-year old runaway. Last year, TSO crafted a television special, "The Ghost of Christmas Eve," featuring Ozzie Davis, Jewel and Michael Crawford, and ended up doing a few select concerts, something O'Neill had never envisioned.
"We use 100 musicians on every album and originally I didn't think there was going to be any way to tour it," he says.
But a couple of major radio stations in Detroit and Cleveland put together fundraisers featuring TSO and sold out multiple shows with little notice. "This year, 60 cities called for it," says O'Neill, which explains why there are two traveling TSO companies -- each featuring 24 people onstage, with an orchestra augmented with keyboards, a full rock band, six lead singers, background singers and full rock 'n' roll production.
One TSO is touring the East Coast, while the other is out West. "That way, everyone will be able to see [the Christmas show] in December," O'Neill says. "Growing up in New York, I didn't want to go see the Radio City Music Hall Christmas extravaganza on Dec. 26; by then Christmas was over. 'It's a Wonderful Life' is a great movie if you see it in July, but if you see it in December, it has more magic. 'A Christmas Carol' is a great book, but if you read it in December, it has extra magic."
If only O'Neill could find a little extra time in his Christmas stocking! Earlier this year, TSO (which does only rock operas) released its first nonseasonal project, "Beethoven's Last Night." An intriguing mix of Marlowe's "Dr. Faustus" and "Scrooge," the ambitious work thrusts the composer's soul into a battle between good and evil, between creative immortality and eternal damnation, with that elusive 10th symphony as a bargaining chip. Like TSO's other projects, it mixes original material with revamped classics by Beethoven, Mozart and Rimsky-Korsakov. There are already discussions about it being adapted by a major ice show, as well as by the North Carolina State Theater, which wants to develop it for a 2003 Broadway opening.
There are three other completed musicals, a novelette to be published next year and two completed rock operas, including a fourth Savatage project, "Poets and Madmen," which deals with personal conscience and media manipulation and is inspired by a famous incident that O'Neill wants to keep secret for now. It's a follow-up to 1998's "The Wake of Magellan," which interwove the true stories of Veronica Guerin, the Irish reporter killed while exposing her country's growing drug trade, and three stowaways thrown overboard by the irate captain of the freighter Maersk Dubai. Obviously, O'Neill watches CNN more than he does MTV.
And O'Neill's hoping to be back on Broadway next year with "Romanov," a long-delayed musical set amid the Russian Revolution. "It's like 'Phantom of the Opera' with more rock edge to it," O'Neill explains, adding that "characters like Rasputin, Tolstoy, Stalin and Beria are too good to be believed. You couldn't make these people up."
Unless you were a natural-born storyteller.
TRANS-SIBERIAN ORCHESTRA -- Appearing Friday at Constitution Hall. To hear a free Sound Bite from Trans-Siberian Orchestra, call Post-Haste at 202/334-9000 and press 8108. (Prince William residents, call 690-4110.)© 2000 The Washington Post http://washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/style/weekend/A34335-2000Dec20.html