A few sure signs that holiday season is near are rumors of Black Friday sales, gift shops changing from pumpkin- to holly-scented candles, and the arrival of Trans-Siberian Orchestra at the Verizon Wireless Arena, something that’s happened every year since 2004.
The band features more than 20 performers working on two stages, with lasers, smoke bombs and multiple levels of scaffolding that requires a fleet of trucks to haul around. The first half of the show typically draws from the band’s multi-platinum Christmas Trilogy, songs like “Dream Child,” “Old City Bar” and “Christmas Eve (Sarajevo).” For the latter portion, TSO proves it’s not a one-season band, performing music from 2010’s Night Castle, Beethoven’s Last Night and two other works due for release next year, Romanov: What Kings Must Whisper and Gutter Ballet & The New York Rock Express.
Both date back to TSO’s early years. Romanov was supposed to be their first record in 1994, but Paul O’Neill (a TSO composer as well as a lyricist and producer) was urged to wait for a chance to turn it into a full stage production.
“William Morris got this insane bidding war going,” O’Neill said recently by phone while taking a break from tour preparations. Figures as high as $30 million were discussed, “but my agent got me something better, something he shouldn’t have been able to get, which was 100 percent artistic control over everything.”
Then, his vision collided with reality.
“I work in rock ’n’ roll, and take-your-breath-away production is completely different from what Broadway considers that to be,” O’Neill says. “Cats and Phantom of the Opera are masterpieces, but when you look at these shows, basically they’re using the same technology they were doing in the 1920s. People roll sets on and off, you got some lights, maybe a little fog, costumes and that’s about it.”
Gutter Ballet was conceived in the late 1970s as a blues/rock/gospel project, until the late guitarist Criss Oliva heard it during sessions O’Neill was producing with his band Savatage. “He suggested we metal-ize it up,” recalls O’Neill of what eventually became 1991’s Streets: A Rock Opera.
Now, TSO is returning to O’Neill’s original vision: “It’s a Leon Russell-meets-Randy Newman, honky-tonk piano kind of a thing,” he says. “We’ve so pushed the prog rock envelope … this is a 90-degree right turn.”
Ultimately, it will contain the elements that have made TSO a fan favorite and one of Billboard Magazine’s Top 25 live acts.
“We’re refining this thing we call Rock Theatre — we take tried and true storytelling, things like Amadeus, and combine it with the production and vocal standards of rock ’n’ roll,” O’Neill says. “There have been so many rock operas done where even after the band explains it to me, I don’t get it. In TSO we always write it in prose, and we re-tell it in poetry form — I stole that from Oscar Wilde … you get a great story that’s emotionally engaging, and then the special effects have way more impact.”
The band worked on both records simultaneously, to avoid the kinds of challenges that delayed the last album by nearly five years.
“Writing is the easy part, but finding the right voices to bring certain characters to life is the hard part,” says O’Neill, recalling the logistical nightmare of booking busy singers. “The band’s joke was, what will we see first, a McDonald’s on Mars or Night Castle?”
TSO recently completed a successful tour of Europe, the band’s first trip across the pond.
“YouTube paved the way in ways we could not have comprehended,” O’Neill says. On the tour’s final show in London, they performed for Queen — the band, not the person.
Playing in Vienna, where Mozart was born and Beethoven made many of his greatest works, was a special thrill for O’Neill.
“Mozart was the world’s first rock star, and Beethoven was the world’s first heavy metal star,” he says. “When you think of the opening riff of the Fifth Symphony — dun dun dun dum! If Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith or Black Sabbath had written that no one would have believed it. He was ahead of his time, and it was definitely a magical moment in my life.”
Last fall, a TSO special began airing on PBS, the first to show the band playing in concert, and they hope to eventually release a full-length DVD of Beethoven’s Last Night. Also in the works for the ever-busy band is a novel called Merry Christmas, Rabbi, illustrated by TSO’s longtime artist Greg Hildebrandt; a four-page excerpt will appear in the tour program.
When the band hits the stage in Manchester for two shows on Nov. 13, fans can expect to see many familiar figures and a few first-time members, something O’Neill is always excited about.
“This band breathes,” he says. “It’s good to see new faces coming up.”