After a decade of phenomenal touring success, Paul O’Neill confesses that he and the rest of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra crew were “petrified” about the prospects of hitting the road this year for the troupe’s annual holiday tour.
Gas prices were up. The economy was down — and continuing to slide — and concert ticket sales were following suit. TSO’s concerned booking agents even called O’Neill in the studio during the summer, while he was working on the group’s long-overdue next album. “They wanted to know if we were going to cut down the show this year,” recalls O’Neill, 52, who cofounded TSO in 1996.
“I said, ‘No, we’re gonna double the size of the show this year!’ And they’re like, ‘Gawd ... how much are you gonna raise ticket prices?’ I said, ‘Ticket prices are gonna stay the same.’”
O’Neill has kept true to his word. TSO tickets are priced the same as they were in 2007, and the troupe is providing more bang for the buck — literally and figuratively, with a pile of precisely deployed pyrotechnics and munitions that would make the Joint Chiefs of Staff envious.
And despite hard economic times, O’Neill reports that TSO’s 2008 tour, a two-company trek that will hit more than 90 cities, is “selling more tickets than we ever have” and is likely to break 2007’s record of nearly 1.5 million fans in 128 shows, with a gross of $49.3 million.
The continuing success has “kind of befuddled me,” acknowledges O’Neill, 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 write for the band Savatage before launching TSO. “We’re on target to do hundreds of thousands more (people) than last year.
“Y’know, we’re not bread, butter, heating oil ... But human beings, besides food, shelter, warmth, need moments of joy, and if not moments of joy than just moments without stress. And the TSO concert is just so over-the-top, I don’t care what’s going on in your personal life. For those three hours, with all the pyro effects, the lighting effects, your brain won’t be able to think of anything else, and the stress chemicals will stop running through your body.
“So it’s a chance to recharge the mind and the body, and I’ve always made sure we’ve kept it priced so that anybody and any family could afford to come see these shows.”
That philosophy has allowed O’Neill and company to turn TSO into a veritable holiday juggernaut. Since it started touring 10 years ago, TSO has sold about $207.7 million worth of tickets.
It’s also moved nearly seven million copies of its four rock operas — 1996’s “Christmas Eve & Other Stories” (which spawned the hit single “Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24),” 1998’s “The Christmas Attic,” 2004’s “The Lost Christmas Eve” — and its lone secular outing, 2000’s “Beethoven’s Last Night.”
But it’s the live show — which O’Neill describes as “‘Phantom of the Opera’ meets the Who with Pink Floyd’s light show” — that remains TSO’s calling card, and the co-founder speaks of the $2 million-plus production like a proud papa watching his baby continue to grow, or a mad scientist watching his experiment run amok.
“We just keep pushing the envelope,” O’Neill explains, “trying to outdo ourselves visually, every year. The only bad thing about that is the next year you have to figure out a way to keep it — and also keep the ticket price in line, too.”
TSO’s primary agenda for next year, however, is new music. O’Neill and his collaborators — Robert Kinkel, Jon Oliva and guitar ace Al Pitrelli — have been working on “Nightcastle,” a non-Christmas album, “for so long that it’s embarrassing.” A release is finally on the horizon, however; TSO put out one new song, “Night Enchanted,” via Amazon.com, and the TSO crew is currently wrestling the 90 songs they’ve recorded into a still-overwhelming 60-song package that mixes another rock opera with a batch of more straightforward, unrelated songs.
“It definitely got out of control,” O’Neill says with a laugh. “It was originally going to be a 12-song regular album, and then Jon said, ‘Paul, you have to do a rock opera’ — his theory is that’s what makes TSO different from other bands.
“So we wrote the rock opera and kept writing the other songs and now it’s a monster. But it’s coming out next year; I feel confident about that. I just hope (since) we’ve been talking about it so long, people think it’s worth the wait.”
Trans-Siberian Orchestra performs at 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sunday (Dec. 21) at The Palace, Lapeer Road at I-75, Auburn Hills. Tickets are $49.50 and $39.50. Call (248) 377-0100 or visit www.palacenet.com.
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