TSO combines theater, rock, Beethoven

Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s “Beethoven’s Last Night” will be performed on March 9 at 8 p.m. in Tallahassee. Special photo

Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s “Beethoven’s Last Night” will be performed on March 9 at 8 p.m. in Tallahassee. Special photo

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Paul O’Neill’s efforts to “try and avoid getting a real job” turned into a 16-year-and-counting rock and roll fantasy that has landed him a spot alone as the king of rock theater.

As founder/composer/lyricist of the wildly unique — and wildly successful even beyond O’Neill’s dreams — Trans-Siberian Orchestra, the former guitarist for touring productions of “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Hair” is now the mastermind of an expanding TSO empire that has sold more than 8 million copies of its five rock operas and has surpassed 9 million (and $334 million) in ticket sales for the stage production of those operas.

In the middle of it all sits, O’Neill, the unassuming New York native who grew up surrounded by a wide range of musical and artistic influences, whose DNA he grafted into a hybrid brand of entertainment that is equal parts progressive rock bombast, over-the-top Broadway theatrics and the refinement of classical music masters.

“There’s so much material, so much stuff, so many influences with what we do in TSO,” O’Neill said in an exclusive interview. “I think about growing up with 10 of us kids — One of my favorite lines of my mom’s is when she used to tell us, ‘There are 10 of you; we could lose two and still be perfectly fine.’ — and people used to ask my mom on the way to church ‘How do you divide your love?’ She told them, ‘I don’t divide, I multiply.’

“That’s the kind of approach I’ve taken with Trans-Siberian Orchestra. It’s not enough to have any single element go over well. If the theater is compelling but the music and production are bad, what you’re doing is diminished. If the music is good and the theater is not, it becomes a farce. We look for that balance.”

TSO fans from around the Southeast will have an opportunity to experience the ensemble March 9 at the Tallahassee-Leon County Civic Center during a production of the acclaimed “Beethoven’s Last Night.”

“Beethoven was the first real rock star,” O’Neill said. “I guess you could say he was the first heavy metal rock star because he suffered from lead poisoning and doctors treated it with mercury.

“But Beethoven’s story is fascinating, and the idea behind ‘Last Night’ was to capture his story based on his history.”

O’Neill’s rock opera recounts the fictional tale of how, on the last night of his life, Beethoven — aided by Fate and her son Twist — unwittingly tricks Mephistopheles and is allowed to keep his soul. The touring performance of “Beethoven’s Last Night” is based on the opera written by O’Neill and recorded by TSO in 2000.

“Warner Brothers wanted to know why we chose a work that was 10 years old, but I believe in this business timing is everything,” the composer said. “It’s like in the 1990s ‘Titanic’ was the ultimate love story, a movie about a woman who after getting engaged and being given the largest diamond in the world became depressed. In 2012, the woman would give the diamond back and get a job.

“In these times, especially with the economic picture as bleak as it is, I felt this was the vehicle that would resonate with a modern audience.”


“Beethoven’s Last Night”

When: March 9, 8 p.m.

Where: Tallahassee-Leon County Civic Center

505 W. Pensacola St.

Tickets: TLCCC box offic, Ticketmaster outlets, ticketmaster.com

Info: (850) 487-1692 www.tlccc.org

The production has gone over so well, in fact, Warner has pulled the trigger on the March 13 release of “Beethoven’s Last Night: The Complete Narrated Version.” The special two-disc set will feature all the music from the original release plus, for the first time, the narration featured during live performances.

Bryan Hicks will provide the narration, and the package will include a booklet filled with illustrations from the story, plus full lyrics and narration. The set will be available at Walmart and TSO concerts only for a month before being sold at other outlets starting in April.

“This is the way I always imagined this work being released,” O’Neill said. “It’s an opportunity to pick up a pizza, go home, sit back and within minutes be wandering the streets of Vienna with Beethoven during the last great adventure of his life.

“I realized this was going to work when I gave a test-pressing of the project to my wife to listen to and she wouldn’t give it back.”

While juggling the demands of the “Beethoven” tour, future movie and soundtrack projects, music for planned albums and polishing off the next Trans-Siberian Orchestra touring spectacle, O’Neill finds himself in the middle of one of those dilemmas driven and successful people seem to thrive on: Too little of himself to go around.

“It’s just amazing the way this has worked out,” he said. “Since TSO has gotten stupid big, there are all these demands and all these projects. It’s a great problem to have, but I finally had to tell the folks at Warner to back off. They’re going to have to take a minute to do the math; I’m not 19 anymore.

“I have to be able to give people who are looking for a way to escape their problems an affordable way to do so. It’s like I tell the artists who are a part of our show: You have to earn those ticket sales every night. Most people can easily afford the $25 to $60 for tickets to our show, but for some this is the only entertainment event they’ll get to see all year. We don’t have the right not to give our very best.”

But is there a point where O’Neill’s own battery starts to run low?

“Well, I’ll see one of those Sealy Posturpedic ads and I’ll say, ‘Ah, sleep, I remember that’,” he jokes. “But we’ll catch up. For now, this is an opportunity to live out my musical fantasy. I love every aspect of it.

“Obviously, this little project has done quite well over the years, and that’s still amazing to me. But the thing I love best is giving young kids an opportunity to experience the classic composers but on the kids’ level. When I look out in the audience and see the looks on kids’ faces who are really into the show, that’s better than money. That’s why I do this.”