John O'Neil - Interviews
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Cabaret Scenes, June 2008
John O'Neil - Wearing Many Hats
by John Amodeo
Reprinted with permission from Cabaret Scenes.
This article originally appeared in the June 2008 issue of Cabaret Scenes.
John O' Neil
The first thing you notice when you enter John O'Neil's home are the hats. Women's hats, of all sizes, colors, and shapes adorn the walls. Picture hats, and pill box hats, vintage and contemporary. Some resting on piles of hat boxes in the corners. "It all started inauspiciously, during a holiday trip to San Francisco with friends in 1990," says O'Neil. "I brought home this red fez thing with black ostrich feathers, and I wore it during my first New Year's Eve piano bar gig at Napoleon's. Then for weeks, and months, and years people appeared at my piano with hats, many feathered, a lot of pill boxes, often from their aunts' and mothers' collections," O'Neil recalls. At one time, 120 hats adorned the hallways of his Brookline, MA apartment, but when it came time to move into his new condo in Boston's Fensgate two years ago, it was time to divest. "I donated many to theater companies and schools, but a good many still remain." It is beneath these hats where most of his creative process occurs.
John O' Neil
And a prolific creative process it is. In the past 20 years, O'Neil has established himself as one of the most prominent piano bar and cabaret performers in the Boston area. He has performed 20 different cabaret shows in the past 17 years, one of which, 'So Kaye: The Songs of Danny Kaye, was nominated for an IRNE (Independent Reviewers of New England) Award and was made into a recording. And yet, for all his accomplishment, O'Neil is genuinely happy to share the spotlight, through teaching, directing, producing, or accompanying other singers. O'Neil nurtures the talent of others as much as he does his own, each factoring into his success. His secret? Some would say his infectious enthusiasm for songs and stories.
If you ask O'Neil, both the nurturing and the storytelling come from his family. O'Neil was the middle child of four (O'Neil has a fraternal twin brother) within an Irish-Catholic family living in the predominantly Jewish Boston suburb of Brookline, in a small Irish Catholic neighborhood affectionately called Whiskey Point.
It was in Whiskey Point that a nurturing Nana paid for his first piano lessons at age 7. While it was his mother from whom he got his musical aptitude, it was his Irish father from whom he got his gift of gab. "I've become my father, which, when I left home at seventeen, was the last thing I wanted to become, but am proud to be now," said O'Neil.
Twin Jim, sister Carole, brother George and John
In fact, when they say the apple doesn't fall very far from the tree, O'Neil's life seemed to take that literally, having fled 4 hours north to college only to find himself living most of his adult life 2 miles from where he was raised. Family members all manage to show up in O'Neil's shows, especially 'So Kaye, which feature his mother and grandmother prominently. "In my next show, Let's Go To The Movies, my sister-in-law Gert will finally appear.
"I tell people who hire me up front, that I'm a story teller. If you're expecting an hour of solid music, you will be disappointed." He doesn't know of any other cabaret performer in Boston, except perhaps Carol O'Shaughnessy, who draws upon the family as much as he does. "Does art imitate life, or the other way 'round, or is it all the same?" O'Neil mused.
with Madame, Waylan Flowers
and Laura Baronet
O'Neil soon found that the piano bar scene was a perfect venue for his mix of music and gab, though it was more fate than design that determined that. Having become a regular customer at The Napoleon Club, then one of Boston's most prominent gay nightclubs and piano bars, O'Neil discovered one night that the piano bar room was empty. He asked the proprietor why, and he replied that the regular girl was sick. O'Neil exclaimed, "I can do this!" and the owner, having little to lose, said OK. "Mind you, I'd never played a piano bar in my life. And I was TERRIBLE," O'Neil swore. "But it was my enthusiasm then, as it is today, that people responded to." It must have worked, since the owner offered O'Neil a permanent gig, 4 nights a week, which lasted 9 years.
O'Neil flourished in Boston's lively piano bar circuit of the 1990's, attracting regulars at Napoleon's in Bay Village, and Diamond Jim's in the Hotel Lenox every week for years. "In my beginnings at the piano bars, I had no understanding of decorum. My models then, and even to this day, were the variety show comedians of the 60's and 70's, with the shtick, the laughter, and the pacing," recalls O'Neil, I would try to be quiet, but I don't know how to put a top on something I love to do so much. Like I say at Frank's, 'It just has to be said!'" O'Neil just celebrated his 10th year at Frank's Steakhouse in North Cambridge. And lest you say "steakhouse" with upturned nose, you haven't yet seen O'Neil's transformation of the place.
Steppin' out for the CabFest Parade
For years, O'Neil moored in the safe harbors of piano bars, until he was lured in front of the piano by his two close friends, cabaret performers Carol O'Shaughnessy and Jan Peters. "I was petrified," O'Neil confessed. "There's a great deal of safety when you have eight feet of piano between you and the audience. When you bomb, you can throw in an arpeggio."
However, once O'Neil tried it, there was no stopping him. In the next two years he created and performed three cabaret shows: Songs My Father Never Sang To Me (1999), Camp Songs (2000), and Boys Will Be Boys (2000). That year, he also created 'So Kaye, the Songs of Danny Kaye, which took O'Neil's career in a new direction, thanks to Ellie Elsworth, and the Eugene O'Neill Cabaret Symposium, which O'Neil attended at Peters' encouragement.
It was at the Symposium where Elsworth, Symposium co-director and one of its teachers, told O'Neil he should try Danny Kaye's material. "I thought, Danny Kaye is extreme comedy, and would be a stretch for John, dangerous, and a bit beyond his reach, which is not to say, unachievable," Elsworth was careful to add. "It's easy to make a suggestion, but harder to investigate it, see what you can make out of it, and follow it through, which is just what he did." The show easily appealed to mainstream audiences, and has been performed regularly throughout the Northeast. Elsworth remarked, "What makes a unique performer is the level to which a show is repeatable. It's like one in a thousand people who can do this, and he is one of those. He's the real deal."
Steppin' into the recording studio
Between performing and producing, O'Neil spends much of his time teaching musical theater and cabaret to young minds in local school programs, as well as adult students in private coaching. One of his adult students, Colleen Powers, first met O'Neil at Frank's, where she got up and sang a song. O'Neil saw her potential and asked her if she'd be interested in studying with him. "I had no idea what I needed to work on, but what I found so challenging and frightening was that with every song, John would ask me 'Why are you singing this?' He really didn't care what my answer was. He just wanted me to know why I was singing it," remembered Powers. "It took me quite some time to realize the question was for me and not for him." Thanks to O'Neil, Powers has been holding her own gig Thursdays at Encores Cabaret Lounge for the past few years.
Jan Peters, John O'Neil and Carol O'Shaughnessy
It's his knack for pulling the character out of people, as well as his Irish gift of gab, added to his musical talents, that make O'Neil such a hit at Frank's Steakhouse every Saturday night. "The first time I walked into the room, I thought, I'll play, collect my money and that will be it. I'll be happy if I just make it through the night," recalled O'Neil. Ten years later, he is a fixture there, not editing his flamboyant persona one iota. "I play in the sports bar. Most of the time, there's a football game on the flatscreen television above my head. But it gives me occasion to make remarks about a tight end," quips O'Neil. Within this Fellini-esque setting, singers get up and sing at open mic, and O'Neil makes sure they feel welcome. "It's like the best house party you could ever get invited to, and I happen to be lucky enough to be the main attraction."
Back in O'Neil's house, beneath the hats, is an eclectic menagerie of tchotchke, memorabilia, nostalgia, posters of his own cabaret shows, two chirping parakeets, and an enormous greyhound named McNally. Amidst this, O'Neil served High Tea during the interview, with home-made sugar lime and lemon clove cookies. "I love that I work at home, and I can have tea or a nap whenever I want," remarked O'Neil. Over tea, he reflects, "The people who come in and sing at Frank's, without question, every one of them has a dream, and for three minutes, they have it. How can you mess with that?" And what about O'Neil's own dreams? "I have everything that I want. I never had that dream, because what I'm doing now is my dream."
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