Michael McLean, beloved LDS musician, sits down with LDS Living to talk about a Christmas favorite: The Forgotten Carols.
In the November/December 2011 issue of LDS Living, we published an article on Michael McLean's Forgotten Carols in honor of the 20th anniversary of the musical. Though most of our interview couldn't make it into the article, he was so much fun, we wanted to share some of it with you anyway.
For example: my favorite part of the interview was not even an official part of the interview. Michael was sitting in his car, talking to me on the phone, when he happened to see T.C. Christensen (the Mormon movie mastermind behind 17 Miracles, Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration, and The Testaments) walk by. So he honked his horn, rolled down his window, and shouted out, "T.C.! My brother from another mother!" (Keep in mind, these are two 50-ish grown men.) T.C. Christensen replied in kind: "You still hanging out with those Mormons?" I nearly fell out of my seat laughing.
Unfortunately, with a two-hour interview on my recorder, it still wasn't feasible to put all of it online. But for you I've compiled some of my favorite humorous anecdotes and inspiring stories to provide a more in-depth view into the workings of Michael McLean's amazing brain and the magic of the musical that has touched thousands of lives around the world.
LDSL: What was the process of creating The Forgotten Carols?
MM: I had a week. So I did this really unusual thing for me, and I tried this really interesting experiment. I had heard about people who use their creative subconscious to help them when they were really busy. And so I wrote as much as I could one Saturday night, and just before I went to bed I had this little moment where I told my creative unconscious, “You know, I've gotta sleep, but you can work on this all night long. That would be great. Here's the stuff that I'm thinking about and here's the stuff I'm worried about; I'll get up early tomorrow and I'll see you about 6 or 6:30, and don't worry about editing this stuff, just try to help get the story moving along, and I’ll see what you’ve got in the morning.” And I went to bed.
And I wake up in the morning, and I have an appointment with my subconscious. And I say, “Well, thanks for working all night long on this for me—this is great. Just share with me what you’ve got, and I’ll type as fast as I can, and don’t worry about editing. I’ll do that later.” And then I would type until I had to leave for work. I would type from like 6 in the morning until like 8:30 or something. And then after I finished typing, I thought to myself, “Well here are some other ideas, and here’s some stuff. I have to go to work now, but could you work on this while I’m working at Bonneville? I’ll come back tonight about 6:30 or 7, and here’s some things I’d like you to kind of figure out, because I don’t know what the answers to these are—but--work on this for me.”
So then I’d go to work all day and then I’d drive home to Heber, and then after I had dinner I’d sit down at my computer and say, “Hey, you’ve been working on this all day long while I’ve been working at Bonneville, and I’m really grateful. I can’t wait to see what you’ve got, I’ll just type it up and then we’ll see how we’re doing; I’ll probably go to 11 or 12 tonight.” And then I’d just start typing as fast as I could.
And I did that every day, and then that Saturday came, and I just asked myself: “I’d just like you to work on this full time for me, because I have these other things I have to do—to pay the light bill and take care of my kids and whatever.”
And at the end of the week, The Forgotten Carols was written. The book was written, and some new songs I had added to it, and some new thoughts I hadn’t thought of. I don’t say that to suggest that every second of what I do is all inspired and I’m this great conduit for Heaven or something, but it was just kind of a remarkable thing for me that it happened.
LDSL: How did you put yourself in the position of the characters?
MM: The big idea was “Who was part of the Christmas story that’s just like me, but we don’t think about very often?” when I made the connection: “Wait a second, the reason I’m writing a song about an innkeeper turning away Joseph and Mary is because I’m that guy. I am exactly that guy. I’m not a bad guy, I’m just too busy. I will miss great moments because I’m just trying to pay the light bill and keep the inn full and you know… I’m not trying to hurt anybody, I’m just too busy. I’m like that guy. Well, who else am I like?
What if there was a shepherd that fell asleep—Oh my gosh, what if a shepherd lived during the time, and everyone woke him and said, the most incredible thing—you just missed it; let me tell you about it. Oh my gosh! I’m the shepherd! I didn’t get to see it firsthand. I have to take that story secondhand and decide if I’ll believe it. And can I believe it even though I wasn’t there? Will I say, “Somehow I did believe it, though I’d not seen a thing, I did not go to Bethlehem or hear the angels sing, but if you feel the spirit in the air, you know if you felt the magic in the air, you’ll know that He was here.” And that’s what began the thought process that led to the characters
What if I’m struggling to be a father—what did he feel like as the dad of Jesus? How do you criticize your kid? What if he had a bad day and he shouted at Jesus? I mean, you know who your kid is, and you’re a creepy dad that day. How did you mess that up? What does that feel like? And then the song went forth from that.
And I’ve been writing songs for a long time—the beginning of my career I wrote a song every day for a year. So I had had the skills or the craft of songwriting happen a lot, so once my mind started thinking, “Oh, wouldn’t it be cool if we met Handel, and what if Handel was like me? What if he couldn’t sing?” And Handel could sing, but what if in his dream he couldn’t sing, and he wanted to be in the choir to welcome Jesus, and the guy says, “You’ve got a different role to play. You’re not going to be the lead singer of the angels welcoming Jesus. But you’re gonna write this thing in the 1700s and it’s going to be heard by millions and millions and millions of people for hundreds of years because it came from your heart.”
That’s the evolutionary process of the creativeness. It isn’t like it just pops into my head and it comes written and done. It comes as a spark that requires that every skill I’ve worked all my life to develop gets to become operable.
LDSL: Obviously, with putting on such a big production so many times each year and for so many years, there's a lot of room for mishaps. Can you tell me about some of those?
MM: Once, we had this really clever idea where the cop would come on and get a phone call, because cell phones had just come out. So I would have someone call me onstage, and it could be something from headquarters. I thought this was going to brilliant, this will be a great surprise, no one has seen this before. The problem was, I forgot that other people could call me too if I left the phone on. So at the wrong place in the show I got a phone call, and it’s just ringing on stage. So I had to figure out a way to answer it and make it sound like it was a part of the show. And the person who called me, for the rest of forever, had no idea what I was talking about. And decided that they had to call again because they probably got the wrong number. So I then had to respond to it and turn it off. That was just crazy.
There were times when the microphone wasn’t turned off during one of the numbers when I had to go off stage and change costumes and go to the bathroom and flush and everything.
There was the time where I had to have a surgery in the middle of the tour, and I had one night off. And I have to decide whether I'm going to take my pain meds, which would make me loopy and forget my lyrics, or whether or not I was going to not take them, and be in so much pain I couldn't sit. It was the most brilliant performance of The Forgotten Carols I've ever done because I walked like a guy who'd been around for 2,000 years.
One time when we were down in southern California we had a group of great singers [to sing the “Homeless” a capella song], but the guy blew the pitch pipe in the wrong key, and everyone got the wrong relative pitch, so five guys are singing in five different keys, and the guy who’s supposed to sing the lead doesn’t know who to follow. So here’s this mess, and I’m off stage and you hear this “ehhhh.” It was the only night that I’ve ever done the show that John Batdorf—who wrote the arrangement and sang on the record—had come to see the show. And it was utterly, completely destroyed. It was the worst; I should have just stopped and done an adlib, and gone over to the piano and started it off right. But no, they went on, and it was the most embarrassing performance of “Homeless” there has ever been.
There were times when we had a choir that was so old that they slept through the show, and they were on stage the whole time, and what happened was, I was walking past—because I would perform in front of them and they would just stand—and four of the people of the front row of the choir [were snoring].
Then you have people in the audience who brought way too many kids, and the kids are screaming so loud, so I’m finding ways to try to say something about how to get people out of the room so others can enjoy the show, and still make it feel like it’s part of the program. You know—“And then suddenly Connie Lou and John hear, because the window was open on this cold night, that next door there was a child screaming for his mother to attend to him. And then everyone started applauding because the kid started up crazy, and then I made an enemy of that poor mother who had that child there. She wasn’t coming back.
I did a performance once and got a letter that said, “I’m just writing, Mr. McLean, to tell you that I had this horrible experience with The Forgotten Carols and you should know about it. There’s somebody going out there and doing this show who can’t sing, and I bought this record, and I love this record and I spent all this money to bring my whole family, and this guy gets up, and he can’t act, and he can’t sing, and he tries to do this show like a story and a play and it was just awful. Is there any way I could get my money?” And it was me! This person had seen me and said, “You have a record with these good singers, why couldn’t you just do a concert with those good singers, that would have been plenty for me. But I have to endure this show, and there’s no easy way for me to sneak out. You’re the worst.”
LDSL: What about special behind-the-scenes moments? Can you tell us about some of those?
MM: Once there was a girl who had played Connie Lou the year before, and her only job was that when I come out and do that little dance with Connie Lou, she would come out at that part and dance with Uncle John [McLean] and give him a little kiss on the cheek before she left. Well, she did that, but the next year we went back to that same college and she was now married. She says, “I’m going to play Connie Lou, but I want you to know, Brother McLean, I’m not going to be able to actually kiss you or touch you when I kiss you on the cheek.” And I said, “Well, why?” And she said, “I’m married now; my covenants of fidelity prohibit me from kissing you on the cheek.” And I looked at her, and said, “Really? This is just a character.” And she said, “I know, but I don’t want people to get the wrong idea.” And I said, “You kissed me last year.” And she said “Well, I wasn’t married; I hadn’t made sacred covenants.” So I said “Well, we’ll go through rehearsal, and I understand, you got to do what you got to do.” And her husband was in the choir, so as we go through this part of the show, as she was about to kiss me on the cheek I turned my face right to her and said in front of the choir at rehearsal: “No tongue!” And everybody fell off their chair, and everybody knew who she was—it was the biggest laugh I’ve ever gotten, and I couldn’t use it ever again.
Scott’s best friend from acting academy is a secular Israeli Jew. And when Scott [McLean's son who adapted the story into a play] couldn't do it anymore, he said, “Have Gili direct it.” A story about Jesus? Not a Mormon thing about Jesus—this is about Jesus. And no Christmas shows are about Jesus. It’s A Wonderful Life has a spiritual message, but it’s not about Jesus. The Christmas Carol isn’t about Jesus; it’s about an encounter with these themes, but this show is about everybody’s encounter with Jesus. How is a Jew—not only a Jew, but a secular Jew, he’s not a religious Jew—how’s he going to get it? And Scott said, “Trust me on this, the kid is a beautiful artist and he’ll do great.”
And Gili Getz sees things in The Forgotten Carols that I haven’t seen at all. And because he’s Jewish, we start adding things to the script that have Jewish references, like what we named the shepherd boy was Hebrew for sleeping. “One of the Jewish traditions would be THIS,” he would say, “and maybe we can incorporate it in the way she would dance, and what about this, what about that.” And he saw things in the human component of the story and the spiritual evolution that were insightful and brilliant. And this guy wasn’t a Christian.
So he became this phenomenal addition to the show. All of us became better actors because of his directing skills, and he’s a great actor. From when he took over Scott’s script, every year there would be these improvements, these tightenings based on this adaptation written by Scott that has been evolving under the direction of everybody being guided by this secular Israeli Jew.
Because he was Jewish, we would ask him to say a prayer in Hebrew as we took our turns praying before each show. And we would celebrate Hanukkah with him, and he would light the candles of Hanukkah every night before the show as we celebrated that, and he would give the Hebrew prayer to bless our show. And, I'm telling you--suddenly the inclusiveness and the broadness of that opened our hearts and made us feel that this was a much bigger show than something that is for people who are just Mormons.
LDSL: What do you think it is that makes this show so special?
MM: The show was evolved and changed a little every year since it began, and the audience has grown. My gratitude is for the people who still let it become a tradition, even though it has evolved. You’re kind of walking that line—how do we preserve the heart of the show, and how much of these people are coming to see it because they are fans of Michael McLean, they come each year to see “this guy who’s not much of a singer but he connects with me, to see him sing these songs, and cry on stage because he is sincerely kind of a big boob—that’s who he is—and we kind of like that guy. He’s not good looking he’s not talented in those ways.” And that’s what people have said to me: they don’t come because I’m this great thing, they come because what this is about them. It isn’t about me. Each one of those carols is about them. They’re the person who was too busy; they’re the innkeeper who turned away Joseph and Mary; they’re the person who sang “Mary let me hold her baby and I’m reborn”; they’re the ones trying to find their way; they're the fathers trying to connect with their kids; they feel homeless and lost. The show is about, in a veiled way, their connection with the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
What is absolutely true—and shocks me that it continues to be true—is that every night that I do this I learn something. I’ll be listening to these songs I’ve sung for 20 years and think, “Oh my gosh, I think this song means that. Oh my heavens! I think this means that. And it’s extraordinary. I will hear a line or I will see something take place and I will be astounded at how deeply I will be moved. Things about my personal life that I need to know to help me through a crisis. Things to help me through my faith that has been shaken. Things that help me realize that I’m having a Connie Lou moment. There are a lot of things about the gospel that are easy to explain, but there are a whole bunch of things I still don’t get. Am I willing to suspend my disbelief long enough to trust that maybe things that don’t make sense could be true? And I think of that, and I think of the things that are being said and you know, maybe in the end, I don’t feel like I own The Forgotten Carols. I just heard them first. And I’m kinda passing along what I heard. But I heard them because I needed them. I think God made me a songwriter because that’s how he talks to me. That’s the way he sends signals that he really exists, that he really sent his Son, and that he really loves me.
One of the things about The Forgotten Carols that I don’t know if people pick up on—but that I really notice—is this: ALL of this was about one person. The fact that a guy over 2,000 years old would make sure that all those ornaments would tie into all those songs that could be shared with some others, but it was really meant for Constance Louise Chamberlin. She gets all the ornaments at the end. Why? Because every ornament was meant just for her. And we think that Jesus came to save us all and we think, “Well, I’m glad I’m in the group of 'all.'” But we don’t think, “He only came for me.”
But all of this—the suffering in Gethsemane or the saving the ornament, the making the cradle and bringing it to you at the one time in your life that you might believe that a guy who claims to be alive 2,000 years would love you so deeply that he would bring you the song your father wanted you to hear that had been forgotten, all of this—that took 2,000 years to orchestrate—was done just for you, Connie Lou. And I have given you a new name.
And I don’t know whether people ever will think of it that way, but that’s the way I think of it. And that’s the way all the little subliminal things keep coming back to go “Oh my gosh! I just thought I was writing what the subconscious was spitting out after working on it all night.” What I realized was that not only that subconscious but that part that’s connected to the divine said, “Here’s some lessons and some observations and some insights I would love for you to get year after year after year, Michael. And the reason you’ll get them is because people will be nice enough to buy tickets so you can afford to get on stage to tell yourself the story that you most need to hear.”