“Look, Charlie, let’s face it. We all know that Christmas is a big commercial racket,” says the Peanuts’ Lucy Van Pelt in A Charlie Brown Christmas.
‘Tis the season indeed. And when the same saccharine, pop-tacular Christmas carols assault shoppers from every mall speaker and car radio, it’s easy to agree with that sentiment. But Latter-day Saint performer, songwriter and playwright Michael McLean’s The Forgotten Carols reminds us that there are songs and stories we haven’t heard.
McLean is always ready for the season—“I put the tree up on Labor Day!”—and ready for a fresh take on his beloved musical.
He acknowledges that Christmas stories can feel a little “emotionally manipulative,” as he puts it, “but the Spirit is way beyond that.” Rather than merely retelling the Christmas narrative or focusing on the commercial pleasures of the season, The Forgotten Carols focuses on both the Holy Spirit and the spirit of Christmas and “gives us a chance to see how we choose Him.”
McLean does this through songs that highlight lesser-known characters in the nativity story: the innkeeper who turned away the holy family that night, or the shepherd who overslept the angel’s proclamation.
Conceptualized as a Christmas album of loosely related songs during a whirlwind of composition in 1991, The Forgotten Carols quickly took on a life of its own as McLean devised a narrative to connect them all. A story about a nurse, Connie Lou, and her elderly patient, Uncle John (who claims to be over 2,000 years old), served as the vehicle to link the songs, creating a narrative arc in Connie Lou’s transition from hollowness to hope as Uncle John recounts the nativity story. Originally, McLean took on all the parts himself as a way to show people how to use the play in their homes and families. The production became a runaway hit, so popular that McLean couldn’t keep it up as a one-man performance.
Such success is not lost on McLean. “I sold a million tickets to see a guy who can’t act and sing, act and sing,” he quips.
By 2006, The Forgotten Carols had morphed into a full-fledged musical. Changes and additions have always been part of the process; in fact, McLean added a new carol, “12/25 (365)” just two years ago. In the show, a decoration is added to a tree with each carol, and for the new song, McLean designed a special ornament to support the Warm Hearts Campaign, an organization that provides winter necessities to Utah’s homeless youth.
In 2019, the production has changed again.
“It wasn’t broken, McLean, so why would you fix it?” he says, but for him the production’s changes felt organic, a natural progression of the original tale—and they were inspired by a potential move to the big screen.
“For years, I’ve wanted to make a movie,” he says, joking that he’s got Emily Blunt and Anthony Hopkins tapped for the leads already. Scott McLean, McLean’s son and a graduate of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, wrote feverishly with his father to ready a screenplay by May for possible investors. It was with movie discussions still in the works that McLean realized he wanted to reinvent the stage production as well.
“I’ve been telling this story for 28 years, but there’s never been a reimagining of the story so radical. I don’t know how it’s possible to tell the story so differently and have it feel so familiar, but that’s what’s happening,” he says.
The beating heart of the production is still its focus on Christ, and its characters feel relatable and true, from Joseph, who shares misgivings about raising his divine Son, to Connie Lou, whose personal trials and work have long since sapped her spirit.
Still, McLean felt that the characters have been “pretty two-dimensional”—up until now. “These characters have given me so much. I never get tired. Every night I learn something,” says McLean of the recent revisions. “From that standpoint it’s terribly exciting. I feel like everybody’s richer, everybody’s deeper.”
The new production maintains “everything people love,” McLean says, but now “in everything I wanted The Forgotten Carols to represent, this particular production delivers it more richly than I was capable of doing it years ago. I’ve got to tell the story this way.”
“I didn’t think it was possible to use the same characters and the same songs and feel suddenly so much deeper. But that’s actually what my experience has been learning the gospel,” McLean says, tying his production to deeper meanings in his life.
And for him, that’s a perspective which has come with time and trial. “I could not have done this 5 years ago,” he reflects. “Last year, I got so sick I was in the hospital and I nearly died. When you face the Grim Reaper, you start to say wait a minute, why am I still here? Is there something I’m supposed to do?”
The answer was a resounding yes. Drawing from his near-death experience and a past faith crisis, McLean’s reimagined musical can better speak to people who may feel spiritually forsaken. Years ago, McLean’s own father helped him to reevaluate his understanding of the Atonement, and what it means to be “abandoned” by God, a perspective that’s helped him to reinvent his familiar, well-loved characters.
“Could it be that the greatest intelligence ever put all of His faith in His Son, knowing that He would make the choice to do His Father’s will when His Father abandoned Him?” McLean’s father asked. “And could it be at the moment that you think you have been abandoned, that the greatest intelligence in the universe is witnessing that He has faith in you?”
McLean plumbs characters’ backstories for that level of emotional honesty and depth. “You have to endure that complexity,” he says of both his own trials and those of his characters. “Through these 28 years, my lifeline has been to tell this story. Now in the telling of the story this way, I feel it’s healing a part of me that was damaged and has been restored. I’m reminding myself more than ever what the Good News is.”
If you go . . . The Forgotten Carols is playing at ASU’s Gammage Auditorium in Tempe on Friday, December 13th. Tickets range from $12 – $36.50 and can be purchased at the door or by visiting the production’s website: https://www.forgottencarols.com/