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“The Forgotten Carols” performances written by and starring Michael McLean have begun. The show is playing in Utah, Idaho, Nevada and Arizona. For times and tickets go to forgottencarols.com
This year marks the 25th anniversary of “The Forgotten Carols”, but Michael McLean didn’t set out to start a Christmas tradition. In fact those many years ago when Deseret Book asked Michael if he’d like to create a Christmas album, he answered, “Why? Who needs more Christmas music? The thing you love about Christmas music is that it is really, really familiar. Nobody’s going to write a better song than ‘Silent Night’ or Handel’s ‘Messiah’ or ‘Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire.’ The thing I love about the holidays is that they are traditional.”
Then a day came along, some time later, when Michael was fiddling around on the piano and a tune began to form out of his head and he said, “I heard myself singing what became the ‘Innkeeper’s Song.’”
“I am a man forgotten
No one recalls my name
Thousands of years will fail to
Fully erase my shame.”
Michael finished this song, and he said, “I instantly recognized that the innkeeper was me. I am not a bad guy. I’m not a terrible person. I am just too busy and I sometimes miss the Lord.” Then, in an ah-ha moment, he thought, “Oh this is interesting,” and he began to think of all the characters in the Christmas story who had their own perspective, people who we never heard from and had no voice in the story—and he started to write their songs.
What he discovered as he wrote is that every character was him. “You write what you know and you write what you need to learn,” he said. His imagination flew. There was a kind of magic in the air as he thought about what these unsung characters might say.
“I wonder if I had been a shepherd and I fell asleep and missed it all and the only way I knew what happened is because other people told me? And what if I had to make a judgment based only on what I felt about what I heard? That’s me. That’s all of us.”
Then he imagined, what if there had been someone there helping Mary with her baby and she couldn’t have children. How would she feel? He found himself writing:
Mary let me hold her baby, so soft and warm.
Mary let me hold her baby and I was reborn.
In the story an Uncle John falls asleep and is dreaming he is singing in the heavenly choir, but that he also met Handel. In his dream, Uncle John learns that Handel has tried out for the heavenly choir, but he can’t sing and doesn’t make the cut. He thinks, if you could only hear the music in my heart, you’d let me sing. Suddenly the room is full of music, and it is the music that is coming from his heart. He wonders, “Why can’t I sing in the choir?” and is told, “You have a different voice, but it will be heard. Centuries from now more choirs than you can imagine will give your music voice that will be heard through time.”
Michael acknowledges, “I’m sure that as a guy who can’t sing, but has a lot of music in my heart, that character is me, too.”
After he found his idea, the songs came quickly and then he realized he had to have a book to accompany them. The challenge was that was April 5, 1991, and the Deseret Book board was meeting on the 13th. In order to have his book and album out by Christmas of that year, he had to make it happen in a week. But that magic was still operating and it happened.
How are People Going to Know?
The next question for Michael was how was he going to introduce these songs and unique concept in a way that made them feel like a tradition. His brainstorm was that he’d go on the road with a little author’s reading with costumes and a wig or two. He’d play all of the parts and have his wife, Lynn sing, “Mary Let Me Hold Her Baby.”
But his big fear was that no one would come. So then he thought, if I add choirs, the singers’ families would come. Then, he hoped, maybe he would be able to fill the small space where he started in Heber, Utah.
A One-Man Show
For about 15 years, Michael did “The Forgotten Carols” as a one-man show, selling about 40 or 50,000 seats a year. Then one day, his talented son, Scott said, “You know, Dad, I can help fix your play if you want.”
Michael said, “Do you think it’s broken?”
Scott said, “Surely you know all the problems with this story. I will rewrite it as a real play.” Scott spent a couple of years rewriting and workshopping the play and came up with the version that audiences see now.
Michael said, “He made it richer and more meaningful.”
Starting a Tradition
“It’s humbling to have started a tradition,” admits Michael. “What I have discovered is that it doesn’t have as much to do with me as I might have thought.
“Because I have had such a huge battle with depression, telling the story was difficult because I was so convinced I was awful. People would get up at the end of the show for a standing ovation, and I thought they stood because they were just ready to go home. They were done. It was really painful.
“I have had difficulty in my life trusting compliments because I am so suspicious of my own value. I learned that I had to just shut up and show up. I learned, you don’t have to think it is brilliant because it isn’t about you.
“I know that God looks for any opportunity to change his children and if you get to be any part of that, be grateful. At Christmas, more than any other time of year, people are more willing than at other times to open up those places in themselves that have been wounded.
The stories abound of the lives “The Forgotten Carols” has touched. After a recent performance, a couple came to say hello who each year have made it a tradition to see the show in two different locations and bring different family members each time. They got engaged years ago at a performance, and Michael has seen their family grow up through the years. He said, “Doing the show with all these audience members I’ve seen for years is like 25 family reunions.”
A couple of years ago they did the show in Las Vegas and a man came up and said, “Mr. McLean, 13 years ago you did this show here and you offered tickets to the homeless shelter in Las Vegas. I was there and I was dealing with a severe drug addiction and I was in trouble. I just came to the show that night to find a place that was warm.”
The show has a song called “Homeless” with this line “He showed it’s how we live, not where” and the man said, “Something about that really got to me. I thought, maybe I really can live differently. Now I’ve been clean and sober for years, and I want to introduce you to my son. I wanted him to see the show that changed my life.”
The Song that’s Buried in our Hearts
Constance, the lead character in the play, has some issues from childhood, and she is not having any of what this guy is telling her who thinks he is 2,000 years old. He keeps singing her these carols, and he asks her, “What’s your carol?” to which she answers, “I don’t sing. I’m not into this. Forget it.”
The question becomes, not just how does Carol find the song that’s buried in her heart, but how do we all find the carol that’s hidden in our hearts? How do we find the Spirit? How do we find the Lord when our head might say that spirituality is nonsense? Whose going to believe any of it unless there’s something in our hearts that says this is really, really true?”
In performances, Michael says this over and over again. There were things he wrote in his show that, in fact, God was trying to teach him. “God was trying to reach out and connect with me,” he said. That’s how Heavenly Father answers prayers. “
“Every year, as difficult as it was for me emotionally to perform, I was saying things in the words that were messages for me. I thought they were for someone else.
“There will be parts of songs 25 years later that I think, how could I have missed this? I must be dense. I must be a slow learner.”
Michael uses as an example, the writing of that first song about the innkeeper. When those first notes started to come for the song, all those years ago, his then 12-year-old son Scott came into the room about the same time.
Michael went through the motions of greeting his son and acting as if he were interested, but it didn’t take long before he turned back to this song that was just in the throes of emerging from his mind.
Michael said, “Scott just stood there for a minute and watched me. I gave off every message. What I am doing is way too important to stop and talk to you. These are big songs I am writing that will touch people and change lives. I finished the song and said to myself, ‘Look what I’ve done.’” Scott had long since left the room with whatever talk he wanted to have with his dad stillborn.
It wasn’t until days later that Michael realized that the song he had written was not just about an innkeeper but a Dad who had turned away his son.
I heard a baby cry
And I knew where that cry
Had come from…
But I didn’t think I could face them
And so I walked slowly home
Missing my chance
To share in their joy
I never saw the boy.
“I have long since apologized to Scott for turning from him that day,” said Michael, “but I know the most important tradition of “The Forgotten Carols” is mine. I get the tradition of seeing these people from all over the country and we rejoice together. I know their kids, I hear their stories, and I realize that God is good and he is teaching all of us.
“When I was writing the song for the fans or for posterity, it was for me. This is the way I think Heavenly Father talks to me. Night after night I find new ways that the story that I am sharing with others to be more faithful, more loving, more thoughtful, more courageous in the spirit also teaches me. It is a sort of forced humility.
“When people ask me, ‘Don’t you get tired of this?” I say when I am doing this I am not thinking about doing some cool acting job. I’m not an actor. I think instead, so, what do I get to learn tonight? What will be revealed to me that will help me be a better guy? I get these wonderful ah-has.”
Latter-day Saints have had a long-lasting love for Michael McLean who has become a cultural icon for us. It is not just 25 years of “The Forgotten Carols” that we celebrate this year, but his lasting impact on us. What is appealing is that he is so willing to be vulnerable, so human and therefore touches upon that vulnerable part of all of us.
We are all the people with music in our hearts that just can’t sing, so we forever identify with him. Michael laughs, referring to two of his earlier songs, “Some day I am going to do an apology tour and I’m going to say sometimes you really do feel alone and can’t find Him, and sometimes you hang on and on and the light doesn’t seem to come,” but, he adds, what I know of the Lord, I know deeper than ever before.
“If God can take a clinically depressed, type 2 diabetic with a faith crisis and challenges in his own family and all kinds of messiness, and He can use me, He really is so good.”
Performances of the show are in several locations in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Look for information and tickets at forgottencarols.com