Ten years ago, Michael McLean decided to end his production of “The Forgotten Carols,” which had become something of a holiday classic in Utah.
Yet the musician, who was battling a nearly crippling bout of depression, still had some shows to perform. After each performance, McLean forced himself to greet the audience in the lobby.
One night, a crying woman came to him and told him about a friend she had brought to the show. Ever since the friend had been raped on Christmas Eve, she had refused to celebrate the holiday. The woman persuaded her friend to see “The Forgotten Carols,” but the friend insisted she would only sit next to the aisle of the last row — so she would be able to make an easy exit.
But as the curtain went up and the show continued, the friend stayed. And to the woman’s surprise, near the end of the show, her friend said she was feeling something she hadn’t felt in ages: Christmas spirit. “I think I can enjoy Christmas again,” the friend told the woman, who recounted it to McLean. “A terribly dramatic” response to the good-hearted musical story, he admitted.
From Utah to Ukraine • The creator of the Christmas show realized that God had helped him write something that would comfort people. Now, McLean is in the middle of the 20th-anniversary tour of his musical. “I would have thought it would have gotten old,” said the Heber resident. “I am shocked every year.”
Since 1981, “The Forgotten Carols” has evolved from a one-man show to a huge theatrical production that has been seen by more than 1 million people, including concertgoers in Arizona, Nevada and McLean’s home state of Utah. The show has been produced all over the world in limited runs, including shows in Ireland, Germany, England — and, even last month, to McLean’s great shock, in Ukraine.
One thing hasn’t changed: the basic story about the nurse who’s too practical to be bothered by Christmas, but gets assigned to care for an older gentleman with alleged psychiatric tendencies.
The patient, John, isn’t senile, the nurse soon discovers, but a warm and kind raconteur who walks her through the untold carols of the more “forgotten” characters in the Christmas story. Ultimately — and here’s a spoiler alert — John guides the nurse to the Christmas carol waiting to be sung inside her own heart. Cue tears.
Behind ‘Forgotten Carols” • “What made it work was that it was story-driven, not performance-driven,” said McLean, a songwriter who’s quick to admit he’s neither a singer nor an actor. Now “I only play one part,” he said. “I play a guy who thinks he’s 2,000 years old, so I’ll never be too old.”
“The Forgotten Carols” was inspired more than two decades ago when Deseret Book asked McLean to write and record a Christmas album. He told executives that “all of the greatest Christmas songs have already been written” and politely declined the offer.
But the idea stuck with him.
The first carol came to him when McLean started musing about all of the forgotten characters in the opening chapters of the New Testament narratives of Jesus’ birth. What would the innkeeper have to say once he learned whom he had turned away? What about a fourth shepherd who didn’t make the trip to greet the newborn baby? And what did Joseph, the husband of Mary, think about the whole thing?
Soon, McLean had all of the songs written, along with a book that would accompany the soundtrack. He brought the project to Deseret Book executives, who this time were the skeptical ones. McLean offered to take a reduced fee for the work and to do all of the advertising and marketing for the project. The company reluctantly agreed.
After reading a story about how Charles Dickens would do readings to market his work — and realizing that “I wasn’t Dickens” — McLean planned a one-time promotional tour. He bought props, costumes and ornaments and played all of the parts. He asked local choirs to sing songs to accompany his show, which he hoped would, at best, allow him to recoup the costs of producing it in high-school halls.
Another kind of Christmas miracle • But then something bigger happened. “After the first year, to my enormous surprise, there was demand,” McLean said. “After the third year, it had become a cottage industry.”
The one-man show evolved over the years, with McLean asking friends and family to play parts in the production and eventually casting professional actors, including musical-theater performer and blues singer Katie Thompson.
The biggest changes came six years ago, when McLean’s son Scott, a graduate of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, asked his father if he could adapt the show to make it more like a play, rather than a concert.
“It came down to how can we do something where it’s consistent every night,” said Scott McLean, who this winter is playing the young Ebenezer Scrooge in a Denver production of “A Christmas Carol.” “How can we continue it if my father can’t do it? His energy level was up and down.”
Scott McLean paused, then admitted he also changed the production so he could write himself a part. “It wasn’t broken,” he said, “[but I wanted] to show the story, rather than tell it.”
Art imitating life • So Scott McLean created the part of Dr. Halifax, based on one of his friends from the AADA, Gili Getz. Life imitated art when Getz, who had become a close friend of the McLeans over the years, ended up earning the part of Dr. Halifax and becoming the director of the show. He directs again this year.
Getz’s job comes as a bit of a surprise when you consider that “The Forgotten Carols” was written by a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and while the story is nondenominational, it attracts audiences filled with church members. Getz is a nonpracticing Jew who was born in Israel, six days after his parents emigrated from Latvia.
“I choose to be more spiritual than religious,” said Getz from his home in Brooklyn. “[The story] is about people and the difficulties of connecting with themselves and their families. People come to theater to examine their own identity. Some of [the story] is the nurse’s journey and finding the child inside her.”
That universal message is also a reason why, for the first time this winter, a separate touring company besides McLean’s has been created to tour Mississippi, Georgia and Alabama.
Last month, McLean was invited to Ukraine to perform for leaders of the country, who were unlikely fans of his other works, including his Jimmy Stewart-starring 1980 made-for-TV film “Mr. Krueger’s Christmas.”
To his surprise, when he arrived in Ukraine, McLean was greeted by locals singing songs from “The Forgotten Carols.”
So, even if McLean decides to end his performances of “The Forgotten Carols” someday, perhaps others will keep his tunes alive.
Ticket prices and showtimes vary; visit forgottencarols.com for more information.
Nov. 29-30 • Kent Concert Hall, Utah State University, Logan
Dec. 1 • UCCU Event Center, Utah Valley University, Orem
Dec. 2 • Dee Events Center, Weber State University, Ogden
Dec. 3 • Uintah High School Auditorium, Vernal; matinee and evening performances
Dec. 3 (Evening) • Uintah High School Auditorium
Dec. 5-10, 12 • Cottonwood High School Auditorium, Murray
Dec. 14-16 • Cox Auditorium, Dixie State College, St. George
Dec. 17 • Sevier Valley Center, Richfield; matinee and evening performances