Utah songwriter brings ‘Forgotten Carols’ to movie screens, after 29 years of live shows and rewrites

(Photos courtesy of Purdie Distribution) John (Michael McLean, left) plays a tune for Constance (Adrien Swenson), a nurse sent to care for the old man, in the movie version of McLean's "The Forgotten Carols."

About a week ago, Michael McLean finally got to watch “The Forgotten Carols.”

McLean has performed the play, based on the book and songs he wrote, hundreds of times over the last three decades, taking it on the road every December for devoted fans in Utah and across the country.

For every performance, though — first as a one-man show, then as a concert-like performance and eventually as a fully realized play — he’s been on the stage, never in the seats.

“There was no evidence that this show ever really existed,” McLean said thisweek, from his home in Heber City.

The evidence has arrived, in the form of a movie version of “The Forgotten Carols,” which will be released Friday in the theaters that remain open.

“The Forgotten Carols” tells the story of an addled old man who identifies himself as John the Beloved — one of Jesus’ apostles and writer of one of the Gospels. John, played by McLean, is found wandering the street by a rich man who is the main benefactor of the nearby hospital. The rich man brings John to the hospital, where he meets Constance, a stern young nurse.

John, with his guileless manner, cuts through Constance’s cynicism by calling her Connie Lou. He asks her to help decorate a Christmas tree. Each ornament calls to mind a song, a carol about the lesser-known characters around the birth of Jesus.

‘Who ... has been forgotten?’

The idea for “The Forgotten Carols” came to McLean, he said, in 1990, when he was working as a songwriter and film producer — primarily making educational films and other works for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He was best known then for producing Kieth Merrill’s 1980 drama “Mr. Krueger’s Christmas,” a half-hour holiday story that featured one of Jimmy Stewart’s last screen performances.

McLean also had written music for albums released by Deseret Book — and people there asked him to write songs for a Christmas album. At first, McLean said no.

“I said, ‘Nobody needs a Christmas album,’” McLean said. “Nobody’s going to top Handel’s ‘Messiah.’ Nobody’s going to beat ‘chestnuts roasting on an open fire.’ There is no better song than ‘Silent Night.’ It’s a waste of time.”

Sitting at his piano, though, McLean thought of a verse — in the voice of the innkeeper in Bethlehem who turned away Joseph and the pregnant Mary. “I thought, ‘Wait a minute — no one’s written that song,’” McLean said. “So I started to think, well, who else might there be that has been forgotten? And I started to put together different songs.”

McLean connected with the innkeeper. “I’m that guy,” he said. “I’m not a bad guy, I’m just too busy. I miss so many really great things because I have a schedule and I’m kind of a stress monkey.”

Taking it on the road

McLean pitched the idea of writing a book to tell a story that connected the songs and told of their origin. Executives at Deseret Book were skeptical — McLean was a songwriter, not an author — but eventually agreed.

Then, McLean said, he took a page from Charles Dickens: He hit the road, performing the songs and telling the story to an audience. McLean figured out he could sell tickets by having a school choir perform with him in each town, “because they’ve got relatives,” he said.

“It wasn’t great,” McLean said. “I’m not an actor and I can’t sing. I was hoping it would be a way to promote the book.” It worked, and the next holiday season, Deseret Book asked McLean to tour again.

McLean said he had his doubts about the quality of the show, prompted by clinical depression, which he has dealt with for decades. The depression, he said, created “my absolute conviction that I’m worthless. I know it isn’t true, but it feels true to me.”

After a few years of touring every December, the show “became this thing people liked to do,” McLean said. “I got standing ovations every night, but I didn’t know if it was because I was good or because they were just anxious to leave.”

One night when he was performing in Dallas, McLean said, he was ready to quit. Then something remarkable happened.

After the show, McLean rushed to the lobby to sell merchandise. One woman in line mumbled something appreciative, but McLean said he didn’t really register it. The next woman in line said that the first woman was her best friend, who had avoided everything Christmas-related for seven or eight years because she had been raped one Christmas Eve.

The friend had cajoled the woman to attend McLean’s show, and the woman said, “I’ll come if you let me sit on the aisle, on the back row, so I can slip out.” During one of the songs, the woman told her friend, “I’m feeling it again. I’m feeling Christmas again.”

After that, McLean returned to his dressing room and said to himself, “‘Maybe I need to get over myself, and stop being so damned depressed.’”

Expanding and rewriting

McLean kept performing the show, tinkering with the flaws in the story structure. The show expanded from McLean alone to a duo — actor Katie Thompson performed the part of Constance for several years — and, when McLean’s son Jeff performed the role of the innkeeper, a trio.

In 2005, McLean recalled, his son Scott, a screenwriter, made a proposal: “I can fix your play if you let me.” Among the changes: explaining that John is thousands of years old, suffering from memory loss, and staying alive to await Jesus’ return.

McLean wanted to make the revisions immediately. Others advised him against it. “They said, ‘You shouldn’t mess with people’s traditions. People like this the way it is. It’s not broken, don’t mess with it,’” he said.

The new version “had found more depth,” said Christy Summerhays, a Utah actor and commercial filmmaker who was recruited to help workshop the rewritten play. “It always had Michael’s spiritual depth. … Michael tends to be just very fun, and makes everything fun. Scott brought in more of, ‘Let’s ground these [characters] a little bit more.’”

Expanding the show, Summerhays said, “took the burden off of Michael. It let him share the burden.”

A couple of years later, Summerhays returned to “The Forgotten Carols” as part of that troupe, playing Constance and other roles. “They said, ‘Hey, we need an actress to come and run around and play all these different parts. Can you do it? We start rehearsals in two weeks,’” she said.

Touring was exhausting, she recalled. “Sometimes we would do six or seven cities in a week,” she said. “That takes a lot out of you.”

Six years ago, Michael and Scott McLean worked on another rewrite of the play, and they brought Summerhays in to direct.

“We upped the production value and made it a little more fun to look at,” Summerhays said. Among the changes: Instead of having the choir onstage during the entire show, she got the singers to either be extras or put them behind a scrim so they weren’t seen at every moment.

From stage to screen

As McLean got older — he’s now 68 — he considered his legacy, and whether “The Forgotten Carols” would be remembered after he stopped performing it. He and Scott worked on a screenplay and tried to get movie producers interested in making it.

The message McLean received from Hollywood wasn’t encouraging: “No one is going to go and not choose the Disney movie … to go see some little independent Jesus movie at Christmastime.”

The McLeans tried to incorporate the best of the screenplay into the touring stage production. One big change, Summerhays said, is that the play is no longer set in the 1970s, but in the present day. “[Before], the nurse had the white cap,” Summerhays said. “Now, Connie’s in scrubs. The humor is a little more up to date. … It is, by far, my favorite version.”

It’s also McLean’s favorite. “This really, finally works,” McLean said. “I’m not even thinking I’m awful every night. This is the way the story is supposed to be.”

McLean made a plan to mount a touring production in 2021, for the show’s 30th anniversary, and then retire. Then the COVID-19 pandemic happened, and McLean thought that was it.

Then, in July, something else happened: The movie version of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton,” a filmed record of the Broadway show, debuted on Disney+.

“It’s just a play with eight cameras,” McLean said. “I thought, ‘What if we could pull that off?’”

Finding a theater was difficult because of the pandemic. They first tried to book the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center in Salt Lake City — but couldn’t work under Salt Lake County’s restrictive COVID-19 guidelines. They went to Cedar City, which had fewer restrictions, and staged two performances in September at the Heritage Center Theatre, with about 250 people in the audience, all wearing face masks. (The production also ran one day without an audience, for additional shots and a few close-ups.)

Summerhays again directed, and the shoot “was high energy,” she said. “Everybody had to be focused. It was amazing how people just pulled through. When you have to, and you know it’s your chance to capture this, there’s another gear that people go into.”

She also plays Constance’s mother in flashback scenes, and was “amazing,” McLean said. “She was directing a play, and then trying to figure out how to turn it into an experience people could have [on the screen],” he said.

The film, McLean said, finally feels like the best version of “The Forgotten Carols.”

“The play always felt close, but no cigar,” McLean said. “When you’re writing a song, you’re noodling, and you think, ‘That’s not the perfect word for that,’ or ‘That’s not the note.’ Then this thing happens and you’re like, ‘Ah, that’s the way that goes.’”