Neal McDonough is many things.
He is an actor, appearing in movies like Marvel’s “Captain America: The First Avenger” and TV shows like HBO’s “Band of Brothers” and CW’s “Arrow.” He is a husband and father of five. He is a devout Catholic.
And right now, he is the narrator of The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square’s annual Christmas concert, which is being taped before limited audiences for airing on PBS at holiday time in 2022.
And he has no issue teaming up with the premier performing troupe of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“We spend so much time as humans worrying about what the right church is,” he said Friday. “By bridging [Latter-day Saints and Catholics] together, it shows that whatever it takes to glorify God and to be better human beings in his eyes is the goal of any religion and any belief.”
The choir typically records its Christmas concerts a year in advance, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, couldn’t film anything in 2020. So this Yuletide it is airing “20 Years of Christmas With The Tabernacle Choir,” featuring 40-plus guest artists and over 60 songs.
The program can be streamed online at PBS.org and BYUtv.org. A TV broadcast schedule for both stations is available at bit.ly/3E4PDlx.
For choir members, month apart finally came to an end in September, when they rehearsed for the first time since the pandemic began. The choir allowed only half its members to sing in each session of the October 2021 General Conference to accommodate social distancing.
For this week’s taping, however, the entire choir is back.
Recently named choir President Mike Leavitt, a former Utah governor, said Friday he is confident that when audiences watch the 2022 show next holiday season, they won’t be disappointed.
“It skillfully finds ways to bring a sense of unity and peace and healing,” he said. “And that is the mission of The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square.”
A Celtic-themed Christmas
McDonough was joined onstage by Tony-nominated singer Megan Hilty, whose credits include Ivy Lynn in NBC’s musical drama “Smash” and Glinda the Good Witch in the musical “Wicked” on Broadway.
Supported by The Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra, along with the Bells at Temple Square, McDonough and Hilty participated in a Celtic-themed Christmas program, which included the medieval carol “On This Day, Earth Shall Ring”; and “Christmas Is Coming, So Deck the Halls,” a medley of English and Welsh carols.
Hilty said her personal favorite was “Angels From the Realms of Glory,” written by Scottish poet James Montgomery.
“It’s such a singular experience,” she said, “to stand in front of the most iconic group of singers that are so immaculately trained.”
The Celtic influences also had personal meaning to McDonough and Hilty, both of whom hail from Irish descent.
Before performing with the choir, Hilty hadn’t realized how many of her family’s Christmas traditions are rooted in the Emerald Isle, while McDonough said he loved hearing the old songs he grew up with.
“[Music] is the one language in life that everyone can understand,” he said. With this Christmas concert “it’s not just music. It’s music that glorifies God. And that’s why we’re all here: To really talk about how we can all be better people through his eyes.”
Choir Music Director Mack Wilberg said choir leaders didn’t realize both McDonough and Hilty have Irish heritage until they had been secured for the program. The coincidence “seemed like a perfect fit.”
‘How can we be better people on this planet?’
Wilberg said when audiences view the show next year, he hopes people feel “the meaning of Christmas and hopefully want to be a little bit better.”
Leavitt added that he is impressed by how the program reaches out to those of all beliefs, uniting them in a sense of what Christmas means to everyone.
McDonough echoed that sentiment.
“Whether you’re Catholic or Mormon, Muslim or Jewish or Buddhist or agnostic or atheist, [this show] is a chance for us all to figure out ‘how can we be better on this planet?’” he said. “We’re all brothers and sisters in the eyes of God.”