Over 25 years now, more than 1 million people have seen Michael McLean’s “The Forgotten Carols.”
The show has changed over the years.
“When I started this 25 years ago, I played all the parts and did it kind of like an author’s reading,” McLean said in a phone interview in advance of the show’s tour stop at the UCCU Center in Orem on Thursday.
Gili Getz, one of the performers in “The Forgotten Carols” this year, directed the first adaptation of the show in its more theatrical form nine years ago -- and has been involved every year since.
“Michael McLean wrote this book with the songs, and he just did it himself,” Getz said. “He told the story, played all the roles, and then sang the songs. And people liked it so much that he just kept doing it and then it became a concert that he started traveling with.”
Then, one of McLean’s sons, Scott, made a theatrical version of the story, and the show has gone from a one-man show from Heber City, where McLean now lives, to a cast that includes six actors and a large choir.
“I have a feeling that it can tell the story in a deeper way than just Michael’s,” Getz said. “It’s a full-on play with songs now.”
One thing that hasn’t changed, however, is McLean himself onstage playing the central character, Uncle John, who may be an original character, or may be the Biblical John the Beloved, still alive in contemporary times -- a riff on scripture found in the canon of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that suggests that the disciple was given divine “power over death,” to serve others for thousands of years.
“This is the great thing about writing a story about a guy that’s 2,000 years old, because I’m never going to be too old to play it,” McLean said.
The notion that John the Beloved never died has Biblical origins, but is made explicit in exclusively LDS scripture. Still, McLean said the show itself reaches for a more broad audience -- as did some of McLean's films that he wrote and directed for the LDS Church going back to the 1980s. One of those films starred Jimmy Stewart.
“The whole concept that Uncle John is really John the Beloved, that he was promised he would not die, like the Three Nephites, some people pick up on that and resonate to it and think it’s very cool, other people don’t see it in that way, he’s just kind of this angelic being that’s been around a long time,” McLean said. “When I made ‘Mr. Krueger's Christmas,’ I didn’t think, ‘Oh, let me make a uniquely Mormon thing that only Mormons would get.’ And when I wrote the songs and put together the story for ‘The Forgotten Carols,’ it never once occurred to me that, ‘Oh, this is a Mormon thing.’ ”
The story centers around a nurse named Constance who learns through Uncle John, a patient, the stories and “forgotten carols” of various Biblical characters from the New Testament -- the innkeeper who turned Joseph and Mary away, for example, or the shepherd who slept through an angelic pronouncement.
Their carols offer new perspectives of the nativity narrative.
As for the utilization of the Mormon take on John, “as in all things created, it’s poetic license,” McLean said. “It’s a metaphor. It’s a way to get at deeper issues about faith and hope and how we find the carol within our own souls that help us trust the things that our head says, ‘That doesn’t make any sense’ but our hearts say, ‘No, this is true.’ ”
On discrepancies between head and heart
As it turns out, McLean himself has lived with the tension between his own head and heart in matters of faith. Despite his visible status as an artist who is publicly -- and, at times, professionally -- Mormon, McLean has recently spoken publicly about his own struggle with depression, as well as what he calls a “faith crisis,” triggered by a conversation with another one of his sons, Jeff.
“The thing that triggered my crisis was when my son came out,” McLean said, “and there were so many things that just, that I had, 15 years earlier, when he was just an adolescent, that just didn’t line up with the experience. This is what the church said in the mid-80s about homosexuals -- ‘It’s a choice,’ or ‘It’s a lifestyle’ -- and none of this lined up with Jeff’s experience.
“And he had done everything that he could to kind of, you know, ‘If I go to seminary, and if I’m an Eagle Scout and I serve a great mission and everything, will God just flip the straight switch and I won’t be gay anymore? And then I can have a family with three kids and a picket fence and live happily ever after.’ And it didn’t line up.”
With now-vital questions in his heart and mind, McLean turned to prayer for comfort and guidance.
“I desperately needed Heavenly Father to talk to me so that I could work on saving my relationship with my son who I love, (so) that I could make sense in my own heart about ‘Did I get this wrong? Did the church get this wrong?’ ” McLean said. “How do I make sense of the fact that -- it’s Prop 8, and I go to church and we’re told it’s a moral issue to go stop gays from getting married and to vote for Proposition 8, and then at night, Jeff would call me from the road where he was the lead in a big Broadway musical and said, ‘Dad, if Prop 8 goes down, can I get married in your place in Malibu with Josh?’ How do you manage that?”
But, McLean says, the prayers went unanswered, which complicated his crisis.
“It wasn’t that I just didn’t hear anything about, ‘Here’s what you say about this with your son,’ or ‘Here’s how you navigate these turbulent waters,’ ” he said. “It was, I stopped hearing from him altogether. I couldn’t hear his voice. I couldn’t feel his spirit. I couldn’t see him directing me in any way.”
Doubts about church led to doubts about the existence of God altogether -- a private dilemma, compounded by a public persona. (After all, “I had made more movies to reach more more people through the church than any person in history,” he said.)
“And then I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve sold 2 million records to people, telling them, “You’re not alone, hold on, the light will come,” ’ ” McLean said. “Well, what if I need to do an apology tour, saying, ‘Just kidding, you are alone. Don’t hold on, the light ain’t coming.’ ”
Two years later, McLean's crisis took a turn when he had a dream in which Mother Teresa -- who also wrote of a private struggle with her own faith -- sang a song to McLean. The message: Hold to the faith, despite whatever doubts. The crisis, he thought, was averted.
“I thought within less than two months, I’d be bearing my testimony that it all worked out, I’d live happily ever after,” McLean said. “And it went on for seven more years.”
Living with doubts
Despite his own inner spiritual life’s new status quo, McLean was determined not to give up the faith.
“Nine years is a long time to feel that maybe you got it wrong, but I promised that I was going to show up and shut up,” he said. “I was going to trust. My wife goes to the temple every Tuesday. … You sit through those things, and it’s a reminder of the stuff that’s not going to work out in your family.
“And isn’t it ironic that the guy that made the most successful films and commercials about being a great dad, turns out, I wasn’t such a great dad. I thought I was, and I was trying really hard, but in a way that manifested to my son, look at how I failed. He’s hurting, and I can’t help -- and I’m not getting guidance.”
The writer and director behind the church-produced “Together Forever” video now wondered where his own family fit into church teachings about family relationships -- teachings McLean himself put to music. But as difficult as the questions were for him, he also thought about Jeff’s perspective.
“It’s a tough thing to be a gay kid in a straight world,” McLean said. “But try being the gay son of the songwriting icon of the Mormon church. I mean, it’s just brutal.”
One thing that remained, whatever the confusion, was McLean’s desire to have a good relationship with his son.
“My relationship with my son is rich and wonderful,” he said. “I am just so grateful that we have never shut the door to talking. To saying, ‘I don’t get this,’ or ‘I’m sorry about this,’ or ‘How do I repair this?’ When you’re hiding your sexuality for a long, long time -- he didn’t come out till he was 27 -- you learn to hide a lot of stuff. And that means that sometimes, the relationship you think you have has been based on what you are presenting, but not who you really are, so we’ve had the joyful journey of rebuilding our relationship, and learning how to talk to each other, and I think that’s a gift.”
New revelation, new carols
Then, seven years after the epiphany involving Mother Teresa, McLean had another realization -- one that this time, brought him out of crisis.
“What I learned was, you know, I thought I was alone because I had decided in advance, ‘Here’s how God answers the Mormon Mike McLean’s prayers,’ ” he said. “ ‘Here’s the little box.’ ”
But what if divine messages could be found in unexpected places? With that in mind, McLean sees the nine-year spiritual darkness differently.
“Dozens of things were happening over those nine years that I did not recognize were attempted interventions from heaven,” McLean said. “I would think, ‘Well, certainly, God is not going to be responsible for calling me to a progressive Christian foundation to be on their board of directors and go to meetings in Chicago and sit next to Jack Miles who wrote “God: A Biography,” and in lunch discussions, there were things that were specifically targeted to help me,’ but ‘No, God’s not going to send his answers to me through this progressive Christian intellectual. Oh, and here’s the gay Catholic priest who’s going to really help you understand your son’s dilemma as he goes through that. No, no, no, that’s not how God reaches to bless me. He doesn’t send gay Catholic priests.’ ”
Now, McLean says he is "sensitized and aware of everything that is a tender mercy" -- and he sees himself in his own characters in “The Forgotten Carols.”
“(God) was trying to get through to me, but I couldn’t see it,” he said. “I was like the innkeeper. I just missed it.”
The crisis and new epiphany formed the foundation for McLean's new album of songs, last year's “Encountering Jesus,” and he looks back at his experience performing 25 years of “The Forgotten Carols” differently.
“I was doing this (show) 20-30 times a Christmas during the crisis,” McLean said. “And what I realized now was that was one of the things that I was doing to remind myself, though I didn’t see it at the time, that ‘The Forgotten Carols’ was for me. I’m the one who needed to be blessed by this. I’m the one who needed to learn the lessons from this. The songs were sent to teach me something I needed to know.”
Having experienced the crisis, the “Together Forever” composer has shaped something like question marks out of some of his former lyrics’ exclamation points.
“One of my jokes in our little family circle is, instead of singing ‘We can be together forever someday,’ maybe we also ought to sing, ‘We can be together, whatever, today.’ You know?” he said. “If I’m basing my whole life only on the hope for some really cool thing to happen in the next life, I may, like the innkeeper, miss the really cool thing that’s happening right now.”