For 18 years, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has gifted the community each Christmas with a well-produced Christmas concert production free of charge.
This year, Broadway and television star Sutton Foster and British actor Hugh Bonneville, known to many as Lord Crawley of “Downton Abbey” fame, have taken the Conference Center stage.
In three nights, approximately 63,000 people were expected to view the program with many thousands more viewing it as the annual PBS Christmas special next year.
“Christmas with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, featuring Rolando Villazon,” the recorded television version of last year’s Christmas concert will air on KUED 7 at 1 a.m. Monday. It will also air several times on BYUtv beginning at 7 p.m. Sunday and several times on KBYU on Christmas weekend beginning at 3 p.m. Dec. 23.
According to Mack Wilberg, director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, there are more than 600 volunteers involved with the production including the choir, Orchestra at Temple Square, dancers, handbell ringers and even the musical voices of the audience at one point.
Bonneville, the narrator for the show, said the program tells the story of strength in adversity.
Hoping for a great coming together and not a train wreck, Wilberg has included an audience sing-along.
“I’ve always been a bit hesitant to do it,” Wilberg said. “On Thursday, it was surprisingly good.”
Visiting Utah is not new for either guest star.
Bonneville has passed through Utah a couple of times and is impressed with the size of the Conference Center.
“The choir’s work is world famous. This has been on my radar for a long time,” Bonneville said. “It’s quite an experience to come into this vast arena that feels like a home.”
He added, “There is an amazing itimacy here, and it is accoustically friendly.”
Foster is no stranger to Utah and has many family and friends in the area. In fact, since she toured with “Les Miserables” in 1999 she says she has been adopted by one local family.
“They are a big reason why I’m here,” Foster said.
As for the concert, Foster said Thursday night’s audience was “overwhelming.”
“At Wednesday’s rehearsal, the only missing piece was audience,” she said.
When asked about their family Christmas traditions, Foster and Bonneville had quite different answers.
“It’s about family,” Foster said. “My husband and I had our first baby (we are both in our 40s). Our baby is also the first grandchild on both sides. A grandchild brings everybody here. Our traditions are bringing family together. We also bake cookies. We have old-fashion cookie cutters.”
Foster said that many of her family and friends are flying into Salt Lake to see the concert and then they will all be celebrating Christmas in Southern California.
Bonneville, who is a self-proclaimed agnostic, said his family’s Christmas starts with shelling oysters, then arguing with his mother-in-law in the kitchen, calling the fire brigade to put out the Christmas pudding she lit on fire, and then at 3 p.m. everyone falls asleep watching the Queen’s Christmas message.
When the Conference Center was built, under the direction of President Gordon B. Hinckley, it was built for more than just church meetings, Wilberg noted. It was to be used for other things to edify the community.
“We’re always thrilled to share,” Wilberg said.