It was the second week of October, and Mack Wilberg, Music Director of the world-renowned Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square, had just been given the green light to proceed with the annual Christmas concert after a year off for the pandemic. That meant he had less than two months to put together a program, something he'd usually start arranging and finding guest stars for months in advance. Luckily, he knew just who to ask.
When Megan Hilty, a Tony-nominated Broadway star known for her roles in Smash and Wicked, got the invitation, her response was immediate: "I didn’t even have to think about it," she shared. "I knew how special it was going to be."
Of course, it helped that she'd performed with the Choir before. And as someone used to being thrown into a production with little to no advance warning, she didn't bat an eyelid at the short notice.
For film and TV star Neal McDonough (Band of Brothers, Captain America: The First Avenger), it was also a no-brainer. Another performer who'd worked with the Choir before, he saw it as an opportunity to bridge the Catholic and Latter-Day Saint faiths for a joyful celebration of something they have in common. "We're all in it together and we all should be loving and understanding each other the best that we can because we’re all God’s children, no matter what we believe in. That to me was the most magical part," he said.
Both Hilty and McDonough joined Mack Wilberg and Ron Gunnell, Assistant to the President of the Choir, to talk about the experience of recording last year's Christmas program and what audiences can expect from the show, which premieres on PBS and BYUtv December 13th.
A Christmas Miracle
In addition to the shorter than usual prep time, the Choir and guest stars faced another massive challenge in preparing this concert: strict COVID precautions. Every single one of the 500+ performers had to be tested every single time they entered the concert hall to rehearse. Only two weeks after the taping of the special, COVID restrictions tightened, and the Choir had to take a two months' hiatus. "When you add this all together, this concert really was a miracle," shared Wilberg.
For Hilty, creating something miraculous is the goal. "When you walk into a theatre, the hope is that it changes hearts and minds. It’s so satisfying and gratifying to be a part of programs like this that offer that hope and light, especially in a time of uncertainty.”
And for both performers, just stepping out onto that stage was a miracle in itself. McDonough shared that he went to the concert hall when it was empty to look at the organ and get a feel for the space. When he returned later to a full concert hall, it was almost overwhelming. But it was about more than just the impressive surroundings: he knew the bulk of the performers were there as volunteers to share the things they believed in, and that made it "powerful." "There's no way you can prepare yourself for being on that stage," he said.
Hilty agreed. "You can't really put into words what it feels like. Every single moment of this experience was profoundly special and I’m just so grateful that we get to share it with the world now."
But one of those moments was especially meaningful. "To get to sing 'Angels from the Realms of Glory' at the end is probably one of the highlights of my career," said Hilty, who trained as an opera singer before going the Broadway route. "Whenever I get the chance to sing classical music, my heart just wants to fly out of my chest."
For the 19th annual Christmas with The Tabernacle Choir special, Wilberg chose to honor the Irish heritage of both that year's performers. The program includes traditional Irish carols and hymns, as well as reflections on Irish Yuletide traditions and the role of family heritage in making the holidays meaningful.
For McDonough, whose parents came from Ireland and built a life for their family in America, that struck a chord. "The one thing that the Irish have is their family, and music is the key to the family. I still sing 'Danny Boy' every night to my daughter before she goes to sleep. The Irish work ethic, the family, all that stuff, we put it into the show. To see it all come together in two different faiths I think is just a beautiful, magical thing."
For Hilty, music---or at least, Christmas music---also brings back memories. "Music has that way of bringing you right back to that place where you first heard it. It transcends everything. I’ve been in the music business for 40 years and I still can’t put words to this. It’s this intangible feeling, this vibration that connects us and instantly brings us back to these wonderful memories of all the Christmases before.”
In that vein, Hilty and McDonough reflected on their own family Christmas traditions. For Neal, the holidays don't start until he hears Vince Guaraldi play The Peanuts theme. Another staple is Bruce Springsteen's rendition of "Santa Claus is Coming to Town."
For Hilty, the holiday season kicks off a little earlier--November 2nd, to be exact. She and her husband always celebrate their anniversary by decorating for their favorite holiday. Since the two of them are often traveling for much of December, putting the decorations up a month in advance gives them a little longer to enjoy the holiday spirit.
One thing both performers agreed on is that The Muppets' Christmas Carol is essential December viewing. "So good," they gushed in unison.
A Christmas to Remember
Christmas with The Tabernacle Choir is a decades-long tradition: with past guest stars including Angela Lansbury, Gladys Knight, Kristin Chenoweth, Hugh Bonneville, Jane Seymour, and many others. The 2021 special (filmed in 2020) celebrated the Choir's legacy with a program of behind-the-scenes glimpses and highlights of year's past, narrated by Broadway veteran Brian Stokes Mitchell. “In putting that together, we didn’t realize the wealth of material we had to work with and then when it was put together it was a bit overwhelming to see what had happened in the last 20 years,” Wilberg shared.
And yet, there was something special about this latest program. "This particular concert will be remembered by everyone," said Wilberg, alluding to the unprecedented challenges of putting the program together in a pandemic year, the willingness of their two guest stars to participate, and the miracle of everything coming together in time.
But while it may be a miracle, there's a bit more to it than that. Hundreds of people put in hours of effort to pull it all off. "There’s not a magic formula: it’s a lot of work," Wilberg said.
For everyone involved, that effort paid off. McDonough summed it up: “What an incredible adventure. It was something that none of us will ever forget.” For audiences, the chance to experience the show this holiday season promises to be equally spectacular.
'O Holy Night: Christmas with The Tabernacle Choir,' featuring special guests Megan Hilty and Neal McDonough, airs December 13th on PBS.org, the PBS app, and PBS’s OTT (“over the top”) channels and at BYUtv.org and on the BYUtv app after the initial airings on the respective channels. For more information, visit www.thetabernaclechoir.org.