Forget everything you know about “The Forgotten Carols.” The 2019 version of the annual holiday tradition has been “completely reimagined.”
Michael McLean’s musical tale of a nurse whose life feels empty, a man who claims to be 2,000 years old, and the Christmas carols of a bunch of bit players in the nativity has enthralled audiences in Northern Utah for the better part of three decades. But this year, McLean is mixing things up.
Next week, a new and improved “The Forgotten Carols” comes Ogden. The performance will begin at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Dec. 9, in the Dee Events Center at Weber State University.
“The Forgotten Carols” began as a book — with an accompanying cassette tape of original songs — published back in 1991. McLean had already enjoyed some success as a songwriter, as well as being the producer of the TV special “Mr Krueger’s Christmas” starring Jimmy Stewart, when he conceived the book.
“But I wasn’t known as an author,” he said. “So I went out on the road to promote it, kind of like an author’s reading.”
Well, like an author’s reading set to music. In the beginning, McLean performed the songs and played all the parts.
But since McLean wasn’t sure if anyone would actually come to those early performances, he came up with the idea of inviting local or regional choirs to pre-rehearse some of the music, then join him onstage when he appeared in their communities.
“I figured if the family members of the choirs showed up, I’d at least have a few people at the show,” McLean quips.
Over the years, McLean has tweaked the show here and there, adding performers and various other aspects to the show. But now comes the biggest changes ever.
A couple of years ago, McLean’s son Scott began working on a screenplay for a possible “The Forgotten Carols” feature film.
“He came up with a new way — a fresh way — based on all the years of figuring out how to tell this story,” McLean said of his son.
When the movie deal fell through, father and son decided to use the screenplay and adapt it the live performances and thus was “The Forgotten Carols” reimagined.
The original story was set in the 1970s; the new version takes place in 2019. McLean also added some songs, and fine-tuned a few of the arrangements.
“We’ve updated the time frame, and deepened the characters,” he said.
McLean admits he didn’t know if the new production would make sense financially. Or emotionally. After all, messing with a cherished holiday tradition could be playing with fire — just try to imagine reimagining such holiday classics as “It’s a Wonderful Life” or “Miracle on 34th Street.”
Nevertheless, McLean went ahead and booked a couple dozen venues this holiday season and then “held thumbs” (the equivalent of crossing fingers to folks in South Africa, where McLean served his LDS mission).
“The risk was, I’m either killing the franchise or I’m re-igniting it,” he said.
With a few shows now under his belt — notably the opening night in his home town of Heber City and several stops in Idaho — McLean suspects it’s the latter.
“The response has been astounding,” he said. “My feeling was that I’d get some pushback, but everyone I’ve talked to feels it’s better, deeper, richer, and more for these times. … It’s special, it’s different, and I think it’s better. The way I feel when I tell this story in this new way, it feels so deeply personal, and so much more universal than it’s ever been.”
McLean attributes that success to following one basic rule in revamping the production: “We decided not to make any changes unless it felt like, ‘Wasn’t it always like that?’”
McLean says people ask him all the time, “Don’t you ever get tired of doing this? You’ve been doing it for 28 years.”
“But the real honest answer is: I learn something every year I do this,” McLean said. “It’s like the gift that keeps on giving — to me.”
Two years ago, McLean fell ill and was hospitalized. He almost died.
“If I hadn’t gotten to the hospital when I did, I wouldn’t be talking to you now,” he said.
Between that experience and his daughter being diagnosed with cancer, McLean says it got him to thinking.
“I started to think: ‘Is there something I still need to do?’” he said. “I don’t know if it’s a miracle of medicine or a tender mercy from heaven, but I get to still be here.”
McLean says this new reimagining of “The Forgotten Carols” has only served to energize him. He says he’s never felt so grateful for the opportunity to offer his holiday story.
“I have felt a physical energy that I haven’t had for a long time,” he said. “I feel I’m doing what I’m supposed to do, and I can’t wait to share what I have discovered.”
And for those who think “The Forgotten Carols” should never change, McLean says the new production is now the way it was always intended — he just hadn’t gotten around to changing it.
“I tell people that with the reimagining, this is the way it was supposed to be all along,” he said. “But I am slow.”
McLean invites Utahns to come and see a Christmas show that’s all about Jesus.
“This is not a Lifetime Christmas movie story about ‘Let’s be nice,’” he said. “It’s a way to see the Christmas story through the eyes of people who are just like us.”
McLean says that whenever he hears the forgotten carol in the show about the innkeeper who turned away Mary and Joseph, he relates to that man.
“I’m him. I’m the innkeeper,” he said. “I’m not a bad guy, I’m just so busy with life that I miss the important things.”
The final show on the “Forgotten Carols” tour this year will be the UCCU Center at Utah Valley University in Orem.
“The Dee (in Ogden) and the UCCU are the two what we call ‘arena shows’ on the tour,” he said. “We’re excited to do them, and they’re a different kind of experience. You walk onto the Dee or UCCU stage and it’s like you’re a rock star.”
And the 67-year-old McLean, who calls himself a “geezer,” says he knows what it feels like to be a rock star. A couple of years ago he was invited to share a stage with the rock band Imagine Dragons.
“My claim to fame is that I’m the only guy on Medicare to perform with Imagine Dragons,” he said. “It gives me great street cred.”