By Mike Romero
From humble beginnings during the Christmas season in 1991, The Forgotten Carols has grown in popularity year after year through relentless regional touring, incremental production enhancements, and the unwavering dedication of its creator.
The show is about a nurse with an eccentric new patient. Her life changes forever when he tells her the story of Jesus’s birth from the perspective of obscure characters from the Nativity. This heartwarming tale finds magic in the lives of inn keepers, shepherds, and the homeless – all overlooked and forgotten in their own way.
Although he’s passed the baton to another actor for this year’s performance, the eccentric patient, Uncle John, was lovingly portrayed by the show’s composer Michael McLean for 29 years. As he brought these forgotten stories of struggling characters to life, they felt autobiographical.
McLean struggled with music early on in his career. After returning home from a Latter-day Saint mission in the 70’s, he got a C in a music theory class at BYU and was told that he’d never make it in the industry. This appeared to be confirmed when the band he formed in college never caught their big break. And while he started to see some improvement after a transfer to the University of Utah, he was forced to quit school when his wife was in a car accident. Most musicians in McLean’s shoes would have quit and faded into obscurity. Forgotten.
Still, he kept at it. A prolific songwriter and hard worker, he wrote music for local commercials, got a production job with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir (now the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square), released over 20 albums of original music, and debuted a musical off-Broadway in 2005. But nothing would resonate quite like The Forgotten Carols.
Audience members regularly post online about how seeing the show at Christmas time has become a family tradition. After three decades of performances, families have grown, new generations have come to appreciate it, and the show has become a regional staple. It has now sold over a million tickets since its debut. That impressive feat is a testament to the hard work and singular vision of McLean.
A 2019 re-imagining of the show helped improve its mass appeal. McLean’s family struggles, 9 year faith crisis, and spiritual re-awakening helped inform a lot of the new changes. But in 2020 it looked like the show might not happen at all. Luckily, McLean’s can-do attitude led to a stage-to-screen adaptation during the pandemic.
“Funding was offered to support the production and a grant was awarded through the Utah Film Commission,” said McLean. “Then a beautiful theatre that would allow us to film was instantly available when our initial choice cancelled. You see, miracle after miracle.” The fact that The Forgotten Carols is celebrating its 30th anniversary live this year is another miracle.
Very few musicians are fortunate enough to create a work with such longevity. McLean understands what it’s like to struggle and hang on until the hard work pays off – even when you may be working with a niche audience. He knows what it takes to create a timeless work. Some of his lyrics capture the kind of stubborn grit you need eloquently:
“I choose to pray to one who doesn’t hear me.
I choose to wait for love that He conceals.
And though God has chosen for now, not to be near me.
I’m keeping promises my heart no longer feels.”
McLean’s determination and life-long commitment to his art through thick and thin is something artists in the Provo music scene would do well to emulate.
The Forgotten Carols comes to the UCCU Center in Orem, UT on Monday, December 13th. You can buy tickets online here. Check out the trailer for the show below!