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MICHAEL MCLEAN: POPULAR LDS COMPOSER TACKLES TOUGH QUESTIONS ABOUT HIS WORK.

In popular music, it's easy to find songs that break your heart. What's hard is finding songs that break your heart in five notes. On the international level Andrew Lloyd Webber can do it (those opening bars of "Memory" and "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina"). Locally, LDS listeners feel Michael McLean may have the gift as well. Those first intervals of "You're Not Alone" are becoming as familiar to Mormons as the first notes of hymns, and his collection of "Forgotten Carols" will be remembered for a long time.

In short, McLean is Mormondom's one-man Mencken and Ashman (the twosome behind "Beauty and the Beast" and "Aladdin.") His resume lists four musicals (including "Celebrating the Light"), six films ("Mr. Krueger's Christmas," "The Prodigal Son"), four song books, several commercials, a video and nine albums.His latest effort is "Distant Serenade," a book and CD combo that's hot off the presses for Christmas.

Currently, when not with his wife and three kids on a 20-acre Summit County farm, McLean tours, does concerts and composes.

Still, though his fans are many and devout, main-stream music critics often dismiss his work as pie-eyed, compromised by a Mormon agenda. They feel his songs become interesting only when you fumigate them of "faith promotion."

While between stops recently, McLean sat down with the Deseret News and fielded some hardball questions, then threw a few curves of his own.

Here's what he had to say:

Deseret News: Your musical "Celebrating the Light," shows a strong sense of the main-stream LDS audience. I think people sometimes wonder how much of a musical like that is really you, and how much is a feeling for the LDS marketplace.

McLean: That question triggers a lot of thoughts. For one, it hits at the essence of the kind of contribution I want to make.

I was 16 years old when I went to see "Man of La Mancha" in Chicago. When I came out, I was changed. I thought about how I'd been both entertained and moved at the same time. I saw that same change on the faces of people as they left the theater. And I thought to myself, "Before I die, I want to affect people the way I've been affected tonight." That became my "quest." To tell universal truths that affected people as I had been affected.

When the chance to do "Celebrating the Light" came along, I went in with the feeling I was actually writing for people who weren't Mormons, but who wanted a sense of just who Mormons were. The people who were paying me had certain things they wanted to include, however. They wanted something about the pioneers, for example. But my sensibility, when I wrote the song "Light on a Distant Hill," wasn't that I'd written a song about Mormon pioneers crossing the plains; the song was about all people who share that same incredible, adventuresome pioneer spirit. I don't like to preach, what I want is to tell truths. And because I am who I am, some of those truths come out as examples of my own culture.

My sense of the Mormon audience is this: I hope they resonate to these stories. And I hope I never hide behind my intentions and try to bury "poor craft."

Deseret News: Along those lines, many LDS writers run into the same conflict that other popular artists face: the fact people do not want to pay good money just to be made to feel uncomfortable or unpleasant. So there's a sense among critics that many Mormon artists are timid. They can't afford to offend.

McLean: You mean as in, "We're not going to deal with the really tough issues out there."

Deseret News: Not so much that as a feeling that negative things get glossed over with generalities and abstractions while the positive is presented with concrete examples. In "Celebrating the Light," for instance, we get some very specific accounts about the courage of the pioneers, but when we meet the modern kid who leaves home, we don't know if his "problem" is drugs or violence or sexuality. It's as if the audience has agreed to walk through the spook alley with you as long as you don't make them touch anything disgusting.

McLean: You know, that's interesting. I have two thoughts about it. The first is, you're right. Some people - and I truly like such people - won't ever compromise their standards or do anything that feels like selling out. They just want to celebrate the light that shines in everyone.

On the other hand, I've also written songs that I felt were pretty mild tunes, but other people saw as really "on the edge." The songs rocked and rolled a little bit - old stuff, really, nothing hip or happening at all - but I took some real criticism about them. So I know those frustrations.

As far as me writing about problems that are not specific enough, I look at the song "It's Not Heavy" from "Celebrating the Light." When I wrote it, my fear was that if the song was just about a sexual issue, say, then the guy in the audience who is struggling with substance abuse might not feel any power or hope in it.

What I hear from people is this: Don't just tell me life sucks. I already now that. Tell me there's a reason to keep going. So just because I write songs that look for hope beyond the suffering, that doesn't mean I have no understanding of the negative side of life.

Deseret News: So what we're really talking about here is a musical ministry.

McLean: You could say that. It's not just "entertain me, touch me." I feel I'm writing about things that other people simply choose not to write about.

I remember the time a young girl called me to say she was pregnant and unmarried and felt in her heart she should give the baby up to someone who could raise it right. She wanted to write a song with me. I explained that I wrote the words and music at the same time - that I was really a singles player - but I'd be happy to write a song for her. I wrote "From God's Arms, to My Arms, to Yours." When I played it for her over the phone she cried and said it was exactly what she was looking for.

Today, I get at least 20 requests a month from people who want to use "From God's Arms, to My Arms, to Yours." Girls - both Mormon and non-Mormon - ask that the song be sent to the couples who adopt their babies. I just got a call from a social worker in South Carolina who asked to use it. So, you see, I don't think of all this as "avoiding the hard issues." I feel I'm right in the middle of everything that is powerful and painful and soul-gripping.

Deseret News: I appreciate your candor. Before we wind things up is there anything you'd like to add?

McLean: Yes, what were those tough questions you said you'd like to ask? I'd like a chance to respond to them.