Why the future of ‘The Forgotten Carols’ depends on Michael McLean, doctors and a transplant
As show’s 30th-anniversary tour wraps up, McLean faces the challenge of a lifetime
Michael McLean wasn’t going to give up on “The Forgotten Carols” that easily.
When the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted plans for the annual tour in 2020, the songwriter, performer, author and director filmed the stage production for theaters and later made it available on DVD so the tradition could carry on. At a time when few movies were in theaters, “The Forgotten Carols” was among the top 10 films in the country, he said.
Since then, McLean has faced a combination of serious health issues, including a heart attack, which threatened plans for a grand 30th anniversary tour this December.
Once again, with modifications and a scaled-back schedule, McLean and company made it possible for the show to go on this year, for which he is deeply thankful. But a 31st annual tour remains in doubt due to a new health issue McLean has not revealed previously.
“I’ve got to tell that story in person for 30 years,” he told the Deseret News. “It’s humbling and I’m grateful as I face my own mortality. I don’t know what is going to become of me. But it’s all very tender to me. What if I don’t get to do this anymore? I hope that I have left something beyond, that those songs can have meaning and help in difficult times like we’ve had in the last couple of years to not be so scared.”
What are ‘The Forgotten Carols?’
McLean first wrote the story and composed the music for “The Forgotten Carols” in 1990.
The story features a nurse named Connie Lou who meets an elderly patient named Uncle John. The cheerful and mysterious man changes the nurse’s life when he tells the story of Jesus Christ’s birth using symbolic Christmas tree ornaments and musical messages.
The book and album were released the following year and McLean launched a promotional tour, going from town to town, performing all the roles and singing all the songs himself. The idea to include local high school choirs (“They have relatives,” McLean said with a laugh) at each performance helped it grow in popularity.
Over the last 29 years, “The Forgotten Carols” has grown and evolved, becoming a holiday tradition for many families worldwide. The show has been performed not only in the United States, but also in England, Denmark, Ireland, Germany, Ukraine and even Africa.
“We’ve sold over a million tickets, that blew my mind,” McLean said. “The story has connected with people.”
‘The Forgotten Carols’ in the Deep South
It also found an audience along the Bible Belt.
A few years ago, McLean allowed his longtime friend, Michael Young, to perform a Christian version of “The Forgotten Carols” across the Southern United States.
Young was convinced the show was not just for a Latter-day Saint audience because when he first saw it in Las Vegas, he was with a friend who considered himself a “nonbeliever.” At the end of the show, the friend said he identified with the nurse character, “Connie Lou,” and began asking all kinds of questions about how he could become a Christian.
“Is this just a Latter-day Saint kind of thing? That’s when I realized I should do it in the South,” Young said. “The purpose was to find out if this resonated the same way with everybody, regardless of faith. It did.”
The first performance was in Vicksburg, Mississippi, said Young, an Emmy Award-winning television, stage and movie actor and former TV anchorman.
Despite his best promotional efforts, the show had only sold 100 tickets in a thousand-seat venue on the day of the performance. It didn’t help sales that McLean was known to be a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he said.
“Before the show I’m in the dressing room thinking what a financial disaster, but sort of reminding myself that this was my way of giving back,” Young said. “I was not going to worry about losing money producing this.”
At that moment, a Baptist minister found Young, introduced himself and offered to pray for him. It was a lengthy prayer but Young was touched. He invited the minister to do the same for the audience before the curtains opened, which he did.
“So he went out on stage and welcomed everybody with a short prayer, and when I went out, I don’t know how, but the auditorium was filled,” Young said. “They just showed up on a rainy night in Vicksburg.”
When the show was over, the same minister returned to the stage, raised his hands and declared the word of the Lord had been spoken. Nine people came to the stage and accepted Jesus as their Savior, Young said.
“That happened almost everywhere we performed in the South,” he said. “The impact was phenomenal. ... We even competed with football, which you know in the Southeast is a religion itself.”
One Baptist minister even created a small Bible study publication to help flocks and congregations discuss and understand “The Forgotten Carols” in church or Bible school before going to see the show.
“This was his (the minister’s) takeaway of what ‘The Forgotten Carols’ meant to him,” McLean said as he held the small booklet. “This is a little treasure for me. ... I didn’t really know how spiritual my show was.”
Young performed the main role of “Uncle John” for three years at cities in Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi. He knew the part inside and out when McLean, whom he worked with 40 years ago on TV projects for Bonneville Media, offered him the part for the 30th-anniversary tour.
“I went to see him at a show that he did in Atlanta and thought to myself, ‘If word gets out how good he is, I’m going to be out of a job,’” McLean said.
The 30th anniversary of ‘The Forgotten Carols’
One year ago, while the film version of “The Forgotten Carols” was in theaters and available on streaming services, McLean tested positive for COVID-19. He thought it would kill him because he has “diabetes and bad lungs.”
“It didn’t kill me but it killed my kidneys,” he said. “I had stage-five kidney failure.”
Then in February, he suffered a heart attack. He said he was fortunate to find a hospital room because there were so many COVID-19 patients. Doctors were able to place stents in his heart to prevent further heart damage but the dye from the procedure damaged his kidneys, he said.
“I’m on the kidney donor list,” the 69-year-old said. “When the tour’s over, my main job in 2022 is to find a living donor so I can have a transplant.”
Because of McLean’s health challenges, the original 30-city, 30th-anniversary tour was greatly reduced. He asked Young to play the main part of “Uncle John,” a role he had filled for 29 years. And if McLean could limit travel and still sleep in his own bed, he could still be involved as the narrator and have a few other minor roles.
“Audiences aren’t rid of me yet,” he said.
Sporting a fluffy white beard, Young said he was honored to be offered the main role, from both a professional and spiritual standpoint.
“It’s just so beautifully written, and the songs are so meaningful that it’s hard for me to get through the night without being completely emotional,” Young said. “The dialogue, it’s also funny and amusing.”
The tour started at the end of November and continued into December with shows in Tooele, Orem and Salt Lake City. The final show is on Wednesday, Dec. 22, at the Dee Events Center in Ogden. For ticket information, visit forgottencarols.com.
“It’s been so fun and it’s wonderful to watch the audiences. We’ve been selling out and it’s been a great show,” McLean said. “Mike was just so great to be willing to do it. People have been sending me love notes to pass along to Mike about how much they love his performances.”
What does the future hold for ‘The Forgotten Carols?’
With CDs, a book and a film version of “The Forgotten Carols,” audiences will be able to enjoy the Christmas classic in various formats for years to come.
But will this be the last year of the traveling stage production of “The Forgotten Carols?”
“If I don’t get a kidney, for sure, but I don’t know,” McLean said. “I think one of the reasons we didn’t announce it as the farewell tour is because we don’t know. Who knows?”
For now, McLean isn’t looking too far ahead. While he hopes for a kidney transplant and good health, he’s more focused on relishing the opportunity to share his Christmas story with audiences that he considers to be family.
“This moment is a precious one,” McLean said.
“I’m having the time of my life. And this guy is going to be around,” he said of McLean. “We’re not letting him go anywhere.”