One night last May, Michael McLean woke up around 2 a.m. with the pressing thought that he needed to do something for the Ukrainian people.

The 70-year-old songwriter, director, filmmaker and author, known for his production, “The Forgotten Carols,” had met former Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko years before and performed at his birthday party. In the process, he bonded with the Eastern European country.

A plan formed in his mind as he sat awake in the early morning silence: Take an inspirational song he had written decades earlier during a dark time in his life, get it translated into Ukrainian and find a way to get it recorded by a famous Ukrainian singer so it can bring hope to those suffering.

McLean, who is dealing with stage-five renal failure and needs a kidney transplant, described the idea in a text to a friend. Within a few hours, the plan was set in motion.

Remarkably, within a month, McLean’s objective had been realized.

“I think it’s one of those ‘Hand of God’ things,” he said. “I put it in the category of ‘You must believe there are miracles.’”

Michael McLean watches the production on a monitor while waiting backstage.
Michael McLean watches the production on a monitor while waiting backstage during a performance of “The Forgotten Carols” at Cottonwood High School in Murray on Saturday, Dec. 18, 2021. McLean got a Ukrainian singer to perform his song, “Hold On,” for people in her war-torn country while he waits for a kidney transplant. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Story behind McLean’s song, ‘Hold On’

McLean said he has battled clinical depression for most of his life.

“It’s been the bane of my existence,” he said.

McLean was experiencing just such a “dark time” more than 30 years ago as he and Kevin Kelly were developing what would become their off-Broadway musical “The Ark,” based on the Biblical story in the Old Testament.

McLean’s bouts with depression helped him to imagine what Noah’s family may have been feeling after 40 days and nights of rain.

“It was the point in the musical where we were thinking, ‘What would Noah say to his family, who’s jumping up and down, because the rain finally stopped?’ They are thinking, ‘We never thought we would make it,’” McLean said. “I knew as a guy who battled getting over things that weren’t going well, and then went well, and then went back again. I thought, ‘Maybe what Noah would sing to his family is this — the message of this moment is so clear, and as certain as the rising of the sun, if your world is filled with darkness, doubt or fear, just hold on, hold on, the light will come.’ All those lines fit perfectly.”

Unfortunately for McLean and Kelly, New York critics sunk “The Ark,” but the song and message of “Hold On” would live on to serve other purposes.

Finding a Ukrainian singer

Utah County Attorney David Leavitt introduced McLean to Yushchenko and facilitated him singing at his birthday a few years ago.

Leavitt was the friend that McLean shared his idea with in a text at 2 a.m.

A few hours later, Leavitt replied with a link to an article featuring Yulia Tymochko, a Latter-day Saint singer who finished second in Ukraine’s “Voice of the Country” national TV show in 2021.

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Leavitt was also on his way to Ukraine and Moldova to assist an anonymous donor in providing support for 500 refugee families.

Leavitt helped McLean to connect with Rep. Jordan Teuscher, R-South Jordan, who is married to Tymochko’s younger sister Aliona. Teuscher served a mission in Kyiv, Ukraine, for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

McLean, Leavitt, Teuscher and Tymochko all joined a call where McLean presented his “Hold On” idea — translated by Teuscher — to the Ukrainian refugee singer.

Yulia Tymochko, a returned Latter-day Saint missionary, finished second in Ukraine’s national TV show “Voice of the Country” in 2021.
Yulia Tymochko, a returned Latter-day Saint missionary, finished second in Ukraine’s national TV show “Voice of the Country” in 2021. The refugee now lives in Poland, where she recorded a Ukrainian version of “Hold On” to help give hope to people in her war-torn country. | Jordan Teuscher

Yulia Tymochko’s refugee story

Finishing second in Ukraine’s version of “The Voice” gave the Tymochko newfound confidence and a fresh start to her musical career.

Following the competition, Tymochko began working with other professionals to produce her own music and grow her career.

But her momentum was disrupted when Russia attacked Ukraine in late February. About 10 days into the conflict, Yulia and her mother decided to flee to Poland when a Russian missile “hit too close to home.”

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“I was heartbroken, confused and scared,” she said. “I felt like I had finally caught my break and my destiny was being fulfilled, and then overnight, my confidence in the future simply disappeared. ... Fortunately, the Lord took care of me and my mother.”

Church members helped Tymochko, a returned Latter-day Saint missionary, and her mother travel to Warsaw, Poland, where they were welcomed by local Latter-day Saints who helped them find an apartment.

“This was a real miracle as the city was full of refugees and everything, everywhere was full — even the train station,” she said. “We also received support from my sister and brother-in-law in the U.S. and their friends that helped us to be able to survive.”

Singing and sharing ‘Hold On’

Tymochko was not familiar with McLean or his music before the song was shared with her, but hearing it “touched her heart” and she agreed to be involved.

The song was translated and minor adjustments were made to the music to accommodate Yulia’s voice and style before it was recorded in a Warsaw studio.

A recording of Tymochko singing “Hold On” in Ukrainian was uploaded to YouTube.

As Yulia and others worked on the translation, special effort was made to ensure the song didn’t lose its uplifting message, she said.

“I was honored to be able to participate in the project and help in some small part to ease the burden of other Ukrainian refugees,” Tymochko said. “Recording this song was a sacred experience for me as I knew that those who were listening to it were seeking hope and peace. I know that our Heavenly Father is watching over Ukraine and its people and will find a way for us to end the bloodshed and war. In the meantime, I feel privileged to help share the message that if we have faith and hold on, the light will come.”

McLean wept when he heard the recording. He told Tymochko he was her biggest fan.

“She is such a great singer,” he said. “What’s profound about it is she sang the message. She adapted it in a way that gave her a chance to universally bear her witness to all those people and say, ‘You hold on.’”

After recording the song, Tymochko traveled back to Ukraine to perform a concert for refugee families in Lviv. When she sang “Hold On,” she saw tears flow in the audience.

“At that moment, I could feel in my heart that this song had really become an instrument to bring peace and hope to my war-torn country,” Tymochko said.

Since then the song has been played in several cities and efforts have been made to get it to the largest radio station in the country. McLean said Leavitt played the song for refugees living in tents using a small Bluetooth speaker.

“He called me in the middle of the night to say these tough Ukrainians are weeping and holding each other and feeling hope,” McLean said.

Michael McLean hangs out with cast members during intermission of a performance of “The Forgotten Carols.”
Michael McLean hangs out with cast members during intermission of a performance of “The Forgotten Carols” at Cottonwood High School in Murray on Saturday, Dec. 18, 2021. McLean recently learned he will likely receive a kidney transplant in August or September. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

‘Hold on’ for a kidney transplant

McLean has other songs he would like his new favorite Ukrainian singer to translate and perform in the future. He recently found out Tymochko is coming to the United States in September and looks forward to meeting her in person.

But there’s a good chance the songwriter will be in the hospital.

Last December McLean told the Deseret News that he has stage-five renal failure and needs a kidney transplant. He recently received the good news that a kidney donor has been found.

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“The donor is coming from Colorado Springs, Colorado, on July 26 for a final phase of tests and if all goes well, the surgery could be in mid-to-late August or September,” McLean said. “It’s a wonderful story.” 

The message of “Hold On” has been a blessing to McLean in terms of his health.

“It continues to amaze me how sometimes a song can teach me a lesson the only way my heart can hear it,” he said.

Little did McLean know when “The Ark” didn’t pan out, and he was dealing with mental health issues, a multiyear faith crisis and other challenges, that decades later he would share “Hold On” at a Ukrainian birthday party and later orchestrate a way for it to be shared during a military conflict in which it would bring hope to many in need.

“It sounds a little pretentious I know, but it’s like man, this is God’s deal,” he said. “It sounds a little weird to say I think I’m part of God’s work, but what else could it be?”

Michael McLean performs in “The Forgotten Carols” at Cottonwood High School in Murray on Saturday, Dec. 18, 2021.
Michael McLean performs in “The Forgotten Carols” at Cottonwood High School in Murray on Saturday, Dec. 18, 2021. McLean received the good news that he will likely receive a kidney transplant in August or September. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News