Thursday, December 03, 2009

The Forgotten Carols? Forget It.

As with most topic in this blog, I am only stating my opinion here:

So the other night I saw a production of Michael McLean's The Forgotten Carols directed by my friend. Those of you unfamiliar with The Forgotten Carols, it has become a holiday tradition among many Mormons. Michael McLean, who I have alluded to before without actually mentioning his name, is a Mormon composer famous for his inspirational and uplifting music. I feel the way about his music as I do many Mormon pop artists (defined as contemporary Mormon composers who write music specifically for a Mormon audience): I find a lot of his stuff cheesy and kind of sappy. That isn't to say I haven't been inspired or moved by some of his songs. I remember being very touched at a difficult point in my life by one of his famous songs, "You're Not Alone." Even in The Forgotten Carols itself, I quite like the song "Joseph (I Was Not His Father, He Was Mine." And although I mostly find his tunes a bit treacly, I think he's a relatively talented composer of overly sentimental songs.

What I think he absolutely sucks at is playwriting, and this production of The Forgotten Carols only reaffirmed that. I have seen The Forgotten Carols. In fact, the version I saw starred Michael McLean himself. The version I saw was done more as a reading, with McLean telling the story of Constance, a nurse with a stick so far up her butt that she needs an angel of sorts named John to help her open her heart to the true spirit of Christmas. McLean sang all of the songs himself (yikes! Composer, yes. Good singer, no!) with a choir backing him up. I thought the show was so-so, but at least thought it sort of worked in a kind of "bedtime story" format.

This production I saw was a full-scale, dramatized production with individual actors playing the various characters in the story. The script has also suffered some "improvements," and is somewhat different from the version I saw. What is blatantly obvious to me is that McLean's dialogue, plot development, and character development are very weak. There are scenes that are completely unnecessary. Instead of moving the plot along, they leave you asking, "What the...?" There is a backstory for Constance that is poorly developed and, frankly, of little aid in helping us understand why she is the way she is even though that is its exact intended purpose. When her character does finally have a change of heart, it happens on a dime and seems to have nothing powerful enough behind it to warrant it. Most of the dialogue is very wooden.

I get why people like the show. It's got some moving music and it's got a positive, family-friendly message. I just think it's terribly written and poorly developed.

My director friend agrees whole-heartedly with my assessment of the show, and in fact, knew what my criticisms of the show would be before I even told him. Like he says, "it is what it is." Why is he directing it, you ask? Well, he knows (as do I) that it will be a sure-fire hit in this very conservative, Mormon town in which we live. And I guess that's what annoys me the most; that audiences so often would rather see mediocre, feel-good entertainment even if its badly written than they would thought-provoking, well-written material that offends their sensibilities. Furthermore, they will give that same poorly-written material standing ovations and cheers as if it's the greatest theatre they've ever seen.

I wrote about this before when I saw a production of Michael McLean's show The Ark, which frankly, makes The Forgotten Carols look like Hamlet. I'm far more offended by mediocre (or less-than-mediocre) theatre than I am by nudity or profanity in a well-written, thought-provoking piece. I'd rather see some edgy independent film than a mainstream Adam Sandler movie. I'd rather see some experimental musical by Stephen Sondheim that the general populous doesn't get than some overrated show about cats or trains by Andrew Lloyd Webber.

I guess another thing that bothers me is that I've met Michael McLean. I have nothing against him, but he does come across as having a bit of an ego. He regards his work in a much higher esteem than I do, and he probably can justly feel that way because the Mormon masses have taken to it so readily. I'm sure in his mind because his music and shows have touched, moved, and inspired people, that must mean they're well-written and beautifully constructed; but I say just because something makes you feel good, that doesn't make it a masterpiece. Mamma Mia! makes me feel happy and gay (pun intended) when I leave the theater, but I'll be the first to admit it isn't Shakespeare or Shaw or Chekhov or Sondheim. There are plenty of feel-good movies out there that you may leave feeling moved, but you realize it did so with artificiality and manipulation rather than through a well-constructed storyline or characters.

Don't get me wrong; I'm not saying there isn't a place in the world for feel-good entertainment. I love Mamma Mia! for example. I like the movie Deep Impact, but I won't tell you it's a great movie. The movie "Scavenger Hunt" always makes me laugh, but it is a terrible movie. I understand why silly melodramas or overly sentimental shows are appealing to people. What I tire of is the accolades some works receive without really being deserving of them, and what's even worse is when those works are presented in a shoddy manner. Mamma Mia! and Deep Impact are certainly a lot better constructed than The Forgotten Carols, but I wouldn't dream of awarding either a Tony or an Oscar, respectively. I teach musical theatre, and while I enjoyed Mamma Mia!, it is a mere blip in musical theatre history as far as I'm concerned and is barely worth mentioning. The Forgotten Carols isn't even in the same league. The songs are salvageable, but the script needs major help.

I don't know why I'm on such a tirade about this. It really isn't that important, and now that I've written my thoughts, I wonder if it's even worth posting. I just hate bad theatre! Oh, well. Here it is, for what it's worth. Enjoy.

12 comments:

Sara said...

LOL at the Starlight Express reference. I am old!

Traci Omega Moo said...

Dude, you nailed it. I saw this for the first time last night, and it was pure torture. I'm not artistic whatsoever, but I do operate on a few brain cells, and I resent Michael McLean thinking he can smack me in the face over and over with this cheesy nonsense and I'm supposed to feel the Spirit and want to buy his CD at the same time. People deserve better than this. People should be buying tickets to Handel's Messiah at their local concert hall, and not wasting money on this crap at their local High School auditorium. The Forgotten Carols SUCK ASS!!

Unknown said...

I went to the forgotten carols last night for the second time because it's a tradition in my wife's family. I refrain from voicing my criticism because I don't want to ruin it for my wife, but I was dreading going again ever since that billboard first appeared on the freeway a month or two ago. It's horrible for the reasons you mentioned and more.

But nevermind all that, the worst thing about the Forgotten Carols is the blatant merchandising. Look at last year: It was supposed to be a family-oriented, spiritual experience, and despite all the hokey absurdity, at the very end I was starting to get that warm, fuzzy feeling inside, but then McLean blurted out singing, "Buy the DVD! Buy the DVD!" and any feeling of spirituality I had instantly fleeted away.

This year he had even MORE songs about what was for sale in the lobby. As he sang them, I stared at the stage slack-jawed in disbelief at how much he beat that dead horse; continually, just as he set the mood for inviting a spiritual experience, he unexpectedly spun it into another shameless plug. Just one example, he turned a traditional Christmas song into "Buy a bracelet! Buy a T-shirt! Buy a 20th anniversary DVD!". Just imagine if each session of General Conference ended with a booming voice announcing, "Act now to order your copy of this General Conference on DVD and Blu-Ray! Or upgrade to the deluxe edition, which is autographed by the entire First Presidency! Operators are standing by!" People wouldn't walk away from that feeling spiritually uplifted.

I couldn't help but let out a scoffing laugh of contempt when I spotted in the printed program, "Michael McLean and the cast will be available to sign MERCHANDISE in the lobby after the show." So in otherwords, if you want his autograph, but you didn't buy the item from him, he won't sign it? I was tempted to get in the autograph line just to see if he would refuse to sign my free copy of the Sign Post I picked up in the hallway...

So anyway, as I sat there in a packed auditorium, at 20+ bucks a seat, I figured what was going on: Michael McLean is the Mormon-equivalent of televangelist. No, he's not selling salvation or sin-vouchers, he knows he'd go to Hell for that kind of blasphemy, but instead he's figured out how sucker the Utah populace in a way that God might not cast him into outer darkness for: He has an elsewhere talent for uplifting music, for which reason people blindly gravitate towards his plays, which are a bunch of crap wrapped loosely together with masking tape (because duct tape would be too good), but because it's sprinkled with a little bit of spirituality without anything thematically questionable or offensive, people eat it up as wholesome, family-oriented, Utah entertainment, under the mistaken impression that they just had a *thoroughly* enjoyable experience. Then, naturally, they'll want to buy some merchandize to help them remember the good time they thought they had, but just to be certain nobody forgets, McLean shatters the spiritual presence with unending reminders that make me think selling merchandize is more important to him then performing his shabby play is.

At the very end, he invites the audience to sing, "We can be together forever." I think what he means by those lyrics is that Michael McLean and the money of the suckers who go every year and buy his crap will be together forever.

Gay LDS Actor said...

Unknown,

Loved your comments. Just as Christmas itself has become too much about merchandizing, I think you're right that McLean's shows are often more about merchandizing that inviting the Christmas spirit. He probably thinks he's being cute, but I agree it just comes off as shelling his wares.

I've actually met Michael McLean in person. I find him somewhat arrogant, at least in my brief dealings with him.

I think this is my favorite quote of yours: "He has an elsewhere talent for uplifting music, for which reason people blindly gravitate towards his plays, which are a bunch of crap wrapped loosely together with masking tape (because duct tape would be too good), but because it's sprinkled with a little bit of spirituality without anything thematically questionable or offensive, people eat it up as wholesome, family-oriented, Utah entertainment, under the mistaken impression that they just had a *thoroughly* enjoyable experience," because I think it's completely true.

You may enjoy this post I wrote three years ago. While it doesn't mention the title of his show in the post itself, the post is talking about Michael McLean's show, The Ark, which frankly, makes The Forgotten Carols look like Hamlet.

The guy has a talent for putting together a catchy and spiritually uplifting tune, but his brand of "theatre" is often cheap and badly-written, in my opinion.

Nicole said...

So I have no idea how old this post is but your comments, no matter how old they are, are spot on. Even about him being arrogant. I have been to two of his performances. Once was years ago at an EFY. A good majority of the youth in my stake were politely listening to him play the piano and his son sing, when suddenly, his son just stops singing and then gives us all a lecture on how we need to be more respectful and listen to the music instead of talking to our neighbors. I looked around me and saw dozens of confused faces. I hadn't noticed anyone talking, but I guess he could see something from the stage that I couldn't. And then Michael jumps in right behind his son and agrees that we are all being rude. They then continued on with the performance and thirty minutes later, patted themselves on the back for providing such a spiritual evening for us and they know how much we felt the Spirit and so on and so on.

About five years ago, I attended The Christmas Carols. I think his whole family played a role in that performance. Not kidding- I have seen high school plays that are better. I didn't understand the story with the nurse and her over bearing mother. And once again, at the end of the performance, Michael McLean went on for ten minutes about how much the Spirit was felt. Does he do this at the end of all of his performances? It doesn't come off as sincere to me. It seems phony. But the people that I was there with seemed to be enjoying it, so I thought there must be something wrong with me for not feeling what Mr. McLean was so sure I must have felt.

I have decided I can handle listening to a very small selection of his songs on my iPod- as long as someone else is singing them. But I will never go to any of his performances again. I just can't stomach another one.

Gay LDS Actor said...

Nicole,

This post is four years old, but I appreciate your comment.

Your stories about Michael McClean were very interesting. They don't surprise me at all based on my exposure to Mr. McClean.

Thanks for your comments.



Shari Feekes said...

This makes me laugh. Here we are in 2014 and this lack luster play is still going on and the same people are going to it.

I love the Forgotten Carols as songs and I have the little book that goes with them but the play? No, no, no

Gay LDS Actor said...

Agreed. :-)

kim said...

Our worlds has become such a sad place - in 2014 and even more so today. Because you don't like it - it's bad. Because there are those who agree with you it's even worse. There are some who do. There are some who love it - who like "sappy". Just like you are free to have your opinion and preferences others have theirs as well. Can't we start respecting that? You're not forced to participate in anything Michael McLean does - and it's fine that it's not your preference. This article would not have bothered me if you had simply said - it's not my bag and this is why. There will be those who say - yeah it's not mine either, guess we have that in common. But it could be someone like me who could say - yeah I get that - it is my bag and that's okay for both of us. There's no need to get mean and rude about it. It's okay for you to have a preference. it's not okay to bad mouth someone else for putting something out you don't prefer. If you don't like it that's YOUR deal - not HIS. But I'm sure you prefer things I don't - that's your choice and it's my choide not to prefer them. It doesn't make either one of us bad or wrong. It makes us human. One would think as imperfect humans we could at least think we could realize we're all in the same world and we could at least treat each other with respect.

Gay LDS Actor said...

No, it's not bad because I don't like it; it's not to my liking because the writing isn't very good. That doesn't mean it doesn't have value. You obviously like it. More power to you. Nowhere have I denied anyone having a different opinion than me. And actually, I think I've basically done exactly what you have suggested, which is to explain exactly why this show, as written, is "not my bag." If I bad-mouthed Michael McLean and you took offense, my apologies, but I stand by my review and my opinion because it is, after all, mine.

Jian Hou Zi said...

Hi, I'm "Unknown" from this comment. (I guess I'll have a display name now that Google has assimilated yet another web service.) I feel the need to further clarify why The Forgotten Carols is a forgettably bad play and I can't stand it, and why people shouldn't bother with it.

Let me begin by stating that I enjoy a very broad spectrum of plays/movies: Funny or serious, happy-toned or tear-jerking, so long as the feature isn't too crass, isn't too violent, and is well written, I can enjoy it and recommend it to others. Excessively sappy, however, does not fall under the classification of "well written," as any emotion it tries to get the audience to experience is typically forced and unnatural.

I recognize that my comment about "wholesome entertainment" may easily be misconstrued to imply that I think there's no such thing as good wholesome entertainment, so let me clarify: Wholesome entertainment can be good, but just because it is wholesome doesn't instantly qualify it as good entertainment, just as all herring are fish but not all fish are herring.

An example of good wholesome entertainment: Mainstream theatrically-released Disney films are usually wholesome and are usually well written, well performed, and overall well made. Just look at Up: Within the first five minutes a better love story is told than what is found in Stephenie Meyer's entire Twilight series.

The problem with wholesome entertainment like The Forgotten Carols is that its authors generally put in no effort beyond making it family friendly. "Free of profanity? Check! Free of violence and disturbing imagery? Check! Free of sex, nudity, and other adult situations? Check! Uplifting message embedded? Check! Talented actors? Eh, good enough. Sensical plot which follows logical progression following logical character behavior and motivation? Meh, well push it through anyways."

The Forgotten Carols is not a well written story, to the degree that it is painful to sit through. McLean himself alluded to it's half-assed, slapped together production as he described its evolution during the 20th anniversary performance: The play originally was just him, sitting in a chair, pretending to read a story out of a book in order to loosely connect a bunch of Christmassy songs, acting out all the characters himself. He later thought about how could he sell more tickets and realized he should hire actors to perform his "story!" How could he sell even more tickets? Hire a full choir so that their family and friends will come see them.

If people want good wholesome entertainment, it's out there and they can find it if they look hard enough, but they won't find it at The Forgotten Carols.

One last thing I have to say: The last time I got dragged to the play, I had a horrible cold. I was already so miserable that I had the perfect to excuse to not pretend I was enjoying the play. It was the best Forgotten Carols ever!

Jian Hou Zi said...

I just though of a great analogy for why people should avoid The Forgotten Carols.

In seminary and Sunday school, sometimes the analogy of the poop-in-the-cake is applied: Supposed you're presented with a delicious-looking cake, and are told that somewhere inside is a single piece of dog poop. It's just a little piece of dog poop, but would you still want to eat the cake?

This analogy is applied to entertainment: "There's just a little bit of heavy profanity or nudity in this movie, but does that justify watching it?"

The analogy can be reversed for The Forgotten Carols: As McLean's play is a trainwreck with some redeeming qualities, a dog poop may have a little bit of cake it. Would you eat that dog poop in the hopes of being able to enjoy the bit of cake?