Interesting statement coming from a guy who eventually wrote one of the most successful Christmas musicals in LDS culture, The Forgotten Carols.
So how did a guy who said he "couldn't improve on Christmas" come to write nine new Christmas songs, a story to go with them, and create a stage adaptation that marks the beginning of the holiday season for thousands? Well, in order to answer that, we have to back up a few years.
Michael began taking piano lessons at age seven and found a great influence in his classically trained piano teacher, who had him learning Rachmaninoff by age ten. At his first lesson his teacher said, "What's great about music is that when you're angry, you can do this," and he played Beethoven. "And when you're heartbroken, you can play this," and he played Chopin. "All of that is in your heart; you just can't get it out of your fingers yet. The reason we're going to practice scales is so that when your heart feels, your fingers will let you express it.'"
With that mentality, Michael would spend a full year perfecting one piece of music and even thought that perhaps he would eventually become a classical pianist. But after accompanying his teacher to a piano concert at the Tabernacle on Temple Square, Michael said he had a "bizarre thought for a twelve-year-old."
"I watched this world-class pianist play this extraordinary concert and I thought to myself, 'No matter how good he plays, he is going to die and no one will ever get to hear him play this again.' And then I thought, 'But Mozart is dead and we're still listening to him. Maybe the way to leave something is to write something.'"
Not long after that realization, Michael wrote his first song. "I was about eleven or twelve," he says with a reminiscent smile. "It was about the carrots and potatoes at Sunday dinner. And from there I just kept writing. It became this wonderful little outlet for me."
Always ready to make his dreams reality, Michael wrote songs for school assemblies, his Boy Scout troop, church programs, and girls. In high school he was also student body president and played the lead role in the Music Man. He received his Eagle Scout his junior year, was a state qualifier for the varsity tennis team, was runner-up in the state speech contest for original monologue, and maintained an A average, graduating second in his class. Upon graduating, Michael was off to BYU to study music.
In 1971, he was called on a mission to South Africa and while in the Language Training Mission (LTM) learning Afrikaans, Michael would sit at the piano each night and play for a few minutes to unwind. One night found a note waiting for him on the piano that read: Elder, He who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is not fit for the kingdom. Give up your music and really serve God.
Despite this discouragement, Michael was called by the mission president after only eight weeks in South Africa to be in a band that would spend the next eight months touring and playing music to help soften the hearts of the people. Michael described himself as "the least talented guy in the band."
"But I'd written a song," he says, "And I would sing it every night. In a matter of a few minutes I had channeled this truth that people could relate to, and it opened doors. I realized that maybe the guy at the LTM was wrong. I realized that maybe I was being true to my best self by doing music."
Upon returning to the States, Michael reorganized the band as Light and threw himself into songwriting, writing one song every day for a year.
"I thought if I was going to do this professionally, I had to get the craft of it. And let me tell you, I wrote some horrible, awful songs! Other songs wound up manifesting themselves later. But at that point, I just wrote. I gave it everything I had, eighteen hours a day, and . . . I failed."
Light disbanded and a well-meaning teacher told Michael that he should pursue other professional options and simply enjoy music as a hobby. So Michael transferred to the University of Utah to study business and marketing. By this point he was married to his wife, Lynne, had one daughter, and was selling shoes at a department store.
With money tight and a baby to care for, Lynne suggested he try writing commercial jingles. Michael, always quick to acknowledge his wife's encouragement, took Lynne's suggestion and found success writing numerous jingles for companies like Zions Bank ("People really do mean everything at Zions"), Major League Baseball ("Who will be the real hero?"), and milk ("Cola darkness covered me 'til the Refresher set me free"). He recalls watching television one night years later, surfing between stations, and realizing that he had written every local commercial on TV that night.
Not long after, Michael was hit with a life-changing event when Lynne, pregnant with their second child, was in a horrific car accident. "She literally lost her face," he says. "I got to the hospital not knowing if she was even alive. When I was finally able to see her she was unrecognizable. We gave her a blessing and I remember begging God not to take her. I just couldn't loose her." The doctors tended and repaired Lynne as best as they could, and she came home just a few days later. But, when Michael's daughter begged Michael not to allow the witch-lady to come into her room, he realized he needed to do something more. "And so I dropped out of school," he says.
Michael continued writing jingles, eventually pitched some of his ideas to Bonneville Productions, and was hired to work on the LDS Church's Homefront campaign. He won numerous awards during his advertising career, including the prestigious Clio Award, the National Addy Award, the New York Ad Club's Andy Award, two National Emmy Finalists Awards, and the Bronze Lion at the Cannes Film Festival. And at age twenty-four, Bonneville offered him a job as producer of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
He worked for Bonneville for seventeen years producing Music and the Spoken Word as well as writing and directing several films including, Together Forever, Our Heavenly Father's Plan, The Prodigal Son, What Is Real?, Nora's Christmas Gift staring Celeste Holm, and Mr. Krueger's Christmas starring film legend Jimmy Stewart.
"I never thought I'd stay there though," Michael says. "I still thought maybe I'd get a chance [at music]."
And chances did come--just not the right ones. ABC once flew him to LA and offered him an exclusive songwriter deal. But when they told him what kind of songs he'd need to write, saying, "You write good tunes, but you need more skin in your lyrics," Michael said no. Not long after, a friend set up a meeting for him in Nashville, but Michael experienced another rejection and flew back to Utah crushed.
He continued in advertising and film and then one year after his Nashville trip, Glenn Yarbrough, lead singer for the Limelighters from 1959 to 1963, arrived in Michael's office. He was trying to restart his career and had heard Michael was a songwriter. Michael played him the same song he'd pitched in Nashville, and by the end of the song Yarbrough was weeping and said, "You move me."
"It was an eye-opening experience," Michael remembers. Nashville had told him he was terrible, and Glenn had told him he was a genius. "But what was the truth? Well the truth, I learned, is neither. If I spend my life only chasing after 'Glenns' or only believing the bad, then I'll be paralyzed forever. So, I decided at that point to just listen to my heart and trust that the source of all creativity, which I believe is God, would give me confirmation when I got it right."
The Record Deal
Michael found himself at yet another turning point. "I'd learned this wonderful truth, and I had this song called 'You're Not Alone' that I'd written for a friend who had gone through a very painful divorce. I'd also recently written [a] jingle for Deseret Book, so I pitched [the song] to them. They said no."
But Michael continued pitching the song and in September 1983 the Church used it as the theme for Women's Conference. On Monday morning following Women's Conference, Michael got a call from Deseret Book. The album You're Not Alone was released just two months later.
In a recent twenty-fifth anniversary in music concert Michael said, "Maybe songwriters really only write one song. And maybe mine is 'You're Not Alone.' . . . Name a Mike McLean song that, at its core, wasn't trying to tell somebody, 'This is what I went through. Maybe you're going through it too. Just know that you're not the only one who's felt this way. You're not the only one who's scared. You're not the only one who's wondering if there's a God in heaven who loves you. You are not alone.'"
Due to the reception of that first album, Deseret Book took a chance on a second, and then a third album, and Michael found himself enjoying the success he'd dreamed of. His musical production Celebrating the Light was sold-out each season; his film Mr. Krueger's Christmas had been seen by millions of people around the world, and he'd not only been asked to record another album, but the Church had asked him to produce another Christmas film. But to Michael it seemed impossible.
"I had some hits out at this point, and I was kind of the hot, new, young guy," Michael says. "But I thought, 'I can't top this. How can I top Mr. Krueger's Christmas? The songs for the next album aren't coming. I can't do this.'"
But on his way home from the studio one night, as he listened to outtakes of the song "Hold On, the Light Will Come," with the stress and deadlines mounting, Michael had an experience; as he questioned his ability and worried about ultimately failing, he received peace and confirmation that as long as he worked to share "the light," he wouldn't fail. "It was overwhelming," he recalls.
Soon after, his film Nora's Christmas Gift debuted; his new album, A New Kind of Love Song, was another huge success; and he was offered the opportunity to record yet another album.
"All I could think was that I didn't want to blow this opportunity," Michael recalls. He remembered his experience in the car and wondered if he was trying to share light or trying to work for his own ends. "I had again become consumed with the franchise. It was about me being 'the guy.' And so, I made the adjustment."
In ten days One Heart in the Right Place was complete, and its release became a watershed moment for Michael. For the first time, he let Deseret Book put his picture on the cover. It was also the first time he ever toured a record.
"My mother always says, 'You can't put in the art what isn't in the man,'" Michael recalls. "The experience I had with that album changed the way I sold records. [It] helped me get out of the way and put my heart in the right place."
By 1990, Michael had five bestselling albums, a flourishing film career, and countless successful TV and radio ads. Then, on December 5, 1990, Michael found himself at his piano with the thought, "What if I met the innkeeper who turned Mary and Joseph away?"
The Forgotten Carols
The innkeeper's song, "Let Him In," came swiftly, and Michael found himself intrigued with the idea of these "forgotten characters" in the Christmas story. Within a couple months, he'd written a few more, and in April the following year he pitched his idea to Sheri Dew, editor at Deseret Book.
Sheri was supportive, but Michael had only one week to finish the entire project so that it could be approved by the board and out in time for Christmas. By this time, he had decided that what the songs needed was a story to tie them all together. He wrote the first chapter on April 6, 1991, and by April 13, Michael had completed the rest of the songs and the entire story. That Christmas he performed The Forgotten Carols for the first time.
"It was just me that first year," Michael remembers. "There was no tech crew and the set consisted of a three-foot tree. I made my own ornaments and performed for free. But I was so insecure. I had no idea that people would ever want to come again."
For years, Michael unknowingly fought a battle with clinical depression. After performing he would sit backstage sick, convinced he was worthless.
"That's the oddest thing about that disease," Michael says. "You can't find enough validation. No one can say anything nice enough. But I didn't want to make anyone else uncomfortable, so I would go out there and pretend and try to be gracious."
It wasn't until his therapist read his journal (calling it "scary") that he was able to identify his disease and get treatment.
"For the first time I understood that just because someone went to the bathroom during a performance, didn't mean they never wanted to come back," Michael says. "It didn't mean I had let them down. It didn't mean I had failed God. I was finally able to realize that people coming the show didn't have anything to do with me."
And people did come. In the seventeen years since that first tour, more than a half-million people have seen "the carols." The cast has grown from a one-man-show to six professional players aided by a full-time tech crew of four. The show's success also afforded him the chance to leave his job at Bonneville and pursue music full-time.
He has now, in his twenty-five years in music, released more than twenty-five albums, enjoyed a New York City debut of his musical The Ark, had his oratorio The Garden performed in Jerusalem, and authored three books. And while performing almost nightly for one month straight during the holiday season is difficult, Michael says he is able to do it because of the experiences people have with the show.
He recalls one time when a family gave him a small handmade ornament--a trashcan. "We saw this show for the first time when we were living in a homeless shelter," they said. "You gave us hope."
In Dallas, a woman told him, "I think I can like Christmas now." She had been raped on Christmas Eve seven years earlier and had stopped celebrating the holiday after that. But during Michael's performance, she reached over to her friend in tears and said, "I'm feeling Christmas again."
On one recent tour, a family came to him weeping. They had buried their father earlier that day but had decided to come to the show because it had been their family tradition for twelve years. Their father had bought the tickets before he died.
"It's sometimes impossible to know how to respond to stories like these," Michael says. "But they don't have anything to do with me. I know that. This show is powerful because every single song is ultimately about the power Christ has to change lives. That is the reason people experience the things they experience when they're watching it."
Over the years audience members have enjoyed the subtle additions Michael has added to each new season's performances. The production now has two more songs than the original 1991 version as well as a revised ending. But the biggest change occurred in 2006 when Michael decided to present his son Scott's adaptation of the story, and The Forgotten Carols became more of a musical theater production than a reading.
He explains that, in the new version, the songs, the focus, and the spirit are the same, but that audiences can see the evolution of characters and understand how it is that they change. "The Forgotten Carols is now finally the show it was always meant to be," Michael says.
As to how long he'll continue touring? Michael smiles. "The great thing about playing a guy that's two thousand years old is that I'll never be too old. I have no plans to stop and I'm not worried about it. We'll keep going as long as people want to keep coming.
"There are people, I know, who have more talent than me and just as much passion. I can't claim any special rhyme or reason to that. But to those people who've let me do this for twenty-five years . . . my gratitude is cellular deep."
_*Editor's Note: After the accident, Lynne McLean's face was rebuilt by gifted doctors and healed completely through prayers and blessings. Michael McLean has often said, "Lynne is the reason my heart has a song." And anyone who knows Lynne knows this is true. She has traveled throughout the world with her husband and most recently performed the role of Sarah in the 2008 tour of The Forgotten Carols. She and Michael have been married now for thirty-five years and when she's not singing or traveling with Michael, Lynne can be found working in genealogy libraries, on a humanitarian mission somewhere in South America, or playing with the McLean's first grandson, Atticus Buckminster Stein (lovingly called "Bucky"), who is the "most perfect and wonderful child ever."_