The Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square is celebrating two decades of Christmas broadcasts with its upcoming two-hour anniversary retrospective program. PBS and family entertainment network BYUtv will air “20 Years of Christmas with The Tabernacle Choir” in mid-December.
Choir leadership and broadcast executives gathered with media at a New York City event on Wednesday, December 8, 2021, to celebrate this year’s Christmas special, hosted by Broadway legend and Tony Award-winner Brian Stokes Mitchell.
“I am honored to be a part of it. Not only will viewers enjoy a behind-the-scenes look at what it takes to produce the most-watched holiday special on PBS for 16 years, but they will also be able to feast on all of the wonderful moments this holiday special has delivered over the past two decades and remember how music connects people in very profound ways,” Mitchell said.
The special is co-presented by GBH, the largest creator of PBS content for TV and the internet, and BYUtv, the television home of the Choir’s weekly program, “Music & the Spoken Word.”
“It is not easy to get two hours out of PBS during their prime-time schedule, and they were only too happy to do it because this is a program that our viewers really enjoy,” said John Bredar, GBH’s vice president of national programming.
The holiday broadcast replaces the traditional TV special, which would have been created from a live Christmas concert in 2020 that was canceled due to COVID restrictions. The anniversary special was produced by BYUtv.
“Being able to go back, look at the last 20 years, over 40 performers and really have all of that culminates in just a beautiful special every time, every year. We got this incredibly uplifting piece that is just about people coming together in a common purpose that music is just such a universal language for all of us,” said Andra Johnson Duke, BYUtv content director.
The Choir’s special will premiere on Monday, December 13, 2021, at 8:00 p.m. eastern standard time on PBS, PBS.org and the PBS Video app; and on Thursday, December 16, 2021, at 9:00 p.m. eastern standard time on BYUtv, BYUtv.org and the free BYUtv app.
The Actors Fund
The New York City event also gave Choir leaders an opportunity to give a $100,000 donation to The Actors Fund, which represents many of the acclaimed performers who have helped make the Christmas tradition possible.
“The Actors Fund does such a marvelous job in helping lift those who need [to be] lifted and we just felt like as a Choir, we wanted to give them a gift—a Christmas gift as it were— to help those people feel our love and gratitude for the 20 years and support for their Christmas concerts,” said President Gary B. Porter, second counselor in the Choir presidency.
“The charity itself has been around for 139 years, and it serves everybody, every professional in entertainment and the performing arts,” explained Mitchell, who has been chairman of the board of The Actors Fund since 2004.
Members of The Actors Fund have been hit hard by the pandemic.
“Most of us are gig workers going from job to job, and especially in the last 20 months with COVID, so many people have not only lost their jobs, [but] they’ve [also] lost their secondary jobs as well,” Mitchell said, adding that the donation will help support the emergency assistance fund to help with rent, food, prescriptions and utility bills. “In a year, normally we give out about $2 million to about 6,500 people. Since the pandemic started, we’ve given more than $21 million to about 16,000 people that have been in need.”
Guest Artists Over the Years
Performances from more than 40 guest artists and narrators who have starred in the Christmas tradition over the past 20 years will be featured in the upcoming broadcast, including Broadway stars Audra McDonald, Kristin Chenoweth, Angela Lansbury, Kelli O’Hara, Santino Fontana and Laura Osnes; R&B singer Gladys Knight; the late jazz singer Natalie Cole; pop singer David Archuleta; legendary newscasters Walter Cronkite and Tom Brokaw; historian David McCullough; the Muppets from “Sesame Street”; actors Jane Seymour, Hugh Bonneville, Richard Thomas, the late Ed Herrmann, John Rhys-Davies, Roma Downey, the late Peter Graves, Claire Bloom, Michael York and Martin Jarvis; opera stars Renée Fleming, Deborah Voigt, Frederica von Stade, Bryn Terfel, Nathan Gunn, Alfie Boe, Sissel, Rolando Villazón, four Metropolitan Opera soloists and the London-based a cappella group The King’s Singers.
In new segments filmed in November 2020 (following COVID protocols), Mitchell joined a handful of socially distanced Orchestra members and the Choir’s music director, Mack Wilberg, in an empty 21,000-seat Conference Center on Temple Square in Salt Lake City, Utah, to record intimate Christmas classics. The Choir also joins Mitchell and the Orchestra in its first-ever all-virtual performance.
“Due to COVID-19, we couldn’t have the in-person audience we always do, but the lockdown gave us a chance to provide audiences at home something different than they would experience in a normal concert year,” Wilberg said. “Because of the remarkable breadth of material we have from 20 years of Christmas concerts, there will be something for everyone in this retrospective, making it a wonderful way to celebrate and emphasize the true meaning of Christmas.”
“It’s always a joy working with Brian Stokes Mitchell, who is not only a consummate performer but also a warm and incredible person — qualities that come across in everything he does,” Wilberg said. “We are so pleased he is the one to tell the story of this concert tradition.”
“I love the Choir. I love performing in Utah. It feels like a second home to me, and to everybody out there, I can’t wait to see you all again,” Mitchell said.
He continued, “I wish you ‘happy holidays.’ This too shall pass. We’re going to get through this together, and let’s just keep working and helping each other and loving each other as best as we can.”
Mitchell is an accomplished actor, singer, musician and arranger. He received Tony, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle awards for his star turn in “Kiss Me, Kate. He also gave Tony-nominated performances in “Man of La Mancha,” August Wilson’s “King Hedley II,” and “Ragtime.” In 2016, he was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame and received his most recent Tony Award for his work with The Actors Fund.