Tony Award winner Sutton Foster and Downton Abbey star Hugh Bonneville spoke to FanSided about performing with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir for Christmas.
The Mormon Tabernacle Choir‘s Christmas concert is legendary, and this year they welcomed two legends of stage and screen to join the production.
Tony winner Sutton Foster (Younger) and Golden Globe nominee Hugh Bonneville (Downton Abbey) were the featured performers this year, and FanSided spoke to them about taking the stage with one of the world’s best-known choirs.
We also sat down with Mormon Tabernacle Choir music director Mack Wilberg about the 18th annual show, which includes the Orchestra on Temple Square and Bells at Temple Square.
Here’s what each of these artists had to tell us about being part of one of the biggest musical events in the country.
FanSided: Both Sutton and Hugh had been previously approached about performing with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and weren’t able to make it. Did either of you believe that this would come around again?
Sutton Foster (SF): I was just hoping that it would. I was so disappointed that it didn’t work out the first time because of scheduling. I was filming so I couldn’t make it work, and I was hoping and praying it would come back around. I think it took four years for it to come back around but I was so grateful.
Hugh Bonneville (HB): I was genuinely surprised because often what happens [is] let’s face it, there’s more than one actor in the world. I thought perhaps the opportunity had passed when I was unavailable a few years ago, so I was delighted when [they] got in touch again.
FanSided: Mack, what does it take you to stage such a massive production, especially when you have to work with different guest artists each year?
Mack Wilberg (MW): We start conceptualizing the concert in the beginning of the year and then it sort of evolves over the spring and the summer. Early fall we will try to meet with our guest artist or at least communicate with them. This year I actually flew to New York to meet with Sutton, just to become acquainted and talk about ideas she might have and some ideas I might have.
Then the choir starts to rehearse the music [in the] middle of November and the orchestra reads a lot of the music on Tuesday night of this week. Then we put it all together. The other thing I have to say about the choir is they sing the entire performance by memory, which is a feat.
FanSided: Each guest artist brings their own ideas, plus obviously you want the concert to be a new experience each year, so how do you make decisions on the set list?
MW: I’m always looking for new ideas. There are certain standard Christmas songs and carols that I don’t think people tire of, so you always want to have some of the traditional music of the season but then always try to do new things. For instance, Sutton wanted to do “Christmas Time is Here,” the Charlie Brown song, and I said fantastic because we’ve never used that. And there were a couple others that we’ve not used. We haven’t exhausted the entire repertoire yet.
FanSided: The Mormon Tabernacle Choir only puts on a few Christmas performances like this each year. So as guest artists coming in for just a few days, how much time do you have to get your part of the show together?
SF: I ended up getting a lot of the music and arrangements two weeks prior to coming here. I have all these little projects lined up, so I kind of have to compartmentalize everything. I had another show I was doing in Shreveport on Dec. 2 that included Christmas music that was completely different than anything I was doing here.
I had to finish that so I could focus my brain on this. Then I had to finish this project, and then I have something next week. So I see the whole mountain of stuff that I panic and freeze. But last week, before I got here, I was trying to be as prepared as possible to walk in and flounder as little as possible.
HB: You turn up and you do it, basically. Unbeknownst to me, I discovered there were people doing things behind me, what we call upstaging me. They showed me a video after the first dress rehearsal, then I understood all the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle around the project that people work on around here. There’s so many elements being brought together, and frankly my element is one tiny piece of the jigsaw that gets slotted in at the last minute. When you see the whole picture then it all makes sense. But I take no credit for the efficiency of it all.
FanSided: Sutton, since this is still a live musical performance, is there anything that you can take from your Broadway career and use with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir?
SF: All the experience and all the things I’ve done that have led me to this experience have prepared me. I’ve never done anything like this before but I can use all the tools, especially just stage experience. This is sort of like playing to an arena, which I’ve never done, so I started thinking like that. It’s a different type of experience — oddly intimate yet you’re dealing with seven times more people than normal. It’s just a different feel but because it’s celebrating Christmas, it’s also sort of already immediately connected because we’re all here for the same reason.
FanSided: Likewise, Hugh, is there anything you take from your acting experience to prepare to narrate this Christmas concert?
HB: I think the important thing to prepare to do is to tell the story and try to connect with the audience. This particular tale, as tragic as it is, does have a strong message, a human message of rising above adversity or rising up against diversity. How to connect with others and reach out to others who are less fortunate than ourselves. All those themes are threaded through the Christmas story of hope and new beginning. As far as preparing, it’s really just trying to make sure you’re emotionally connecting with the story and telling it in the right way, so the audience can share the experience.