Backstage At Christmas With The Tabernacle Choir Featuring Kristin Chenoweth

Cody Bell

The most spectacular sounds of the holiday season will come courtesy of the world-famous Tabernacle Choir, when it welcomes Emmy and Tony winner Kristin Chenoweth to join in its dazzling annual holiday concert. Channel Guide Magazine was invited to witness Christmas With the Tabernacle Choir Featuring Kristin Chenoweth firsthand, go behind the scenes of the massive production and speak with the creative minds behind the event — including Chenoweth herself — to understand the many elements that need to work in synchronicity to pull off the marvelous musical event.

Chenoweth joins a cast of more than 600 as the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square, Orchestra at Temple Square and Bells on Temple Square present an evening of Christmas celebration told through music, dance and storytelling. The special was recorded over three nights in December 2018 in a pageant that is unrivaled in both its scope and majesty, and has been edited into a 60-minute special for PBS and a 90-minute version for BYUtv.

This year’s concert special mixes secular and nonsecular Christmas classics to take viewers on a musical journey through the genres of Broadway, pop, country, classical and gospel music. Some songs are ones that Chenoweth has known for a long time, while others are being performed by the songstress for the first time. “‘O Holy Night’ was new to me,” says Chenoweth. “‘Mary, Did You Know?’ was new, too. I’ve sung ‘The Christmas Waltz’ and ‘Come On, Ring Those Bells’ before — they’re highlights on my record that people seem to want to hear. I’ve never sung ‘We Need a Little Christmas’ from Mame; I’ve never done that. So I am hopefully improving and getting better as an artist; I always want to grow and evolve, and get better for myself and for my audience.”

To prepare for the performance, the choir’s music director Mack Wilberg selected and rearranged music to best complement Chenoweth’s vocal range and the strengths of the musicians around her. “She is so versatile. And we wanted to feature that versatility,” he says. “We had some ideas of things that we might want her to do, and she was just brimming with ideas. And we took her ideas and our ideas and found a good mix to feature what she does so well and also show off what the choir is about.”

When we talk the morning after the first concert, Chenoweth admits that she was so amped by the previous night’s performance that she hadn’t been able to sleep. The excitement of the performance is also noted by choir president Ron Jarrett, who marvels, “Last night’s concert was so different from our concerts in the past. Because usually the performer has to warm up to the choir, has to warm up to the audience and to the space. And Kristin did not. She walked in, she took control, and she was on point, all night. And after she sang ‘O Holy Night,’ I thought, ‘We did it. We got ’em!’”

When you back Chenoweth’s powerful soprano with the world’s most famous choir, a world-class orchestra, dancers, trumpeters, bell ringers and an astonishing multimedia presentation, the result is spellbinding. “It’s almost too much for television,” shares Chenoweth, who looked as gorgeous as she sounded, resplendent in gowns by designer Christian Siriano. Having sat in the audience for two of Chenoweth’s three performances, we can attest that the energy of the night was electric: Audiences were treated to not only Chenoweth’s immense talent, but also her incredible grace, joy and spirit. The performance flowed from times of laughter and levity to moments of sacred awe and even tears. “In the scope of everything I’ve done,” Chenoweth muses, “this will be in my top three for my career.”

Chenoweth reveals that watching the Tabernacle Choir’s Christmas concert was an important part of her Oklahoma childhood. “There were exactly three programs I watched on TV growing up: the Tabernacle Choir holiday specials, Miss America [airing this month, as well] and the Tony Awards,” she says. “It’s been part of my DNA and my family. So for us it’s like, ‘Oh, she’s made it. She made it.’ I think that’s why it was so important, a bucket list for me. I went to Renée Fleming, and she said, ‘It is a rite of passage.’ She’s right. And I knew it was. The thing is, I knew the experience was going to be amazing. So I wanted to have it, and I did.”

Not only does Chenoweth relish performing with incredible musicians, but she tells us that she’s also grateful to share her faith on such a big stage. “It’s getting tougher and tougher to say ‘Merry Christmas,’” she explains. “We have to say ‘Happy Holidays,’ and that’s fine, that’s absolutely fine. But Christmas happens to be the holiday that I celebrate because it’s Christ’s birth. So if I’m going to be in a Christmas concert singing about Jesus being born, I’m going to celebrate it and I’m not going to feel bad for it.”

Although her career has been filled with performances on the world’s most famous stages, Chenoweth admits that she’s been awed by her experience as a guest of the Tabernacle Choir. “When I first walked into the auditorium for rehearsals, I couldn’t take it! I saw it, and of course I pretended to pass out, because I did actually need a moment,” she recalls with a laugh. And during the concert, “When the trumpets play,” she says, referring to the Gabriel Herald Trumpeters, “my hair extensions just nearly fell out!”

Christmas With the Tabernacle Choir Featuring Kristin Chenoweth
PBS > Monday, Dec. 16
BYUtv > Thursday, Dec. 19
Stream on pbs.org

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