Neal McDonough (L) and Megan Hilty will be seen Tuesday in the special, "O Holy Night: Christmas with the Tabernacle Choir." Photo courtesy of PBS
NEW YORK, Dec. 13 (UPI) -- Smash actress Megan Hilty and Yellowstone actor Neal McDonough say they had deeply personal reasons for wanting to headline the TV special, O Holy Night: Christmas with The Tabernacle Choir.
Filmed at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' Salt Lake Tabernacle in December 2021, the hour-long music program premieres Tuesday on PBS and its streaming platforms.
The special features hundreds of choristers and orchestra musicians performing traditional holiday tunes, classic Christmas carols and Christian hymns. The show also has an Irish flair as a nod to Hilty and McDonough's shared Christian faith and Hibernian heritage.
Music director Mack Wilberg said he usually starts putting together the program in the summer, but because of the COVID-19 pandemic, he didn't get the green light until October 2021.
Hilty and McDonough were at the top of his wish list to sing at and narrate the event, respectively.
"Luckily, those names we had at the top were not only available, but more important, were willing to do it and it could not have been a better outcome," Wilberg told reporters in a recent Zoom press conference.
Hilty laughed as she explained she has a different definition of "short notice" than Wilberg does.
"I'm used to being thrown on stage with little to no advance notice, but I do have to say that with COVID and the lockdowns and years of taking my personal livelihood away, I couldn't perform for a live audience for years," Hilty said.
"So hearing that not only was I going to get to do that, but with people I love and adore, and a very special program, it was the easiest answer I could give -- yes, absolutely."
McDonough said he and his wife, Ruve, have spent considerable time in Utah over the years while he was working on movie and TV projects, and they were more than happy to return to film the special there.
"I fell for the people of Utah immediately. There is something about the Catholic faith and the Mormon faith that seemed [connected]," he said. "It's all about families, and 'family first, me second' is how Ruve and I run our house.
"It seems that's the way it works in Utah, so, to go back there and to be a part of your family was such a highlight for me in my life and for my whole family. We will never forget it."
The actor compared Wilberg to the World War II Army major that McDonough's co-star, Damian Lewis, portrayed in the celebrated miniseries, Band of Brothers.
"He said, when it came to battle, 'Follow me. I'm going to lead from the front.' Mack is one of those guys who leads from the front. He's one of those guys who says, 'Follow me. I'm going to make sure everything goes right because I worked so hard to make it true.' Mack, we can't thank you enough for that."
Wilberg said there's no magic formula for the program's success.
"It's a lot of work," he admitted. "With the exception of about four people, everyone who you see on stage is a volunteer. It's a very big commitment to not only do this program, but everything the choir, the orchestra and performers do on a weekly basis for our Sunday morning program.
"It's somewhat of a miracle how things come together in hopefully a great way."
McDonough said he is pleased participate in a project that celebrates faith and hope in dark and divisive times.
"We worry so much about the small things in life that we forget about the bigger picture of what [God] has given to us," he said. "To be able to spread a word [of faith] that I love spreading, as everyone well knows, I'm so happy and proud of it. "
Hilty said she thinks many entertainers get into show business because they want to comfort and enlighten people.
"When you walk into a theater and you experience a program like this, the hope is that it changes hearts and minds," she said.
"It's satisfying and gratifying and so important to be a part of programs like this that offer that love and light and especially in times of doubt and uncertainty and just when times are tough in general. This is why I do this."
This will mark the 19th annual Christmas with The Tabernacle Choir television special, which has traditionally been a holiday favorite on PBS. The special will also air on Sunday on BYUtv, and be available then on BYUtv.org and the BYUtv app.