At this point in years past, the producers and performers of the National Memorial Day Concert typically are in a mad rush to prepare for the live show on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol, hoping for clear skies and few glitches.
This year, much of the show is already done. As with so many other large events forced to cancel amid the coronavirus crisis, this year’s show will be dramatically different, more of a virtual concert. But the creators of the event believe that it will take on a special resonance.
“These important rituals and holidays have a whole meaning for all of this time too,” said executive producer Michael Colbert. “We are certainly completely focused on what Memorial Day is, but I feel like at this time it is touching so many of us today.”
There was no question that the National Memorial Day Concert, to air on PBS on Sunday at 8 PM, would go ahead in a format. The 90-minute show honors members of the military and veterans with performances and personal stories, but it is a 31-year tradition.
Joe Mantegna and Gary Sinise are returning to host the event, with a line up that includes former Secretary of State Colin Powell, Cynthia Erivo, Renée Fleming, Trace Adkins, CeCe Winans, Kelli O’Hara, Mary McCormack, Christopher Jackson and the National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jack Everly, as well as General Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The broadcast will also feature performances from previous concerts, including those by Sam Elliott, Laurence Fishburne and Esai Morales.
Colbert believes that the concert, which has honored sacrifices made in wars of the past, sends an important message for what the country is going through today. The event also will spotlight those who have been on the front lines of the coronavirus crisis, including first responders, doctors, nurses, grocery clerks, truck drivers and postal workers.
“We just felt that, to have that focus on what we have already gone through, will bring a real connection to people to what is going on today, to show that we are going to get through this,” he said.
Also woven throughout the show will be messages from entertainers and other artists directed at members of the military, veterans and front-line workers. The list includes Chris Evans, George Clooney, Gwyneth Paltrow, Julianne Moore, Jimmy Kimmel, Mark Wahlberg and Jimmy Smits. (Complete list below).
In March, as the pandemic began to force mass closures and cancellations of major events, Colbert said that they started to plan for “two shows in tandem” — the live concert and a show with taped performances. Not too long after that it became clear that large gatherings in D.C. were unlikely through May, so they went forward with plans for the taped show.
Producers used small crews — wearing masks and gloves and hand sanitizer — to capture performances. For example, O’Hara’s segment was taped in a small studio; Adkins and Fleming were shot in vistas around Washington, as Adkins sings If The Sun Comes Up and Fleming sings You Are The Wind Beneath My Wings. Other segments will feature Winans singing Lean On Me for military and front line worker families, and Jackson opening the show with an acapella version of the National Anthem from a location with the Capitol in view.
“It is very different when you have small crews,” Colbert said. “But the commitment is still there, and these are really powerful moments. They really come through on the screen.”
Mantegna said that he and Sinise recorded their hosting intros and other segments from Sinise’s foundation office in Los Angeles, but the production was done “under very controlled circumstances.”
Mantegna said the show provides a unifying theme for the country, that “freedom isn’t free and there is no guarantee about anything. You have to pull together and do things collectively.” The concert has been apolitical. No elected officials appear on stage.
“I think this [show] will be very fondly remembered,” Mantegna added. “We will look back at this year and say, ‘You know what? We did a good job of overcoming this strange time in nation’s history.”
A highlight of past concerts has been a tribute to the armed services, in which each of the military songs is played as one of the joint chiefs comes out to a standing ovation. This year, a segment was taped of Milley and the joint chiefs gathering for a ceremony on the steps of the Pentagon.
McCormack said that her segment will on Gold Star families, “what their loss means and how important it is to thank them as well.”
The first time she participated in the concert, she recalls being moved by the stories of military heroes and by the music and its large spectacle. “I think [this year] will be equally moving, just in a different way,” she said.
As different as the set up is this year, it is not unprecedented. A lightning storm one year forced the concert to be stopped in the middle of the broadcast; instead, the concert went to a recording of a previous year’s concert.
Colbert said that this year’s concert is in line with past moments when they have had to adapt to the unexpected. “But it is nice not to have to deal with the rain,” he said.
The National Memorial Day Concert also will air on the American Forces Network, and will be streamed on YouTube and Facebook, as well as PBS.org. It also will be available on demand.
List of performers with taped messages: Anthony Ramos, Blair Underwood, Brian Tee, Chely Wright, Chris Evans, Courteney Cox, Denis Leary, Dule Hill, George Clooney, Graham Greene, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jaina Lee Ortiz, Jennifer Garner, Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Smits, Jon Hamm, Julianne Moore, Lindsey Vonn, Lisa Kudrow, Marcia Gay Harden, Mark Wahlberg, Milo Ventimiglio, Noah Wylie, Rita Moreno, S. Epatha Merkerson, Steven Weber, Sugar Ray Leonard, Vanessa Williams.
Also participating in new and some past selected performances are members from the U.S. Army Herald Trumpets, The U.S. Army Chorus, the U.S. Army Voices and Downrange, the Soldiers’ Chorus of the U.S. Army Field Band, the U.S. Navy Band Sea Chanters, the U.S. Air Force Singing Sergeants and Service Color Teams provided by the Military District of Washington, D.C.