President Ronald Reagan has called them "America's Choir." Their voices have honored kings and queens and been heard at Presidential inaugurations, the Olympics and countless other performances in 64 countries around the world for more than 150 years.
For the past 75 years, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir™ has performed weekly on the inspirational program Music and the Spoken Word, an achievement celebrated with the premiere of a new television tribute special, "America's Choir: The Story of The Mormon Tabernacle Choir, airing this Sunday, Sept. 26, at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. and again on Sunday, Oct. 2, at 8 p.m. The film will also air nationally on PBS Thursday, Nov. 25.
The film, hosted by broadcast veteran Walter Cronkite, contains special performances by the Grammy Award-winning choir, as well as interviews with such artists as Sting, film composer John Williams, Angela Lansbury, Roma Downey and others.
Two years in the making, the film chronicles the history of the choir, woven around a dozen concert performances representing the broad range of genres and styles the group offers from the more than 1,400 titles in its repertoire.
"We perform not only spiritual hymns, but works by the masters, songs of America and folk music from around the world," says Craig Jessop, the choir's music director since 1999. Featured in the film are performances as varied as "Come, Come Ye Saints," a rousing Nigerian folk song "Betelehemu," and "Battle Hymn of the Republic," perhaps the choir's most well-known and often-requested title. The choir earned a Grammy for its 1959 recording of this patriotic favorite.
Veteran documentary filmmaker Lee Groberg, who both directed and produced the film, photographed the choir at some of the East Coast's most prestigious venues, including New York's Lincoln Center and Northern Virginia's Wolf Trap, as well as at the Choir's home, the Tabernacle itself, located in Salt Lake City. Groberg and screenwriter Heidi S. Swinton, both of whom traveled with the group during the lengthy production period, were actually welcomed as full-fledged choir members.
"I've traveled with them for weeks on the bus, put my bags out at midnight," recalls Swinton. "The only thing I haven't done is stand in the choir loft in a dress and sing on television," she laughs. "It was a marvelous experience being in the presence of these wonderful people."
With images culled from more than 100 years of remarkable performances and countless historic photographs, the film illustrates the choir's complete history. Everything from the construction of the unique Tabernacle structure in the 1860s to the choir's first performances on its Music and the Spoken Word radio series in 1929, to Presidential Inaugural concerts are featured, complete with historical recreations depicting special moments in the choir's rich history.
Film composer John Williams, who conducted a piece he wrote especially for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir for the 2002 Olympic Winter Games, shares his insight into the group, as does pop superstar Sting, who performed with the choir during that show.
"It's a great overview of the history of the choir and why it works," says Groberg. "The secret to the group's success is that it's an all-volunteer choir. It's the most selfless organization I have ever been involved with. From top to bottom, everyone is always giving someone else the credit."
Music director Jessop agrees. "It's done purely in the truest sense of the word amateur--one who does something for the love of it. It's just common, everyday people, from all walks of life, who bond together and create this quite miraculous sound."
The choir has worked its way into the hearts of Americans through decades of performances, in good times and bad. "The choir sings the songs of the people," explains Groberg. "This is true of both the crossover hymns that are songs of all faiths, and in the patriotic pieces, which definitely reach the heart strings."
One critic, says Jessop, compared the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to a Norman Rockwell painting. "That's an incredible compliment, because he was very much an artist of the people, portraying Americans in their everyday life, in sometimes an idealized way. Yet his art is true to the heart and soul of the people. Likewise, the choir is kind of like an old, trusted friend."
Adds Swinton, "They sing of things greater than we are. You listen to them, and there's resolution, in your mind and in your heart, of things that you wrestle with. There's a sense of peace and of calm that you really don't find in any other environment."
Groberg and Swinton have collaborated on three prior films, "Trail of Hope: The Story of the Mormon Trail" (1997), which earned The Film Advisory Board's Award of Excellence, "American Prophet: The Story of Joseph Smith" (1999), and "Sacred Stone: Temple on the Mississippi" (2002). Swinton also authored award-winning companion books for the latest three films (including "America's Choir").
"America's Choir: The Story of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir" is a Lee Groberg Film produced in cooperation with KBYU Television, in conjunction with WETA TV, Washington, D.C. It is directed and produced by Lee B. Groberg from a script written by noted screenwriter/author Heidi S. Swinton.