by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
this morning I watched the National Memorial Day Concert aired last night on PBS. This was the 21st annual concert and the first that wasn’t conducted by Erich Kunzel, who died last year — so the show turned out to be a memorial to him as well as to the men and (increasingly) women who’ve died in America’s war. As usual, the show was a bizarre mixture of the genuinely moving and the banal — and interestingly, the openly patriotic moments seemed more emotionally powerful than the “normal” parts, though the unspeakably awful Lionel Richie came out to do one of his old hits, “On My Way,” in the first half and “America, the Beautiful” in the second half (and his performance of “America, the Beautiful” seemed even more pathetic when measured against memories of what Ray Charles did with this song) and managed to be equally terrible in patriotic and romantic modes. The show opened with Broadway star Kelli Smith doing a version of “God Bless America” whose arranger made the ill-advised decision to incorporate the much more banal patriotic song “This Is My Country” in the middle — but the combination of the simplicity of the song itself and Smith’s crystalline voice and eloquent phrasing moved and did a good job setting the stage for the rest.
Next up was Yolanda Adams singing the national anthem — and managing to tame this wide-ranging song quite successfully. Later on in the show she did Albert Hay Malotte’s setting of “The Lord’s Prayer,” a decent effort on a pretty boring piece of music (to my mind, Mahalia Jackson is just about the only singer who’s ever managed to sing Malotte’s banalities and actually make them sound as if they were truly worthy of the simple beauty of the words) and Kelli O’Hara returned with “A Wonderful Guy” from South Pacific (she’s currently playing Nellie Forbush in what’s, amazingly, the first on-Broadway revival of this musical — it seems odd that this Rodgers and Hammerstein classic hasn’t been performed on Broadway from the close of the original run until now) and then came the surprising high point of the show. A good chunk of every one of these concerts is taken up by actors reading from the memoirs of veterans, and a lot of times these are potentially moving stories told in the dullest and least moving ways.
Not this time: the reminiscences were of Don Dingee (Gary Sinise) and Chuck Johnson (Dennis Haysbert), who had known each other and been best buds in high school — daring an interracial friendship (Dingee was white, Johnson African-American) at a time when that was definitely not cool — and then finding themselves serving together in the same platoon in the Korean War when they were assigned to defend a hill against a Chinese force that outnumbered them 30 to 1. Dingee killed as many of the Chinese as he could and then a hand grenade was thrown at him, landing at his feet. He tried to kick it away but didn’t do so in time, and he ended up paralyzed from the waist down and Johnson stanched his bleeding, make a tourniquet for the stump where his leg had been, and saved his life — and then Dingee watched as Johnson was killed himself attempting to tend to other wounded servicemembers while they were still under fire. The real Dingee and another servicemember Johnson rescued were in the audience, as were members of Johnson’s family, and the whole narration was a tribute not only to the heroism of the two people involved but to the simple, eloquent power of the writing and the acting that so successfully re-created it — and it was nice to hear Dingee’s comment that at first the white servicemembers were uncertain about having Blacks in the lines next to them (the Korean War was the U.S.’s first after President Truman’s courageous order to integrate the armed forces in 1948).
Alas, the other tribute was about widows from the Viet Nam and Iraq wars meeting each other on the Internet and joining each other for mutual comfort and support — an important and valuable lesson that didn’t get taught at all well in this presentation; it seemed all too much like a promotion for the pbs.org Web site (there’s a button on it where you can log on with your own experiences of having lost someone in combat — either a comrade you were fighting with or a family member who didn’t come back — and though I hadn’t realized it before, that’s the source the concert’s organizers cull to get these stories they put on the program), though at least I can hope that someone out there logs on and finds the help and support they need to get through one of the hardest things that ever happens to anyone. (I can relate somewhat because I lost a partner myself — albeit to disease, not war.) Country star Brad Paisley (whom I quite like) came on and did a couple of songs, “Welcome to the Future” and “I Thought I Loved You Then” (which, despite the impression you might get from the title, isn’t a tears-in-my-beer breakup song but actually a celebration of a very long relationship — the gist is I thought I loved you when we first got together but I love you even more now, which was quite nice!).
The war widows’ episode at least generated one of the most powerful musical performances on the show — Andrea Bocelli’s hit “Let This Be Our Prayer” sung by Katherine Jenkins, who totally blew him away with the simplicity and eloquence of her phrasing compared to Bocelli’s tasteless heaving and sighing (recently the American Record Guide reviewed a collection of Mario Lanza’s recordings and the critic write, “Bocelli fans should hear this man!” — a reference to the fact that Lanza may have been a pop tenor who sang a lot of ghastly music instead of the opera which he was born to sing, but at least he had a voice!) and then the show petered out into its usual closers: a medley of the armed forces songs, a speech by the current head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Admiral Michael Mullen) and a closing medley of marches. With Erich Kunzel’s departure to that big podium in the sky, the National Symphony Orchestra and Chorus were led by someone named John Everly (any relation to Phil and Don?), and on one guest number they were joined by the Army, Navy and Air Force choruses on a song called “The Mansions of the Lord” that, like a lot of the material on the program, was actually quite good: communicating a subtle patriotic and/or religious message without hitting one over the head with it (a common failing of these productions in previous years). The Memorial Day concerts have run the gamut from powerful to banal — often both in the same show — but I’d say this was one of the better ones even though they could have used a better singer than Lionel Richie for the Black-pop slot (I can still remember the joy of seeing B. B. King on one of these a decade ago).