PBS prepares for Memorial Day concert

by Mike Hughes

There are moments when music can dive into deep pools of emotion.

Jerry Colbert proves that each time he produces "The National Memorial Day Concert" for PBS. Coming up (9 p.m. Sunday, May 24) is his 20th.

And Colm Wilkinson finds that every time he sings "Bring Him Home." Now the two men combine.

"I've wanted him to sing that song here for years," Colbert said. "But I wanted to have the right moment."

The 20th concert seems right. It will be stuffed with musicians from pop (Katharine McPhee), country (Trace Adkins), classical (Denyce Graves, Ling Ling, Robert McDuffie) and Broadway (Brian Stokes Mitchell, Wilkinson). It will also have readings from Katie Holmes, Colin Powell, Laurence Fishburne, Joe Mantegna, Gary Senise and Dianne Wiest.

For Wilkinson, this is a new experience. He's not familiar with any Memorial Day custom in his native country (Ireland) or his adopted one (Canada).

Still, the Irish do have a rich history of songs about loss -- due to war or the emigration of millions from past generations. "When people left in those days, they were never coming back," he said.

His own Dublin boyhood was joyous. He was in the middle of a pack of 10 kids, with his dad (a building contractor) and mom always making or listening to music.

"It was lovely as a pasttime, as a hobby," Wilkinson said. "If anyone took it as a profession, that would shock them."

He did, sort of by accident. He sang in bands, then had a chance to sing the rock-type Judas role in Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Jesus Christ Superstar."

That led to historic moments. Working with Andrew Lloyd Webber, Wilkinson became the first to sing the Che songs from "Evita," the first to sing "Music of the Night," the haunting "Phantom of the Opera" ballad.

He was going to perform the "Phantom" role, until producer Cameron MacIntosh asked him to star in "Les Mis" as Jean Valjean.

"They told (composer Claude-Michel Schonberg) that ... Valjean needed his own song," Wilkinson recalled. "He though 'Who Am I' would be Valjean's song, but they said no, there needed to be another one."

So one day, Wilkinson heard Schonberg playing "Bring Him Home" on the piano; when the lyrics were completed, the impact was obvious. "We used to call it 'The Prayer,'" Wilkinson said. "That was what it was -- a prayer that Marius would be brought home safely from the fighting."

He introduced the song on the London stage in 1985 and on Broadway in '87. It would soon be linked to emotions surrounding AIDS ... and Sept. 11 ... and Iraq ... and more. "The letters I got were unbelievable," Wilkinson said. "The song brings such an outpouring of emotion."

He expect the same now, in a concert known for emotion.

Colbert was already producing the 4th-of-July concerts, when he was asked to add a Memorial Day event. "The (National) Symphony was doing a little lawn concert that day," he said.

He has assembled great musicians, plus powerful readers. This year's concert reflects one change in the effects of war: "The medical guys are doing such a tremendous job of saving these guys," Colbert said.

That leaves fewer soldiers killed, but more who are severely wounded. This year's concert will include tributes to caregivers, including a mother and sister who have persisted through three years and 19 surgeries. "It's a testament to real family love," Colbert said.

Holmes will help tell that story. She was recommended by Wiesst, who co-starred with her in a Broadway revival of "All My Sons," Arthur Miller's play about war profiteering

At 30 and still remembered for "Dawson's Creek," Holmes offers a sort of youth movement. So does McPhee, 25, the former "American Idol" runner-up. "She' been working with (pop producer) David Foster," Colbert said. "She's very beautiful, with a lovely voice."

Still, the "National Memorial Day" concert isn't about youth. Actor Charles Durning -- 86 and a D-Day survivor -- will be in the audience. And Colm Wilkinson, 64, will be on stage, with a song praying that fate will bring the soldiers home alive.

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