True Christmas spectacle: Sutton, Hugh, 17,000 pipes and 21,000 souls

Size and spectacle are key parts of many Christmas celebrations. It takes flair to decorate a mega-tree or to soar onto rooftops with eight or nine reindeer. And few events match the joyous spectacle of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir's annual PBS and cable concert. Here's the story I sent to papers, looking at this year's event through the eyes of performers Sutton Foster and Hugh Bonneville ... known to TV viewers via "Younger" and "Downton Abbey.:

By Mike Hughes

Sutton Foster and
Hugh Bonneville are used to ruling big occasions.

She stars on
Broadway and in symphony halls; he runs Downton Abbey. They know
pomp, circumstance and spectacle ... but hadn't seen anything like
their Mormon Tabernacle Choir concert.

“I had that
feeling when I got out on stage,” Bonneville said. “The audience
adds to the emotion.”

And that's a lot of
people. “It's very overwhelming,” Foster said. “There are
20,000 people there.”

It's 21,000,
actually. That's more than 10 times the size of her Broadway theaters
... more than 200 times the size of his “Downton Abbey” dinner
parties. The concet also had a 300-voice choir, an orchestra ... and
a 7,667-piece pipe organ.

Foster sang
Christmas songs – from “Silent Night” and “Joy to the World”
to the tune from “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” her avorite holiday
show. Those will be in the PBS version, Dec. 17; for a longer version
(Dec. 20 on the BYUtv cable channel), she adds a “Willy Wonka”
song, plus “Jingle Bells” and “Sunshine on My Shoulders,” by
John Denver. “He always represented goodness,” she said.

Bonneville avoided
singing. “I'm not a musical person,” he said, despite having sung
quite regally as the pirate king in “Galavant,” for ABC. “I sat
in awe of the performances.”

His skill is
speaking in a precise, lord-of-the-manor voice; you might imagine him
delivering a sermon. Bonneville did study theology at Cambridge ...
but upper-crust Englishmen do that with no intention of being vicars.
“I always say I entered it as an atheist and came out as more of an

The son of a surgeon
and a nurse, he was more interested in acting than studying. Before
Cambridge, he did the National Youth Theatre; afterward, he studied
acting in London and ranged from movies and TV to the Royal
Shakespeare Company.

Back then,
Bonneville was doing comedy and even playing villains. It would take
a while to age into being the earl in “Downton Abbey,” in six
seasons on PBS and in a movie that recently finished filming. “We
had a lot of fun getting back together.”

At 55, he has the
age and the voice to stand before the Tabernacle crowd, reading Luke
2 and the story of Horatio Spafford, a Chicago lawyer who faced
devastating tragedies, before writing the hymn that says: “Whatever
my lot, Thou hast taught me to know/It is well, it is well with my

What Foster shares
with Bonneville is the passion for performing. That peaked when –
after having roots in Georgia and North Carolina – she moved with
her family to a Detroit suburb. “It was an interesting move for me;
I was 13, in 7th grade; that's a tough time in your life.”

Her solution was
theater; “I found a place to fit in.”

She did school shows
and more. She competed in “Star Search,” auditioned for “The
Mickey Mouse Club” and left school early, to do “The Will Rogers
Follies” on tour. “I have absolutely no regrets. I was safe and I
was taken care of .... I was a very young 17; it taught me a lot.”

She graduated via
correspondence, even got to her prom -- the tour happened to be in
Detroit that week -- and beat all the odds against a theater career.
“I just plowed forward and kept going.”

After losing for
“Star Search” and such, she would become a winner – six Tony
nominations (winning for “Thoroughly Modern Millie” and “Anything
Goes”), a Gracie Allen Award (for TV's “Bunheads”) and several
nominations for “Younger,” which starts its sixth season next

Now she lives in New
York with her husband Ted Griffin, the writer of “Ocean's 11,”
“Tower Heist” and the “Terriers” cable series. Last
Christmas, their adopted daughter was 9 months old and very approving
of the Rockefeller Center tree; this year, Emily can watch her mom
sing on TV.

-- “Christmas With
the Mormon Tabernacle Choir”

-- 9 p.m. Dec. 17 on
most PBS stations; some (check local listings) will rerun it at 9
p.m. Christmas Eve and 10:30 p.m. Christmas Day

-- That's a
60-minute version; a 90-minute one debuts at 8 p.m. Dec. 20 on BYUtv,
which is on cable, Dish, DirecTV and apps

-- Each telecast is
from the concert the previous year. This year's concert – Dec.
13-15, with Kristin Chenoweth as both singer and narrator – will
air in December of 2019