WASHINGTON — The Memorial Day Concert returns to the National Mall on Sunday, paying tribute to U.S. war veterans who made the ultimate sacrifice.
While the annual event airs live nationwide on PBS, folks in the D.C. area enjoy the extra treat of actually watching the production in person on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol starting at 8 p.m.
Hosted by Joe Mantegna and Laurence Fishburne, this year’s impressive lineup includes Gen. Colin Powell, Gary Sinise, Five for Fighting, Scotty McCreery, Vanessa Williams, Renée Fleming, John Ortiz, Christopher Jackson (“Hamilton”), Auli’i Cravalho (“Moana”) and the National Symphony Orchestra.
“This is my 15th year,” Mantegna told WTOP. “We owe so much to the sacrifices these men and women have made since the Revolutionary War. The least we can do is carve out 90 minutes to pay tribute to them. … The show is not always a happy show. There’s going to be moments in the show that’s going to bring tears to their eyes and move them, but that’s OK. That’s a part of it as well.”
The show kicks off with the National Anthem performed by Cravalho, who says this event is personal.
“I’ve had so many family members who have served and who are serving,” said Cravalho, who grew up on Hawaii’s Big Island, a few islands away from Pearl Harbor. “We take it for granted sometimes, of just how amazing our country is and how freedom isn’t something we should take so lightly. So, it’s a wonderful way to give back to our troops, say thank you and give a wonderful event just for them.”
If you heard her sing the Oscar-nominated tune “How Far I’ll Go,” you’re in for a star-spangled treat.
“I’m incredibly excited,” Cravalho said. “This will be the first time performing it for me. I’ve thought about what it really means, so I’m keeping it as simple, patriotic and honorable as it can be. … There’s many different versions on YouTube. I’ve certainly done my homework on Whitney [Houston] and Mariah Carey and all the other different versions, but I think I’m just going to keep it my own.”
Ironically, it was a different video that got her discovered by Disney’s casting director.
“My friends and I put together an audition [tape] for [a] charity event … however, we didn’t make it to the charity event, we didn’t get through the audition,” Cravalho said. “But the woman who was going through those auditions was also the casting director for Disney, so she saw our auditions and asked if I wanted to — instead of audition for the charity — audition for ‘Moana.’ Thankfully, I got that one.”
Now, she’s forever tied to composer Lin-Manuel Miranda and co-star Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
“Lin-Manuel Miranda is an incredible songwriter,” Cravalho said. “He really is fantastic. He’s so sweet … so smart, so kind — and he gives really good hugs. I don’t know what detergent he uses, but he also smells good. … [The Rock] is also really incredible. … He works so hard; the busiest man in Hollywood. … He gives really good hugs as well. He’s also very soft. You see how his muscles are always at perfect attention in photos? His skin is velvety smooth. Not only does he smell good, he’s also very soft.”
Cravalho says she’ll apply recent Oscar lessons to her performance at the Memorial Day Concert.
“I’ve still got the performance stuck in my mind,” Cravalho said. “While I was [at the Oscars], I did have a run-in with a flag. … I got hit with a flag in the back of the head! … I hear there are going to be many flags at the Memorial Day Concert, but you know what? I’m putting my trust in the people running this show that I won’t get hit with a flag again. But if I do, this time, it’ll be very patriotic.”
The event also features a performance by “American Idol” champ and country star Scotty McCreery.
“Both of my grandfathers served and they both instilled an appreciation in me for those who go out there and fight for our freedoms and, my goodness, the sacrifices the families make,” McCreery told WTOP. “The least I can do is come out and show my support and sing a song.”
Known for his deep voice (i.e. Randy Travis or Josh Turner), McCreery will perform “The Dash.”
“It’s one of my favorite songs on that record,” McCreery said. “It’s one of those songs that’s honoring a veteran who’s paid the ultimate sacrifice and it’s talking about how it’s not about the numbers in concrete on your tombstone; it’s about the dash in between [the dates] and the life you lived, that kind of thing. It’s a really cool tune, it was an honor to sing, so I can’t wait to get out there and do it.”
At 23 years old, McCreery has lived quite the life in his “dash,” having won “American Idol” at age 16.
“If I sit down, take a breath and try to take it all in, it’s been an amazing six or seven years,” McCreery said. “I never would have thought me. I was just your average kid growing up, packing groceries and playing baseball. My life changed forever, so it’s been an amazing run and we’ll try to keep it going.”
He still keeps in touch with such Season 10 peers as Haley Reinhart, Lauren Alaina and James Durbin.
“We have a little group text that we try to keep in touch with everybody,” McCreery said. “That season man, I know I’m a little biased, but it was just awesome. The diversity of talent that we had and everybody was really good at what they did: R&B, gospel, jazz. It was fun to watch from side stage.”
He says he’s surprised, yet excited, to see “Idol” return on ABC just a year after its farewell on FOX.
“I would’ve thought it would’ve gone away a little longer, but I’m excited,” McCreery said. “I was a fan of the show before I got on it. I watched it from Season 1, 2, on until my season, and I still watched it after. It’s a fun show, a fun way to discover talent, and you never know if they’re going to be the next big thing, so I love the idea of it coming back. I’m excited to see Katy Perry and Chris Daughtry.”
Sunday also brings singer-songwriter John Ondrasik, better known as Five for Fighting.
“Back in the day in the Iraq War, I started getting emails from our troops about how music really matters to them and how they listen to music before they go on mission or come back,” Ondrasik told WTOP. “That lead to The Concert for New York and touring with the U.S.O. My buddy Gary Sinise has been asking me to do this Memorial Day Concert for many years. … This year, the schedules lined up.”
He’ll be performing Five for Fighting’s inspirational song “All For One.”
“For this event, it’s probably my perfect song [because] the chorus is: ‘One for all, all for one,'” he said. “I actually wrote it for a ‘Hawaii Five-O’ episode, but I noticed some of the military folks had started using it in some videos and tributes. I think it’s probably cooler than ‘Superman’ or ‘100 Years.'”
He can even relate those popular songs to his love for the troops.
“My ‘Superman’ doesn’t want to be Superman,” Ondrasik said. “Over the last 15 years, I’ve met true ‘super men,’ and sorry for the pun, but when you start going out with the troops and you meet the gold-star families who have lost loved ones, the severely injured soldiers who lost multiple limbs, you realize your life’s pretty good. … [As for ‘100 Years’], there actually will be a 101-year-old soldier from the Doolittle Raid we’ll be paying tribute to: Lt. Cole. … There’s not many World War II veterans left.”
The “fighting” in Five for Fighting doesn’t involve the battlefield, but rather ice hockey’s penalty box.
“Back in the late ’90s, the record company came to me and said, ‘Nobody can pronounce your name,'” Ondrasik said. “I had just come from an L.A. Kings hockey game … and in the NHL, if you get in a fight, you get a penalty for five minutes — five for fighting. So, I sarcastically said to the label, ‘How about Five for Fighting?’ And they’re like, ‘We love it!’ … Twenty years later, Five for Fighting is still going.”
As a massive hockey fan, Ondrasik also offered words of solace for Washington Capitals fans.
“I picked you guys this year. I wanted you guys; I thought when you got Justin Williams from the Kings that he’s the guy that can turn that magic key,” Ondrasik said. “But when you’re the best team in the league, there’s a unique pressure. … It sucks you had to play the Penguins in the second round! That’s not right. … I do think it’s only a matter of time. I think Ovechkin will get his [Stanley] Cup. Stay with it. You’re a contender every year; that’s all you can ask for. One of these years, the stars will align.”
Until then, come see the stars align on stage at Sunday’s Memorial Day Concert.
“It’s such a great event; I’ve been watching it every Memorial Day on PBS,” Ondrasik said. “This year, I get to go sing … celebrate our veterans, troops, their families and tell them how much we love them.”
Click here for more information on the show. Listen to our full chats with this year’s performing artists below: