The National Memorial Day Concert returns Sunday night on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol, marking the 30th anniversary of what is often PBS’ most-watched show of the year.
This year’s lineup once again combines celebrity performers and families of fallen soldiers.
“It’s the most important thing I do every year,” longtime host Joe Mantegna told WTOP. “It helps educate people to the most important holiday that this country celebrates, because it’s the holiday that allows us to have all of the other holidays. … If not for Memorial Day, there would be no Fourth of July, Veterans Day, Presidents Day, Labor Day, because our country wouldn’t exist. Memorial Day takes on a special significance because it honors those men and women going back to the 1700s who gave up their lives so that we can live the life we live.”
Replacing Gary Sinise as co-host is actress Mary McCormack (“Deep Impact,” “The West Wing”).
“Mary was one of the artists we brought in last year,” Mantegna said. “She was so taken by the experience that she said to us afterward, ‘I’ll come back, I’ll serve coffee, I’ll do wardrobe, I’ll do makeup, I’ll do whatever you want just to be part of this concert again if you need me.’ I remembered that, so when it became apparent last minute that Gary couldn’t come, I said it’s time we have a female co-host. Who better than Mary McCormack who was so passionate?”
McCormack said she was so moved that she was hooked from the second she first attended.
“I couldn’t believe how moving the event is,” McCormack told WTOP. “The entire night is both a celebration and a really truthful honoring of the sacrifice that so many people make. … So then I just basically threw my hat in and said, ‘I’ll do anything, I’ll pull cables, set up seats, anything, I just want to be a part of it.’ I’m lucky enough that this year they needed a host.”
The cause is deeply personal to McCormack, whose father served in the U.S. Marine Corps.
“I definitely grew up feeling a debt of gratitude for people who serve,” McCormack. “You’re sort of raised with that, but this event in particular, it’s so apolitical and nonpartisan, that in this climate right now, that’s even more refreshing. Just to put all that stuff aside to say that this is bigger than that. This is about country, freedom and things much bigger than politics.”
This year’s lineup of performers includes R&B legend Patti LaBelle, pop-rock favorite Gavin DeGraw, bluegrass icon Alison Krauss, country star Justin Moore, “Hamilton” alum Christopher Jackson and “American Idol” finalist Alyssa Raghu, who will perform the national anthem.
“It’s people as far as the eye can see just enjoying the concert and the music,” McCormack said. “It’s a massive production, just a big beautiful stage and lights and incredible music.”
Other celebrity speakers include actors Sam Elliott (“A Star is Born”), Dennis Haysbert (“24”), Amber Riley (“Glee”), Jaina Lee Ortiz (“Rosewood”) and retired U.S. General Colin Powell.
“Sam will be doing the words of a World War II veteran, while Dennis Haysbert and I will be doing a piece about two buddies who survived the Vietnam War,” Mantegna said, to which McCormack added, “They have actors narrate the story either through letters or just an interview with the person who was there. It puts a really personal face on each of these events. I think it’s a really nice way to let people in and let people understand the sacrifice.”
As always, the show will also feature annual performances by the National Symphony Orchestra (conducted by Jack Everly), the U.S. Army Herald Trumpets, U.S. Army Voices and Downrange, U.S. Navy Band Sea Chanters, U.S. Air Force Singing Sergeants, Soldiers’ Chorus, Ministers of Music and patriotic color guard provided by the Military District of Washington.
“There’s just a camaraderie,” McCormack said. “There’s tons of people in their uniforms and Gold Star families, people who have lost someone. Every day is Memorial Day for them, so they get so much comfort from everyone showing up to honor those they’ve lost. There’s veterans, there’s old men and women in uniforms, it’s really just an incredibly moving event.”
Those Gold Stars include widow Ursula Palmer, whose husband Collin Bowen died in 2008.
“My husband volunteered to go to Afghanistan at the end of 2006, then about a year later, two weeks before he was scheduled to come home, he volunteered for one last mission,” Palmer said. “On the way back from that mission, his vehicle got struck by an IED. He was severely injured and survived two and a half months, but unfortunately his injuries were too great.”
She’s since joined Dr. Vivianne Wersel to co-found the Arlington Chapter of Gold Star Wives.
“This chapter was born to fulfill the needs of a new generation of post-9/11 widows,” Palmer said. “A lot of us were younger with small children, so Dr. Wersel asked me if I would go along and co-found the chapter, which of course I immediately did. I found that being the one who provides help instead of continuing to be the one who receives help, is very fulfilling and very empowering. It not only helps our members, our widows, it also helps me continue to heal.”
Palmer wants Americans to remember the real reason they’re able to enjoy their weekend.
“It doesn’t bother me when people say, ‘Happy Memorial Day,'” Palmer said. “My husband died so we could continue our way of life. If that way of life means that we can have a cookout on Memorial Day, that’s OK. The only thing we should remember is the reason we’re able to have that cookout, be among friends and have a wonderful weekend to rest from work.”
In addition to broadcasting nationwide on PBS, the event will air to troops around the world on the American Forces Network, as well as streaming on Facebook, YouTube and online.
“I don’t think it’s asking too much that on a three-day weekend where you’re barbecuing and watching the Indy 500 to carve out 90 minutes, watch the program, see all of these stories and all of these songs. … You’ll see 200,000 people on a good night live on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol. We’re expecting nice weather, so we should have a quarter of a million people sitting on the lawn watching us. If you’ve never seen it, it’s awe-inspiring. If you have seen it, our return viewers are almost 100 percent. That’s why I’ve been doing it for 18 years.”
Find more details on the website. Hear our full chats with Mantegna, McCormack & Palmer below:
WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Joe Mantegna (Full Interview)