Joe Mantegna hosts first virtual National Memorial Day Concert

The National Memorial Day Concert is an annual D.C. tradition. (Courtesy of PBS)
WTOP's Jason Fraley previews the Memorial Day Concert with Joe Mantegna

He has regularly hosted the National Memorial Day Concert for the past two decades, but this year, Tony-winning actor Joe Mantegna embraces the challenge of hosting it virtually.

For the first time in 30 years, the concert won’t be held on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol due to the coronavirus pandemic. Instead, Capital Concerts will present a special 90-minute broadcast airing on PBS this Sunday, May 24, from 8 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.

“It’s actually going to be a very special kind of a show this year that I’m actually looking forward to because this is the first time I’ll be able to see it,” Mantegna told WTOP. “This will be my 19th year. … Performances are going to be done by artists in their homes. … It’s going to include some of the best segments that we’ve had for close to 30 years.”

As always, Mantegna returns to host with his good friend Gary Sinise (“Forrest Gump”).

“When Ossie Davis passed, they asked me,” Mantegna said. “I suggested that they bring in Gary Sinise. … There is no person in show business who is a greater supporter of our military than Gary Sinise. … I called him up and said, ‘Hey, how’d you like to be involved with this?’ He jumped at the opportunity and we’ve been doing it together ever since.”

“Hamilton” star Christopher Jackson will open the show by singing the national anthem, followed by remote performances from Cynthia Erivo, Trace Adkins, Renee Fleming, CeCe Winans, Kelli O’Hara, Mary McCormack and the National Symphony Orchestra (NSO).

In addition to the new performances, viewers will also see “greatest hits” from past years, including celebrity guests like Sam Elliott, Laurence Fishburne and Esai Morales.

“Last year, Sam Elliott did this incredible segment based on a World War II veteran and it was so good that we definitely wanted to bring that one back,” Mantegna said. “Laurence Fishburne was available, who had done a movie about the Tuskegee Airmen, that segment I was so thrilled to see [a few years ago] and now to bring it back I think is very exciting.”

As always, expect the U.S. Army Herald Trumpets, the U.S. Army Chorus, the U.S. Army Voices and Downrange, the Soldiers’ Chorus of the U.S. Army Field Band, the U.S. Navy Band Sea Chanters, the U.S. Air Force Singing Sergeants and Service Color Teams provided by the Military District of Washington, D.C.

“We still do our salute to the military, which is my favorite part of the show every year when we get to the Armed Forces medley,” Mantegna said. “I’m sure people will be standing up in their homes when they hear their specific service song being played.”

In addition to military personnel like Gen. Colin Powell and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley, there will also be a salute to health workers battling COVID-19.

“We’re going to do a salute to first responders, which is very apropos,” Mantegna said. “A lot of special call-ins. People will be very impressed and surprised and thrilled to see some of the people who have recorded little blurbs that wanted to be included in the concert this year that’ll be sprinkled throughout. That alone is going to make it very special.”

The program will also be streamed around the world on the American Forces Network.

“We always broadcast it on PBS, and then it’s also going to be streaming on Facebook, YouTube, Video on Demand, so there’s various ways to see the show this year,” Mantegna said. “It very well could be our most watched concert that we’ve ever done. … Anybody who watches the concert even once will be able to understand why I feel the way I do.”

He finds a silver lining in that folks might slow down to reflect on the holiday this year, rather than being distracted by large gatherings, backyard barbecues and the Indy 500.

“It is the one holiday that allows us to have all the other holidays,” Mantegna said. “This concert is going to allow people to be able to take a 90-minute break and be able to say, ‘Hey, you know what, we’re in another fight, just like our military has had to do for 200-plus years. We’re going to win this fight as well and we have to do it together.'”

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Joe Mantegna (Full Interview)
Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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