2014 'National Memorial Day Concert' welcomes 'American Idol' winner Caleb Johnson, Megan Hilty

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Memorial Day has special significance this year, coming before a major anniversary of a reason for the occasion.

On June 6, 1944, Allied forces stormed Normandy beaches to battle Nazi troops on D-Day. Almost 70 years later, the event is a major theme as the National Memorial Day Concert marks its own 25th anniversary in the annual PBS telecast Sunday (May 25) from the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.

Longtime U.S. military supporters Joe Mantegna ("Criminal Minds") and Gary Sinise will serve as co-hosts for the ninth year, with Megan Hilty ("Smash"), newly minted "American Idol" Caleb Johnson, Jennifer Nettles, two-time Oscar winner Dianne Wiest, retired Gen. Colin Powell, 2013 "The Voice" winner Danielle Bradbery, singers Jackie Evancho and Anthony Kearns, and actor Gerald McRaney also participating. Jack Everly again conducts the National Symphony Orchestra.

"When we finished last year's show," Mantegna tells Zap2it, "we really felt it was as good a show as ever, if not the best, and the response seemed to back that up. Everything felt really right about it, just the balance of joy and reverence. That's a comforting thing, since a lot of us have been doing this for a long time."


Mantegna cites D-Day as "one of those landmark days in our history, but unless you're someone my age or older, you don't really understand the kind of sacrifice that was made then. A young person might start looking into history books and realize what went down in World War II, when millions of people lost their lives in that one conflict."

The 1947 Buick that was Mantegna's first car, and that he still owns, reminds him that "it's a great old car but very difficult to drive. It's heavy, with no power steering and no power brakes ... ," he says. "And I think to myself, 'I'm driving a car that has two years of advanced technology on anything they had in World War II.' They were fighting with equipment more archaic than this car I'm driving, and it just puts in perspective what those men and women had to do. And they basically saved the world."

Noting the 25-year milestone for the concert -- in which soldiers returning from Afghanistan will be paid special tribute, as will Gold Star Mothers -- executive producer Jerry Colbert says, "Every year, we receive a growing number of emails from those who still suffer their own personal and painful losses for whom this concert is truly a healing and uniting experience."

Hilty was recruited by Colbert to perform in the past two "A Capitol Fourth" concerts, but this will mark her first time in the Memorial Day program. "It always brings so many talented people together," she reflects, "and such a wide variety, too. There's always something for everybody in these concerts."

The Memorial Day show won't require Hilty to be overly physical, which suits her well: She's expecting her first child with husband and fellow Broadway veteran Brian Gallagher. "We have a lot of concerts this summer," she reports, "and we're doing a really fun thing for the baby. At every concert, we're filming a little bit so she can hear everything."

Still, Hilty anticipates an emotional Memorial Day as well, having performed in the nation's capital on holidays. "I'm just proud to be a part of something that says 'Thank you' to all of the brave men and women who have fought for our country and our freedom."
Photo/Video credit: Getty Images