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There are not many better ways to spend Thanksgiving Eve than dinner with Brian Stokes Mitchell. God was working overtime when She produced this man. The singer/actor is exactly what one would expect from a leading man: tall, handsome and high-spirited, although not vain. As we supped across the street from the Belasco Theatre (where he is starring in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown), he enthusiastically discussed his upcoming Holiday concerts with the New York Pops (as I needled him about his life) on December 10th @ 11, via Carnegie Hall. Between the premier of his "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas" and highly anticipated Hanukah medley, his excitement about the project was electric.
I found Stokes to be completely in the moment, positive to a point of motivational speaker. After you speak to Mitchell, you believe anything is possible as in life, as his cup runneth over.
Melody - Which do you find more challenging, theatre or cabaret?
Brian - Cabaret presents different challenges, as it is all on me. I am my own musical director, doing the arrangements etc. I love having the freedom to say anything you want, do anything you want. It is a lot of responsibility and if it works you get all the kudos, and if not all the blame. In theatre with this show (Woman), much cooperation is required, due to the structure of the music and size of the cast, but it comes easy due to the people I am working with.
M - They are all real pros. Picking one’s own tempos and keys can be very liberating in a show of one’s own. Conversely, are you permitted make any of your own choices in a musical - or is it all on the musical director?
B - You do have input and it is usually in the logical place. But in Woman, it has to be very specific, as it is wordy and has to fall in place.
M - Your solos, let’s say in a show like South Pacific -“Some Enchanted Evening” or “This Nearly Was Mine.”
B - On Broadway, you are working with some incredible people and they have great reasons for doing things the way they do. And as they are listening to you, it’s not a fight over who wins; it’s who has the best reason. It’s all about the good of the show and the good of the song.
M - Alright then, you don’t face much conflict.
B - South Pacific, with "This Nearly Was Mine," I said to Gemignani that I wanted to do the second verse with much space, very slowly.
M - I was just hearing that today. I loved how expansive it was.
B - Thanks - as written the song could be repetitive but asked Paul Gemignani to cut the orchestration, make it spare and just take a look into Emile DeBeque's heart. I love working with Paul. He conducts many of my concerts.
At this point I wanted to cross over to the more personal, perhaps to find a defining point in his life. I assumed that his parents were made of stern stuff. His father, a Tuskegee Airman, and his mother, a cop and school administrator. My imagination took flight contemplating the discipline he must have endured to become who he is today. Well, it all was just in my mind, as I found out when quizzing him.
M - So what was it like being raised by two professional “enforcers?” Did their positions turn you into a striver?
At this point his voice pealed with hearty baritone laughter.
B - The thing about my Mother being a cop, she was the first African-American woman in Seattle, recruited actually, and she did it for only 2 years. She did not want to carry a gun. She worked mostly on domestic disturbances. The NAACP wanted her to do it, she did not want to. She was not actually a cop, she was very sweet. She had a Masters in social work…
M - Oh, she was highly educated. So your Father, was he stricter or more regimented?
B - No, he was a Tuskegee Airmen, but he got out of that by the time he was 24. He was NOT a military man. Although we lived on a military base, he was a civilian. We were not a military family. They were both very nice, we (the 4 kids) were taught to have manners. I call them sort of a 50’s family probably similar you yours, no?
At this point I had to laugh, as our families could not have been more dissimilar. I explained to him that my father had an operatic tenor, but was never on a music career track. In his mind, he could not even consider having a family and trying out a career, which created a family dynamic that many children of aborted artists have.
B - Oh, sorry.
M – Oh, no don’t be. My parents had more hardships and I really was expected to carry the torch. No questions asked. It has become clear to me that to be an artist is like preparing a recipe, there are so many ingredients, voice, style, drive. One can be gifted, but that is not going to get you anywhere without other factors.
B - Definitely, you need the luck.
M- You say that your career is in wiser hands than yours. Does that mean you are religious, or is what you refer to of a spiritual nature?
B - Yes and no. I was raised in a religious household, I would say it is more of a spiritual statement. Something is guiding my career; I don’t know what it is. When I look back at my career, I call myself the most lucky actor in the world. It is all I have ever done. I have never had to wait tables. Since I left home at 17, I've made my living as an actor, never even having to ask my parents for money. In fact my grandmother, somewhat of a psychic, predicted that one of her grandchildren would be a famous singer. They did not think it was me, though. I do master classes and I tell people not to use me as an example. I do not know anyone else like me, not to brag , but it's just very unusual.
We went on to discuss the scope of his roles, me saying how insane his Sweeney Todd was, with him laughingly countering is there any other kind? What I wanted to look at, was the different range of emotions that he puts into to his roles, and how some characters are infused with full out, searing emotion and others more understated, thoughtful, almost introverted. I went on to ask him if he purposely paced himself in that way to preserve his voice.
M - Are you more comfortable opening up the floodgates of your voice as your career progresses? You used more thrust vocally in South Pacific than in Man of La Mancha, which was phrased with delicacy.
B - It is just really about the role and what each character requires. I did do some big singing in La Mancha’s ballads, but overall, he was a physically frail man.
M - You are a natural and versatile actor (your French accent in South Pacific seemed very specific). You mentioned that early in your life you might have been faced with making a choice between them. So many singer/actors think that they have to make a choice on how to define one early on.
B - My move is go where you are wanted. Early on I did a lot of TV ("Roots, the Next Generation," "Trapper John MD"), but eventually you can wear out your welcome there, and they think they have seen everything you can do, so I returned to the theatre, where I grew up. I also did voice-overs and animation. I went on a concert tour when my son was born. I wanted to be able to laugh and scream and yell and not worry about my voice being tip top for every night at the theatre. It’s been seven years since La Mancha.
M - I have to say, I am in despair about what is going on with Broadway revivals. Especially in the plays by Sondheim; the severely diminished orchestras, the actors having to play their own instruments!
At this point of the conversation, Brian pointed something out for me to consider, and as I listened, I realized there might be wisdom in his pragmatism.
B - Well, it is a means to an end financially. And having people play instrumentals was part of the conceptual design of the productions you mention. But yes, personally, in Sondheim, especially Sweeney Todd, I want to hear a full orchestra, as I did in DC. The arrangements by Jonathan Tunic are incredible genius, as most of the shows Sondheim did are with him. The great thing is, I'm getting to perform his arrangements with the Pops and the 80-piece orchestra. The Washington, DC Sweeney, Carnegie Hall South Pacific and now the New York Pops, these are the only opportunities I get to sing with a full orchestra. I like to do a concert with a piano too, but there is nothing like a full orchestra. And people can bring their children to the great Carnegie Hall and experience a great show. Great songs to hear live, kids who don’t get a chance, those young kids today!
M - With their iPods and their texting!!!!
B - They really only get this type of music if their parents bring them to it. All they get is synthesized music and they are used to it. Hearing it, our generation feels it deminishing, but our parents took us to opera and musicals. The appreciation there had to be passed down. There is a different depth of appreciation that people develop, one you have been exposed to like we have been.
M - It is hard to go back.
B - Yes it is.
M - So basically, they never really had it, so they don’t miss it.
B - Yes.
M - Is there anything you won’t try?
B - Ballet.
M - I thought you would say that.
B - I can move and dance well for musicals, but ballet is an extreme art form and I would not claim it out of respect to the amazing artists out there who are masters.
I was getting to what I considered the most delicate part of the conversation, one that might not be necessary, but I was compelled to talk race, only in that it seems that Brian is one of the few who has transcended it and plays roles of all color. From Ragtime to Kiss Me Kate to La Mancha - he has run the gamut. He said Ragtime was the most magical musical he has ever done, but the character he identifies most is with Don Quixote. He loves the heart of the show and where the man comes from.
M - Okay the tough stuff. When I saw you in La Mancha, I was not even aware of your “race.” Both your parents are mixed race?
B - We are all mixed race…
M – Fair enough, so do you consider yourself an African-American?
B - I will take whoever wants me aha.
M - I’m a Jew – do you feel Jewish too? Can we have you?
B - Absolutely, that’s the thing I have, this look, all throughout out my career: Is he white? Jewish? African- American? Middle Eastern? Hispanic? etc, etc. It might have been frustrating, but now that I look back I can see it served me very well.
M - "You are the World La La, You are the People..."
B - Absolutely – adopt me I am yours.
M - Seriously though, when you first started out did the casting agents know what auditions to send you out on??
B - It was not an issue, except for commercials that are very representative of an audience they need to reach. They did not know what to do with me to target specific groups.
M - Musical theatre has less “traditional” casting than in the past.
B - Somewhat, but it still exists.
M – So, do you think you are experiencing this color-blindness due to your talent, fame, etc. Do you hold the cards? Do you think it's your stature that has opened everything up to you?
B - I couldn’t say – I am not the one casting or making these decisions.
M - So you don’t really dwell on any of this stuff. Many actors dwell on what type they are being forced into, stereotyping happens to most.
B - It’s out of my control. I dwell on the things I can control, my craft, my voice, my artistic decisions. I don’t read the newspapers, what can I do? Someone gets stabbed with a sword, what can I do?
Mr. Mitchell has given so generous of his time on matters I wanted to discuss - now it was time to get down to business of his upcoming engagement. He was truly excited and expansive he spoke about the upcoming Pops concert.
M – Ok, sooooo, what’s the program?
B - There are actually two different concerts and I am narrating the Grinch Who Stole Christmas – the first time it has been done. We are gonna have a sing-along-
M - Really?
B- Of course we will have a sing-along. What would a holiday concert be without one!
M - Hanukah sing along too?
B - Yes! That’s what we are working towards and we have a Kwanza song. There are so many Christmas songs.
M - Well the Jewish composers kept busy with that.
B - ahah Mel Torme, Irving Berlin. So I am working on my Hebrew now.
Brian goes on with pronunciation that would make a cantor proud – I could see how enthusiastic he was. He described the wealth of music and text he had been going over with Judith Cluman, (Essential Voices USA) choir director and incredible musicologist, translator and composer. Jonathan Tunick’s arrangements were discussed, of course. He also described the meeting of the minds he has with Pop’s conductor, Steven Reineke.
M - You are so pumped for this!
B - That’s right, I don’t want to sound like a New York Bar Mitzvah Boy.
M - Clearly.
B - And I think my favorite song is “The Little Drummer Boy.” It's really about one boy finding his purpose in life.
As Brian was expounding on the simple glory of this classic tune, I was imaging his glorious voice pouring out into those songs.
M - So – what do you do to relax?
B - This!
With the interview naturally taking its course, and our salutations complete, Brian Stokes Mitchell smoothly exited the dining room, graciously thanking me for my preparation. I puttered around gathering my materials and further contemplated this man who seemed on top of the word, and deservedly so.
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