InDepth InterView Exclusive: Brian Stokes Mitchell On THE BAND WAGON At Encores!, Plus GLEE Final Season, SWEENEY TODD, New Albums & More
Today we are talking to a spectacularly gifted Tony Award-winning stage and screen performer known for originating numerous memorable roles in both new musicals and revivals as well as starring in this month's Encores! special presentation of THE BAND WAGON, Brian Stokes Mitchell. Opening up about the new stage-to-screen adaptation of the movie musical classic while granting a rare few moments for a chat while on a break, Mitchell shares his enthusiasm for re-teaming with frequent collaborator director/choreographer Kathleen Marhshall as well as what audiences can expect from the brand new concert presentation while also commenting on his starry assortment of fellow players in the production, including Tracey Ullman, Michael McKean and Laura Osnes. Furthermore, Mitchell offers first news on his return to FOX's hit musical dramedy series GLEE for its final season and preliminarily clues us in to what we can expect from his last appearance on the series. Additionally, Mitchell reflects on his starring role in the 2002 Kennedy Center production of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's SWEENEY TODD and whether he would be interested in pursuing that part again in the future. Plus, Mitchell reveals that he has recorded a series of studio albums awaiting completion and release and shares his opinions on what material he would like to record in the future. All of that, thoughts on THE PRINCE OF EGYPT and if it could work onstage, his upcoming Christmas concert series with the Cincinnati Symphony, KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN memories and much, much more in this exclusive conversation with one of Broadway's most beloved leading men!
More information on Brian Stokes Mitchell in Encores! THE BAND WAGON is available at the official site here.
PC: When Tracey Ullman recently did this column to discuss THE BAND WAGON she relayed what a fan she was of yours.
BSM: And that's the first thing I said to her - "Oh, Tracey, I am such a huge fan of yours!"
PC: This will be your second time working at Encores! with Kathleen Marshall after CARNIVAL!, previously having worked with you in KISS ME, KATE, as well, of course.
BSM: That's right - we did CARNIVAL! together there, too. You see, what happens when you work with people is that you end up working with them so much - you do so many benefits and so many shows - that you end up starting to forget what you did with them and you start to think you did shows with them that you didn't do! [Laughs.]
PC: It can get confusing having such busy careers as you two do.
BSM: I've known Kathleen for so long and our relationship goes so far back now that I think she's directed everything I've done at one time or another, but it's not true.
PC: Are you a fan of Vincente Minnelli's films in general? You did KISMET at Encores! a few years ago, which he also famously directed on film.
BSM: Oh, yeah - I like all those old shows and all those old musicals and he certainly was one of the masters of that form.
PC: To say the least.
BSM: The thing that I particularly love about this show that we are doing is that it is not just a recreation, it's a re-imagining of the movie, actually. It tips a hat to the movie, of course, and I think that anybody who loves the movie is going to love the show, as well, because it has all the elements from the movie that you want, but it also has some surprising new elements in it.
PC: Such as?
BSM: Well, we have songs that weren't in the movie - songs by Dietz and Schwartz from their catalogue that we were able to use especially for this. We also changed some songs around - you know, who sings what. But, the songs that everybody loves from the movie will all be in it, too.
PC: So many classics.
BSM: So many. The songs in THE BAND WAGON are so great and I really think this production is going to deliver THE BAND WAGON that people are expecting to see - and more.
PC: With some surprises in store.
BSM: Lots of surprises - yes. And, Douglas Carter Beane wrote this brilliant new book for it where he weaves the characters together and the songs together in a very inventive, wonderful, entertaining way. He is such a witty writer.
PC: You can say that again.
BSM: And, then, we've got such a witty, talented cast! Besides Tracey, we've got Michael McKean and Tony Sheldon and Michael Berresse and Don Stephenson and Laura Osnes. Everybody is just a master at their craft and a real pleasure to work with.
PC: It's certainly a cast made for musical comedy heaven.
BSM: It is. And, as I like to say - my indelicate term - there is no turd in this punchbowl.
PC: I never thought I'd hear you use that phrase!
BSM: [Big Laugh.] It's true, though! Everyone is just so much fun to work with on this! They just show up wanting to have fun and have a good time and put on a good show and do great work and be entertaining. It's really a pleasure to come here.
PC: THE BAND WAGON has some of the most classic movie musical songs of all time.
BSM: You're right - it does.
PC: "That's Entertainment", "Dancing In The Dark", "By Myself"...
BSM: Oh, yeah - oh, yeah.
PC: Will we be seeing any actual dancing in the dark from you and Laura?
BSM: I'm not telling you that either, Pat! I like a little surprise and mystery in my life, you know - so, to answer your question: maybe! Maybe we do. [Big Laugh.]
PC: Will you be doing "Triplets" full-out with bonnets and bibs and tiny bodies?
BSM: Oh, well - I guess I have to tell you that! All I will say is that if people love "Triplets", they will love the "Triplets" that we are doing - I can tell you that much.
PC: Do you consider yourself an Astaire man? You have such a refined, elegant air about you, needless to say.
BSM: Well, all of those guys are a big influence on me, actually. To be honest, I am more of a Gene Kelly guy, frankly. He's the guy I always used to see when I was a kid and say, you know, "Oh, I want to be him! I wanna do shows like him and I wanna sing and dance like him!" Astaire was ballroom, basically, and Gene Kelly had such athleticism - that's always what I responded to and what just blew my head open when I watched Gene Kelly's numbers. But, Fred Astaire was just so incredibly inventive and so, so smooth - so smooth.
PC: The smoothest, I'd wager.
BSM: I would, too. I remember watching so many of those old movies and shows that they would appear on - Donald O'Conner, too. There are so many incredible performers that you could mention from that era, though.
PC: The list is virtually endless. It was a golden age.
BSM: Indeed, it was. I remember as a kid just trying to absorb everything that they were doing - everything. So, I think that there is a little bit of all of those folks that we are talking about in me in one way or another.
PC: Given that many people will be coming to hear you sing as well as to see you dance, can you clue us in on any new songs you will be performing?
BSM: Wait, so people haven't heard me sing before?! [Laughs.]
PC: Once is never enough!
BSM: The whole score is new for me, actually - I've never sung any of these songs before!
PC: Not even "That's Entertainment"?
BSM: No! Not even that! I've never sung that. And, honestly, "By Myself" has been going around my head for about 8 months now...
PC: Why so?
BSM: Well, I actually have about 3 albums in the can right now that I have been working on - mixing them down and working on finishing them up and all of that. But, in addition to those 3 albums, I already have another album that I want to record and "By Myself" is one of the songs that I want to put on that. I have kind of been working on the arrangement in my head for months now.
PC: What draws you to "By Myself" in particular?
BSM: Well, it's been one of those songs that's just been stuck in my head! I just love the structure of the song and the whole feel of it.
PC: The score is filled with gorgeous melodies.
BSM: Oh, it is - and, what's really been fun about exploring this music is that I had never before gotten into the Dietz and Schwartz catalogue this deeply and they were incredibly inventive and very unusual in what they did. The songs are nowhere near as easy to learn as I thought that they would be!
PC: Why, in particular?
BSM: Well, they throw these funny curves in - which work perfectly with the songs - and I think that's part of what makes their songs so long-lasting and why so many people love them.
PC: "Two-Faced Woman" and a lot of their material was definitely outside the box for the time that it was written.
BSM: Absolutely! Absolutely. And, their songs really evoke a period and a feeling. I mean, for instance: "That's Entertainment". Has there ever been a song that makes you smile bigger than that? I don't think so.
PC: Especially with you singing it!
PC: Given you are a musician yourself and have intimate involvement with your own arrangements for concerts and albums, are you relishing this chance to sort of build new versions of these songs from the ground up in rehearsal?
BSM: Well, some of these songs were done onstage before when they did a previous version of the show called DANCING IN THE DARK at the Old Globe a while back, so part of what they have done is they grabbed some of those arrangements that were done for that - and, I know Larry Hochman is doing some new orchestrations for this new production of THE BAND WAGON, as well.
PC: Have you two worked together before?
BSM: Yes, I know Larry and I just love him to pieces - we have worked together a number of times before, actually.
PC: How wonderful to hear.
BSM: Yeah - he is just brilliant. Brilliant! But, because of the nature of Encores!, we don't have a lot of time to ruminate on anything - you sort of go with your first instinct and then you fly. There's just not enough time to think about things and ruminate on them very much - there's just not enough time to do that on this particular show.
PC: It's the nature of the Encores! beast.
BSM: I will say that I did have some time to work with Todd Ellison and we've been finding keys and working on some things. For instance, for "By Myself" we reconfigured it and I have been finding some different approaches to a lot of the songs.
PC: How fascinating.
BSM: I promise that you will hear things in ways that you have not heard them before. Some of them, we are doing as you are used to hearing them, of course, as well - I mean, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.
PC: From DO RE MI to CARNIVAL! to KISMET, you brought a lot of lesser known scores to a new generation.
BSM: Thank you for saying that.
PC: Now with THE BAND WAGON, you have the opportunity to bring a classic movie to the stage but also perhaps to an audience that isn't familiar with the film. Would you be interested in pursuing this production if it moves beyond Encores!? Maybe even on Broadway or in the West End?
BSM: Perhaps. We will see, you know? Right now, my plate is so full with just getting through THE BAND WAGON at Encores! that I am just trying to see if I can eat that meal first and do it justice. After that, we will see - I think that's what everybody is planning on doing: waiting and seeing. You know, if it is something that lights up the audience and looks like it should have a future, then probably most of us who are involved with it already would be willing to go, "Yeah, that would be a lot of fun!" I can tell you that we are all having a blast right now! But, you can't think too far ahead.
PC: Definitely not.
BSM: What it's really about is being in the moment and just dealing with what we have right now. If you think about, "Oh, this could be a great Broadway show!" and get caught up in that thought process you could lose this experience - right now, it's about two weeks at Encores!
PC: First things first.
BSM: Exactly. I will tell you, though, that Douglas Carter Beane's script is so detailed - he has these wonderful set descriptions and what's going on in with the characters and all of this stuff, but you can't do that at Encores!. You can get lost in that kind of thing, especially at Encores! - to no avail. With the limited amount of rehearsal time, there's just no way you can do it. So, right now, it's about being here, now, in the moment, and dealing with what you can.
PC: Since your birthday falls during rehearsals, do you have anything special planned or will you work straight through?
BSM: [Laughs.] Yes, I believe I am rehearsing on my birthday - no trick or treating for me this year!
PC: You have a trick or treater-age son at home, do you not?
BSM: Yes, I do! He is 10 now, so he's at the point where he just wants to be with his friends - he's just going to be trick or treating with friends, and I am fine with that. That way I won't be stuck sitting at home with my broken heart saying, [Fake Cries.] "Oh, my boy doesn't want to go trick or treating with me anymore!" [Laughs.]
PC: Is he impressed that you are on GLEE and by all of your other accomplishments?
BSM: He's never even seen me on TV, actually!
BSM: Really. I mean, we don't watch a lot of TV in our house, actually. He has a limited amount of screen-time, as we call it - television and the computer, as well. Honestly, I hate watching myself on TV - I have always hated watching myself and listening to myself.
PC: How can that be?
BSM: Well, I am just so critical of everything that I do that I can never enjoy it, so I get tense. So, when I shoot things, I usually never even watch them unless I absolutely have to for some reason.
PC: Stephen Schwartz recently did this column and we discussed his many screen-to-stage adaptations. Do you enjoy singing "Through Heaven's Eyes" from THE PRINCE OF EGYPT and do you think the movie could work onstage as a full-out musical?
BSM: Oh, yeah - Stephen did such a great job on that! I remember that I was doing RAGTIME in Los Angeles when they asked me to do that and I just went right in and sang it. I'd always been a huge fan of Stephen Schwartz. It was one of those songs that kind of sat really well in my voice and I pretty much knew exactly what to do with it. I had a great time recording it - I love that particular number and I still sing it in concert, actually. I am doing a bunch of Christmas concerts this year with the Cincinnati Symphony and I am planning to do it with them.
PC: Would you ever consider doing a studio Christmas album?
BSM: Oh, yeah! I've got about 5 more albums in my head right now - like I said, I already have 3 of them that are done and ready to be mixed. I actually have two ideas for a Christmas album - so, all I need is time.
PC: Vanessa Williams also recently did this column and spoke so favorably of working with you in KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN. Do you have fond memories of that production, too?
BSM: Oh, yeah - oh, yeah. I actually performed with all of the Spider Women on Broadway - I started with Chita. She was in it for a year and a half, I believe, and Maria Conchita Alonzo did it, too, besides Vanessa.
PC: You never performed it with Bebe Neuwirth, though, correct?
BSM: No, I didn't. I can't remember when Bebe did it, but I did it until the end - with all the Spider Women on Broadway. I believe it was Vanessa's first show, too, wasn't it?
PC: It was.
BSM: I remember thinking at the time, "Vanessa Williams?! How is she going to be as the Spider Woman?" But, she just knocked it out of the park! She was just great.
PC: Your 2002 production of SWEENEY TODD at the Kennedy Center was the first time the alternate lyrics to "The Ballad Of Sweeney Todd" were utilized stateside, period accurate f-bombs included.
BSM: That is true! Which, as you may know, he always wanted to do, but he couldn't do it when it first opened.
PC: Your voice is so resonant in that score.
BSM: [Sighs.] To be honest, Pat, that's a show where if somebody said to me, "Hey, we want to do SWEENEY TODD on Broadway with a full orchestra again," I would do it in a second, I think.
PC: You were only 35 when you did it.
BSM: I think Sweeney himself was probably in his 30s - everyone always thinks of Len Cariou, but I think Len Cariou was actually in his 30s when he started the show, as well. He just has such a large stature and everything that people just think he is older than he actually is. But, if I remember right, Len was in his late-30s when he did that show.
PC: That would be so amazing to see you back in SWEENEY TODD.
BSM: I'd love to do it - I really would. Put it out in the ether!
PC: You recently have appeared on GLEE and soon are set for MADAM SECRETARY, as well. Do you have even more TV gigs lined up?
BSM: Yes, I do. I actually just shot another GLEE - I don't know exactly when it is going to air. And, I have been doing MADAM SECRETARY, as well - I just shot the first episode of that. I think that will be on in 3 or 4 more weeks and that is supposed to be recurring - that's what they said. So, I don't know exactly when it will air, but I guess it's going to be ongoing.
PC: Did you enjoy working with that cast? There are a lot of fellow Broadway actors, obviously.
BSM: Oh, it's been so much fun working with the cast on MADAM SECRETARY - Bebe Neuwirth and Sebastian Arcelus and Patina Miller; as you say, it's all Broadway people. They're all my friends! It's a great, great company and really great writing and great directing and a great crew - I mean, it's exactly what I wished for; which is: a show I recurred on that was shot in New York that had great writing and a great cast.
PC: To a T!
BSM: It's literally everything that I wished for - it's literally a dream come true to do that show.
PC: Patina is such a superstar, her time has definitely arrived.
BSM: Oh, yeah - definitely.
PC: As far as the final season of GLEE goes, will you be singing in your appearance?
BSM: No, I will not be singing - not in this one. Here's what I can say because I don't know what exactly they want me to say - the show that I am on is going to be rather surprising to folks. [Pause. Laughs.] That's the only hint I can give.
PC: No way!
BSM: [Laughs.] It's going to be kind of unusual what I do, actually - and when folks see the show they will understand why.
PC: Will you and Jeff Goldblum appear together again?
BSM: I'm not saying anything else! [Laughs.] That's all I can give you. I can't even say yay or nay or anything.
PC: This was such a joy to do today, Stokes. I can't thank you enough.
BSM: It's my pleasure, Pat! Thanks so much for covering THE BAND WAGON and Encores! And everything else. I really appreciate it. See you later. Bye.
Photo Credits: Walter McBride, Racheal McCaig, etc.
From This Author Pat Cerasaro