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BWW Interview: Brian Stokes Mitchell's Broadway Christmas at SF Symphony

BWW Interview: Brian Stokes Mitchell's Broadway Christmas at SF Symphony

Brian Stokes Mitchell talks Broadway's "Shuffle Along" and his upcoming Christmas concert at San Francisco Symphony. Read the full interview to learn about his creative process, Mitchell's take on arts education, and his upcoming album projects. Then visit sfsymphony.org for tickets to his December 16 concert.

Thank you for taking the time out of your busy rehearsal schedule to speak with BroadwayWorld San Francisco. I hope you got to take a break for a happy Thanksgiving.

I did, yes. I'm back in rehearsal today. We just had the one day off. We had a nice family time.

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, why don't we talk about some of the things you're thankful for. Since arts education is a hot topic today, is there a teacher who inspired you and influenced your music career?

Absolutely. I could go back to my junior high school drama teacher, high school drama teacher. I had my 7th grade English teacher. I had a master drama teacher. A master singing teacher. My mother actually was an educator for all of her life, and I have lots of teachers in my family - my mother, my aunt, my cousin. It's been a huge part of my existence.

And I'm a huge proponent of arts education. I talk about it a lot in the concerts I do. I think the problem is when people hear arts education, they think, "I don't want my son to be some painter that's going to be hanging in some museum after he dies. I don't want my daughter to be a struggling artist making no money." People don't realize it's more than that. It's beautiful. It brings beauty to our lives. We're surrounded by the work of artists. Imagine your life without artists. You wouldn't have anything. You turn on your music. That's made by artists - artist engineers and artist songwriters and artist arrangers and artist producers. You look on the walls in your house and you probably have works by artists. An artist designed the carpet you're standing on. An artist designed the paint colors on your wall. An artist designed the fonts on your computer. Artists are so much more far-reaching than people think, and so much more important in our lives, but we take it for granted. I'm looking outside right now across at 42nd Street at Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum, which was created by artists, and the posters for it are created by artists, and the architecture outside is created by artists. The billboards are created by artists. Artists make our lives livable and enjoyable.

Is there a role you played in your younger years that you're thankful for as a sort of turning point in your career?

My life has been a series of lots of breaks. The first role that I played as a musical - I was 14 years old and I played Birdie in Bye Bye Birdie. That was an awakening of, wow, I'm good at that. People are responding. And I hardly knew what I was doing back then, but there was something that people were seeing. I was in a repertory company that taught me a lot about acting. I was in a song and dance company that taught me the longevity, how to perform when you don't feel like doing it. I moved to Los Angeles and I got my first break in television. I got in a show that ended up transferring to Broadway. And that was another kind of break. And then I got my first lead role on Broadway. When I got "Ragtime," that was the first lead role that I created in a show that was very successful. It's just been from persistence and working and saying yes and doing what I could to make the next project happen.

You spoke about how the world of the arts affects our lives. How has fame and theatre changed your life?

In a million different ways. As a theatre artist I go to the theatre, especially Broadway, I could sit at a show and it's like being at a master class. You get the best performers on Broadway, and I can watch Bradley Cooper and Helen Mirren, and sometimes I get to perform with these amazing artists. It kind of rubs off on you. You learn different things. You learn what to do and sometimes what not to do. My wife, Allison, is a performer. We met doing "Oh Kay." She's on equity council, and members of equity council also become Tony voters, which means they get invited to every show, and they get an extra ticket to bring along a guest. She and I for the last few years have been seeing nearly everything that's opened on Broadway. It's an incredible education to see not only the shows that work brilliantly, but the shows that don't work, and to be able to understand why they don't work. I find as an artist, if you keep your mind open and your heart open and your eyes open, you can learn from everything. I can go into an art museum and learn looking at paintings. And it's something that can easily be done in theatre, where you watch people and watch the effect it's having on the audience.

You've been busy working on your new Broadway musical, "Shuffle Along." It's actually a show about the making of a musical. For those unfamiliar with the original "Shuffle Along," tell me about the history behind these shows and their significance. I had never heard of the show until now.

You're not alone. It's interesting. In 1921, when it opened, it was the smash hit of the season. It was not only the smash hit, it was gigantic. It was huge. It was groundbreaking and record breaking. It was like "The Lion King," or "Phantom of the Opera," or "The Book of Mormon" in our time. Not only was it incredibly successful, but it was so successful that people after that started trying to repeat what these artists had put together. It was kind of a fusion in time of a lot of different things. Musical theatre as a form was still very young, so it was using things from Ziegfeld Follies. It was borrowing from people that were doing theatre at that time. It was borrowing from minstrel shows, which were a popular art form at the time. And it used a lot of these things together and created this new kind of show that everybody imitated, and it became a huge success, an unlikely success.

And what's happening, of course, is success lots of times causes tensions with people, as well. And because it's being imitated, they all become obsolete after a while. So [the new "Shuffle Along"] is a kind of study of that whole process of success and failure and what happens to creative teams in particular. Interestingly enough, "Shuffle Along," as huge as it was, most theatre people are not familiar with it. Even if you look in theatre books, it's been relegated to some obscure footnote.

Stewart Lane, who's a wonderful producer on Broadway, just wrote a book about "Black Broadway," and he does quite a section on "Shuffle Along." There were some huge stars that were a part of the show that we don't really know because back then they didn't have television. Talkies were just going to come up like five years later. One of the performers, she was considered one of the greatest performers of her time, and there's zero record of her in recordings, in film. She's one of the characters, as well. ["Shuffle Along, or The Making of The Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed"] covers this whole huge era in theatre. What [book writer] George C. Wolff has created is a love letter to the theatre and to the creative process.

It sounds fascinating. You have me sold. The musical also stars Audra McDonald, who comes from Fresno - a city not too far away from San Francisco.

I used to live in California, and my sister lives in Fresno. And by the way, my master voice teacher was from Fresno originally. He was from a long line of raisin farmers.

San Francisco is lucky enough to have you away from rehearsals for a one-night concert of holiday music. And now that Thanksgiving has come and gone, we don't have to feel so guilty about celebrating. Can you give us a sample of what Symphony audiences can expect to hear? I'm sure you'll add some of your Broadway flair.

This is a show that I've done a few times now. It's a really fun show to do, and the audience really seems to enjoy it. I want it to be the kind of show that the audience walks in, and they might walk in feeling beaten down from the holidays and all of the shopping - that's the audience that's a challenge to bring over to your side, and I want those people particularly leaving the theatre feeling joyful and excited about the holidays. So, I designed the show to give them familiar tunes and make them feel really good. It gives them nostalgia, gives them some funny numbers, and it's kind of a well rounded thing.

I get to play a lot of characters. The last album I did was called "Simply Broadway," which is just me and a piano. But I got to play all these different characters. And I've kind of used that same philosophy. I hate going to concerts where people just stand in front of a microphone singing a song. So, what I actually do is I create characters in front of people's eyes. I do the Friendly Beast, for instance, but I become all of the different beasts in it. I embody each beast, the cow and the sheep and the donkey. It's a really fun holiday concert. It's great for kids. It's great for adults. And it touches the child in all of us. It kind of reconnects us with that joy and that innocence and that sense of fun that we have about the holidays.

Do you have a favorite Christmas song?

I have a lot of favorites. The way that I approach a song is that I arrange, as well. So, when I do a Christmas song, I don't just do the song, I kind of reinvent it. I want it to feel familiar, but I want it to feel totally fresh. So I gravitate toward the songs that I've always loved as a kid. Then there are the songs that I didn't love so much, and I thought, "Oh, that would be really fun to do the song this way." For instance, "The Little Drummer Boy," which is a song that I liked as a kid, but as I grew to be an adult, it was kind of a silly song that I didn't really like very much. But then I realized that song is about gifts, and so I conceived of a way to do the song that becomes something else, and it becomes bigger than that. It kind of takes you on a journey. That's what I like all the songs to be, a mini play. It's the luxury of doing your own show.

San Francisco Symphony will also have a live concert with the film "It's A Wonderful Life" in December. What is your favorite Christmas film, classic or new?

Maybe my favorite one is "A Christmas Story." It's really wonderful, and I think part of it is because that was the era of my childhood, and I was probably that kid's age in that era. And it always makes me laugh.

What are some of your favorite Christmas traditions?

One of the things we always do is we go look at the lights on 5th Avenue. We always try to do that early in the season, when there's not too many tourists, but it always turns out that we always end up being there at the most crowded time. And we go to Rockefeller Center and we see the tree there. We go to Macy's and we look at all the window displays.

Since the holidays are the perfect time for giving, is there a particular cause or organization you are involved in that you would like to give a shout out for?

I'm the chairman of the board of the Actor's Fund. It's an incredible organization. It helps anybody that has made their living in the performing arts and entertainment. Actors, singers, dancers, film producers, agents, managers, ticket takers, writers, anybody in times of need or crisis. That charity has a special place in my heart, but one of the things I always like to encourage my friends and family to do is to find some charity that means something to them. A lot of times you have people that you can't think of what to get them. The great thing is to find out what their favorite charity is. There's always somebody to help, and it makes an amazing gift. It's something that is going to help people, that is passed on. It's a really great way to celebrate Christmas and what we have. I've been very fortunate in my life to be able to work and to have a comfortable life. So, it's nice when you can give back to other people. I highly recommend the website Charity Navigator, which gives ratings on different charities.

As 2015 comes to an end, what else can we expect from you in the new year?

"Shuffle Along" opens in April. We'll be doing previews for that. I'm doing a bunch of different TV shows. I'm recurring on "Secretary of State." I've also been on a show called "Mr. Robot." It's a very interesting show, and it's been taking some crazy turns. And another show I'm recurring on is a show called "The Path." Then I've got a bunch of albums I've been working on, as well. I have the concert at Carlyle. I have a Christmas album that I want to record. And just this morning I thought of another album I want to do. I've got three albums in the can that need to be put out, as well.

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