Interview: Brian Stokes Mitchell Shares What it Means to Be UNITED IN SONG

"United in Song" premieres Thursday, December 31, 2020 from 8:00-9:30 p.m. ET and again from 9:30-11:00 p.m. ET on PBS.

By: Dec. 30, 2020
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Interview: Brian Stokes Mitchell Shares What it Means to Be UNITED IN SONG

On New Year's Eve, PBS will air the musical special "United in Song: Celebrating the Resilience of America."

Filmed at George Washington's Mount Vernon in front of a small, socially-distanced live audience and under strict COVID-19 mitigation procedures, UNITED IN SONG: CELEBRATING THE RESILIENCE OF AMERICA features performances by: Grammy-nominated mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton; multi-Grammy Award-winning violinist Joshua Bell; world-renowned soprano Renée Fleming; celebrated mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves; multi Grammy- and Tony Award-nominated artist Josh Groban; rising opera star Soloman Howard; recording artist and Broadway star Morgan James; 26-time Grammy and Latin Grammy Award winner Juanes; Grammy Award-winning and world-renowned artist Patti LaBelle; internationally celebrated cellist Yo-Yo Ma; six-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald; two-time Tony Award winner Brian Stokes Mitchell; celebrated actor, playwright and professor Anna Deavere Smith; world-renowned pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet; alongside The American Pops Orchestra, conducted by Maestro Luke Frazier. Performances by the National Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Maestra JoAnn Falletta, were filmed in the Concert Hall of the Kennedy Center and are also part of this special broadcast.

BroadwayWorld had the pleasure of speaking with Broadway's own Brian Stokes Mitchell, who performs "Make Them Hear You" and "Wheels of a Dream" from "Ragtime" as part of the special. He told us about recording in a pandemic, recovering from COVID-19, and his work as chairman of The Actors Fund.

"United in Song" premieres Thursday, December 31, 2020 from 8:00-9:30 p.m. ET and again from 9:30-11:00 p.m. ET on PBS.

Read the whole interview below!

I had the pleasure of watching the special, and I found it so beautiful and inspirational. Was this your first major performance since March?

No, it wasn't, actually. I've done a number of them, actually! It was my maybe fourth live performance. The first one was in Michigan, and that was in a house of 600 people that they had distanced. So there were only, I think, 40 people in the audience.

The second one was in Great Barrington, where they were performing Godspell, and they had moved the show out to the back parking lot. I did the gala there, also. That was for an audience of 50 people. And I've done a number of of performances taped on online as well. But it's the first one that I've done with an orchestra. And it was really, really spectacular to be singing in front of an orchestra with Luke [Frazier] especially.

I love him. He's just such a wonderful conductor and that's such a terrific orchestra. And to be singing it in such a historic place, which was Mount Vernon - where I never have been before - on a perfect night, overlooking the Potomac, with the full moon reflecting off of the water. And all of these incredible artists there! I got to not only be a performer, I got to be an audience member and watch all of them do their thing. Patti LaBelle and Audra [McDonald] and Renee Fleming and Josh Bell, it goes on and on. So it was it was pretty cool.

What was it like to record a major television special in the midst of a global pandemic?

I felt very fortunate, but it's also very bizarre, you know? Because of all the COVID protocols that everybody has to take. You have to wear masks every place. And, you know, you take it off at the very last minute.

Everything is socially distanced, far away from the orchestra. When we were rehearsing, it was the same thing. You know, everybody's far away from each other. They did it very safely. I think they had plexiglas between a number of the musicians and also the background singers, too.

And the fact that it was outside also is a plus, because it just felt like they took really, really good care of protocols there.

The other part of that answer is it's sad and it's joyous to perform in the middle of a global pandemic, obviously so many performers are out of work.

I'm still chairman of The Actors Fund, as you know. And the number of people who have lost jobs and or have been in need has been incredible. Normally, in a year, we have an emergency assistance fund that gives away about 2 million dollars in a year to about fifteen hundred people. Since March, we've given away more than 17 million dollars to more than fifteen thousand people.

So you can really see how much people are hurting. And that's not going to go away any time soon until the vaccine comes back and everybody is feeling confident to be able to sit next to each other in in the theater. And that's all the live venues, including the orchestras and ballets and all of those as well.

But it was also really great to see that even a pandemic can't keep can't keep artists down and art down. It was great to be performing there for that.

I've never heard "Make Them Hear You" without crying. No matter what's going on politically, it resonates. Has the meaning changed for you over the years you've sung it?

Yes. It's what I call the mark of a great song. It's a song that is able to to change over time. Also, "The Impossible Dream" [from Man of La Mancha] is one of those those songs. "Make Them Hear You" certainly is that, because, of course, it's this song Coalhouse sings to his men telling them to pass on my message. His message is to everybody, about what we went through, to make sure that story is told, but it works for everything.

You know, Civil Rights, the memorial, and with the murder of George Floyd and what's been happening with Black Lives Matter. It comes up every day. And you could also take it up with racial justice alongside sexual justice - women's rights - any time somebody needs to be heard.

And I have to say, Lynn Ahrens and Steven Flaherty have been so incredible. I also did a video of that to get out the vote. And Lynn loved the idea and she said, "Yes, please use the the the song," and they let me use the song and that's that's on my website, on my YouTube page.

But they've been really, really great in in making that song useful for other people. And I remember the first time I think we both became aware, Lynn and I, that that's a young, young man. This is a number of years ago. I can't remember the occasion. But it was something else that had happened. And he had decided to use that that song. And he had it as a poster as well that he was holding up and it said, make them hear you. So it's really moving and wonderful that that song has been sung by so many.

I've also heard Aretha Franklin, I think, do a version of it as well. So, it's really great to see that song living on in different ways.

What was it like to return to that gorgeous "Ragtime" duet, "Wheels of a Dream," with Audra McDonald?

Any time I could sing with Audra, it's great. I just love her so much and love singing with her. There's something we've both said before, that there's something magic that happens. We both feel it when we're singing with each other. It's almost like something else - when our two voices come together, it becomes another voice entirely. Or, you know, there's another something that's born.

It almost feels like a child is is born in this song. And we feel something in the in the energy and the frequencies that blend. We don't want to think about it too hard. But definitely we both feel something really magical happen when we get to sing together.

And that certainly happened then. It's just a joy, you know, being able to sing that song with her. Again, we haven't sung on that many occasions. After the show, the very first time that I had sung it was when Broadway was raising money for a little known candidate named Barack Obama for president, who was a guy who was just coming out of the Senate. And then the time the next time after that was one of the last performances at the White House when he was at the end of his second term as president.

And after I got off stage is when I realized, oh, wow, remember the last time we sang this was there? So, you know, we have this connection with Washington, D.C., it seems like. And to be able to sing that at Mount Vernon, which was also actually George Washington's home, but also home to hundreds and hundreds of slaves as well. And to sing that song, and kind of know what we know, and being where we are now in history, and seeing so much of older history repeated in the very not good way. That's really important to sing - both those songs from Ragtime, "Make Them Hear You" and "Wheels of a Dream."

"Wheels of a Dream" is aspirational, and it's like, hey, what can the future be? What is our hope for the future? And I think that's one of the things that we're all thinking as we get into this new year is - we all are writing on our own wheels of a dream, getting through this pandemic and getting through this this terrible political time and getting through all the strife that we have been dealing with in the world with with all of the the different issues.

I loved hearing about you singing to the neighborhood after you recovered from COVID-19. What was it like to bring yourself back to music after an experience like that?

Music was one of the things that healed me, actually, because when I arrived at the very last part, I think I had enough antibodies to fight it off. But the very last part of my illness, I could feel it moving into my lungs. So, one of the ways that I would exercise my lungs was to sing. I would just vocalize, come into my room and sing.

But, every day, I would go out and join all the other New Yorkers at seven o'clock in my window. I would open it up and cheer on all of the the essential health care workers. And one of those days after I had been warming up, I realized, you know what, I this is the first time I think I can actually take a big breath and sing without coughing.

So, I just spontaneously started singing "The Impossible Dream." And it was going to be a one-off! But the next day I came back, and everybody's clapping. And I noticed there were a lot of people kind of facing the window this time. And then as the applause died down, I heard somebody shout out, "Sing the song!" So I sang the song again.

And then it just got bigger and bigger and bigger! It had hundreds of people there, and the news from all over the world started covering it. I never thought, you know, something like that would happen, that it would go viral. But it was great because it was always, for me, a song of gratitude to all of those essential workers.

So it was really great to be able to sing that - but one of the other things that I learned was about one of my neighbors, who I ran into a few weeks or months after that. He stopped me on the street, and he said, "Thank you so much for singing," because I sang for about two months.

He said, "Thank you so much for singing in the street. I would come down every night with my family, my two sons and I, and we would come and watch you. It was the one time of my day that I actually felt joy." And that made me realize - I forget sometimes how important it is to be an artist in times like this, and especially in a time when people aren't able to hear live performers. And here was a live performer, a Broadway performer singing out the window just for those people that happened to be gathered. And it really was a special thing.

I've had a number of other people come up to me since then and kind of express the same thing. So, it kind of reminded me of how essential artists are in our world as well, to connect people, to make people, to connect them to the joy to each other and to make them feel, you know, a little bit more human.

You've been the chairman of the Actors Fund since 2004. What has that role meant to you, and how has COVID impacted your work there?

The Actors Fund has been around for 138 years now. And one of the interesting things that occurred to me during this is the fun in Joe Benincasa, who is the president and CEO of the fund. The incredible staff really came together because nobody's working from the office! Of course, like every place else, people are working from home. And he brought them together so that they could still help people out.

And so many people are in need right now. The performers, actors, musicians - we were the first sector that was hit, that was closed down. I was actually doing a show. I'm kind of the poster boy. In four days, I was going to open a show at City Center, which ended up not happening. I was set to shoot on a movie right after that. And that got canceled.

It got postponed, and I have since actually gone back to shoot that. I was working on a TV show that got postponed at that time, which I still haven't been back to to pick up. And I was doing concerts. I had about six concerts in line for over the next few months, and all of those got canceled. Some of them got moved.

But when I say that, what's important to remember - and this is why the work at The Actors Fund is so important - is because it's not just me. When you see a show like that, there's lighting people, there's sound people, there's stage management, there's company management, there's ticket takers, there are designers, there's lighting people. There are all kinds of people that are involved. If it's a show with an orchestra, of course, it involves all of the orchestra members and all of the people that support the orchestra as well.

And for a television show, it's the same thing. It's not just the people that you see on television. There are hundreds and hundreds of people that work behind the scenes, behind the cameras, working the mics, producers, writers, directors, assistant directors, designers. All of those people have been out of work.

Television has started to come back slowly. So, it's really, really important, the work that the Actors Fund is doing, and what I started saying is those 138 years that the Actors Fund have been around, it kind of felt to me now like, oh, those have been, one hundred and thirty seven of those years was an incredible dress rehearsal for this incredibly awful, terrible time that we've been going through with this pandemic and Broadway being shut down for an unprecedented amount of time. This has never, ever happened before.

And television and film industries as well. We've never, ever seen anything like this. And for the actors, it's fun to be around to still be able to give out money for all of the the unions and organizations. So many people that came forward to give us money to help out extra and, of course, Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. Our sister organization is run by Tom Viola.

You know, everybody's really, really come together and made the miraculous happen. So it continues! And I'm just very, very proud of the work that everybody does in that organization and for that organization. So many people like Seth Rudetsky and James Wesley - they formed the show "Stars in the House," which was to raise money for the Actors Fund. And they've raised well over a half a million dollars now. And so many other people have come out of the woodwork to do things to help The Actors Fund.

And these are people that aren't working, by the way! That aren't themselves doing what they normally would have the opportunity to do. So the goodness of people and the generosity of human beings is inspiring and never ceases to amaze me. And I see that a lot in The Actors Fund.

What do you think it means to be "United in Song"?

There's something about the arts that has a way of bringing people together, and music particularly has a way of uniting people. It sets everybody in the same rhythm, on the same frequency. You're hearing the same kind of thing. You're tapping your foot to the same rhythm as as everybody else.

Music has a way of uniting people even if they don't speak that language. Juanes was one of the performers in the show who sings in Spanish, and the music is what comes through his heart. Even though many people don't understand Spanish, what he's communicating through song still hits you in your heart and hits you and makes you smile or makes you happy.

Music has this incredible way to do that, and especially when you have the good fortune, as I have, to work with master musicians and conductors like in the orchestra like Luke and the other people that are there, it's just really incredible. When you make music together - like I was saying about Audra and I singing - you know, we get to move molecules of sound around the air and and and the molecules of the air around through the sound waves. And it's quite an incredible thing.

And it's great because what we really, really need more than anything right now is to be united. These United States have been very disunited, and have been very divided. And art is one of the things that really brings people together, whether it is music or whether it is a show or play or a picture or a dance, a television show. Look what everybody has been doing! They've been united in front of their television sets, binge watching TV, and sometimes united without even knowing it, listening to music on their on their phones, in their in their Airpods or whatever they might be listening to - streaming music, streaming songs together.

People don't even realize - they're listening to the same songs that somebody halfway across the world might be listening to and they might even have the same response. So it's really a wonderful thing to be an artist at this time and to kind of help help us all. It helps us all get through this this terrible time. So I look forward to 2021, where we can all sit back together and in chairs and share armrests without fear and without masks and we have life as it returns back to normal.

UNITED IN SONG: CELEBRATING THE RESILIENCE OF AMERICA will stream simultaneously with broadcast and be available on all station-branded PBS platforms, including and the PBS Video App, available on iOS, Android, Roku streaming devices, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, Android TV, Samsung Smart TV and Chromecast