Brian Stokes Mitchell on the Art of the Interview, Black Theatre United, and Ragtime in Concert
The Mayor of Broadway discusses his new venture as a talk show host.
Brian Stokes Mitchell has done a lot of interviews in his time as a performer. One opportunity he rarely got to have, though, was to ask the questions himself. That has changed with his becoming host of Crossovers Live!, a monthly streaming talk show where he gets to turn the tables on celeb friends like Bernadette Peters and David Hyde Pierce and do the asking for a change. It's a fun venture for the Tony-winning Mayor of Broadway, one that he's really relishing. Here, he tells us all about it.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Tell me about Crossovers Live!
About two years ago, I was a guest on this show when it was on another network and wasn't live. Leslie Uggams was the host then. I remember saying to the producer, Tom Wiggin, that if Leslie can't do it and they ever needed a guest host to fill in, I'd be happy to. Little did I know that he'd come to me two years later.
So Tom and I got together, with my wife, Allyson Tucker, who's also one of the executive producers, and we put our heads together about what we wanted it to be. I wanted to do a show that…Most talk shows are people talking about their projects. I wanted to let people be a fly on the wall. What do show business people talk about when we have a party at each other's houses, or when we're in our dressing rooms? I basically asked all my friends to join me, and every single person said yes right away.
Whom have you had so far and where are you headed?
We started with Vanessa Williams, who I met doing Kiss of the Spider Woman when she replaced Chita Rivera, and Daniel J. Watts, who plays Ike Turner in the Tina Turner Musical. Vanessa is also one of the founding members of Black Theatre United, so we've been seeing a lot of each other in two dimensions over the last year. We just did one with Marc Shaiman and Megan Hilty. I'd done a lot of benefits with Marc and I've talked to him a little bit here and there, and it was great to sit down with him, because of everybody, he was the one that I actually knew the least. We have Bernadette Peters this month [tonight, September 20].
How does your preparation for this compare with when you're prepping for a concert or a role in a show? Is it a different style of preparation?
It is. We all put our heads together, particularly Tom and I, about what we're going to talk about. Tom will come up with a group of questions that he thinks would be interesting, and I'll sit down and start riffing on questions, things that I'd never had the chance to ask, or about fun stories I know that some of these guests have. And then we get into different aspects of it. You start out with something easy, and then as you go deeper into the show, the questions get deeper. One of the questions I ask is, "Is there something you wish interviewers would ask you?"
I'm also interested in people's process. I don't want to get too weedy, but it's really fascinating for people to hear things like…With Marc Shaiman, how do you write music? How do you score shows? We didn't get into some of those because we talked about so many other things. But the questions are just a guideline. We just start riffing and we'll go off in all these other directions that are more fun.
After all the great work you've been doing over the last year, where does your organization, Black Theatre United, go from here now that theaters are reopening? How do you implement what we've learned over the last year into the future?
We wanted to have this New Deal, which is this document we worked on with all the theater owners and producers and creatives, come out before Broadway opens. Because it can't open the way it closed. There's a lot that needed to change. There are a lot of things we like about Broadway, but, you know, systemic racism is real. It pervades not only governmental issues and city issues, but our workplaces.
But there's a good and bad in everything. The pandemic is no different from that. If it weren't for the pandemic, people would have seen the murder of George Floyd on the news and they'd be shocked, but they'd eventually say, "Oh, that was terrible…We're supposed to see that movie tonight, right?" You have an escape. But we were still in isolation. You couldn't meet your friends, so we were all forced to sit and meditate on this moment that was happening. That opened the door, and the good thing that came from this awful, terrible thing was that it allowed this work that is starting to happen.
What's the status of two projects that were scuttled by the shutdown: the Ragtime Actors Fund concert and Love Life at Encores?
Ragtime has not been forgotten. We've tried to get it going a few times now. The first time, we lost Marin Mazzie, so that made it impossible to do. And then the second time, Covid started. So that's been our main challenge — thinking, "OK, we'll do it six months from now. Nope, can't do that." But it's still in the books. We still absolutely want to do that. We did have our first-ever Ragtime reunion on Stars in the House, which was really great. One of the things I've been really trying to push is a documentary about Ragtime; what the world was like when we opened, what the world was like in Coalhouse's era, where we are now with all of these things. But the reunion show is still going on — we just need to listen to the virus, and when the virus says we can do it, we'll do it.
Love Life, which both Allyson and I were doing at Encores, was days from opening. It was supposed to be Jack Viertel's swan song as artistic director — it was a show that he had always wanted to do and it's never ever been revived. It was first built around a minstrel show, which, you know, doesn't fly anymore, so Vicki Clark, who directed, worked with the estate and got permission to rework it. Because Lear deBessonet came in to run Encores, of course she had her ideas of how she wanted to program her first season, so I think now they're looking to do it next season. But we we're chomping at the bit to get it onstage and do it for an audience.