Raising the Stokes
Brian Stokes Mitchell discusses performing with the New York Pops, co-starring in Women on the Verge, and his wishes for the holidays.
THEATERMANIA: There's a huge wealth of Christmas songs. How did you and the Steven Reineke, the Pops' conductor, narrow down the choices for this program?
BRIAN STOKES MITCHELL: We stayed with some of the favorites. I did a concert with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir two years ago that was aired on PBS last year. As a result, I ended up with a lot of charts and a lot of different songs I love, and I'm doing some of those here because I actually haven't had the opportunity to perform them in New York yet.
TM: There's also a Hanukkah medley in the concert. How did that come about?
BSM: One of the reasons that we wanted to do a Hanukkah Medley is because so many of the supporters of the Pops are Jewish. You know, that's part of a tradition that they're part of and they seem to be getting short-changed a little bit. So it seemed the right thing to do for all of us.
TM One of the songs in the program is "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." Do you have an early memory of that song?
BSM: That's always been one of my favorite songs. I actually did a recording of it after my mom passed away -- when I was in my twenties. That Christmas, I found all these old home movies. So as a present for everybody, I had the film edited with all these family Christmases with my mom in them and then I did an arrangement in my home studio of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and added it in. It's actually the same arrangement that I'm doing for this concert, except the difference is this time, I'll be singing it with a huge orchestra. Still, I'll be thinking of my mom when I sing it.
TM: What made you choose "I'll Be Home for Christmas"?
BSM: I've never sung that one actually. It's another song that seemed really appropriate with so many people away on military duty. It just seemed like the perfect way to remember the men and women who are not with their families. I'm sure that everyone in that audience, even if they don't have a family member in the service, they know somebody who is serving overseas. World War II was when the song was originally written for those soldiers.
TM: On Saturday afternoon, you're also doing a special concert version of The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. How excited are you about that?
BSM: Steven Reineke and I were talking about it the other day, and I guess nobody has ever done it before. I thought that would be a piece that was done in concerts at Christmas time all over the country constantly. I get to be the narrator, which is the part everybody knows. We've also got Camp Broadway kids who will be singing, and there's a mime group doing movement. It's going to be really fun for everyone.
TM: I've seen you do everything from singing with a trio in clubs to Broadway orchestras to orchestras like the Pops. What is it like singing in front of the Pops as compared to anything else?
BSM: It's so great. It's very rare to get the opportunity as a singer now, unless you perform with the Pops or one of the other symphony orchestras around the country, to get to be able to ride on that wave of sound and color. And of course, the best musicians are in New York City and to be able to perform with them and this great chorus, the Essential Voices, that we're going to be having on stage with me -- it doesn't get better than that as a musician.
BSM: I would say it's one of the easiest shows I've ever done. One of the reasons I wanted to do this show is because I don't have a big part for once -- I mean, blessedly I've been carrying most of the shows I've done. The good news about that is you get wonderful renown for it, but the bad news is that you don't have a life. I can't yell and scream and go out with friends and go out for drinks after because you're saving your voice. It's why I actually ended up taking the last seven years off. When my son, Elling, was born, I wanted to be able to enjoy him, so I went into the concert world so that I could do that. It takes me away on weekends and not every weekend, but it allows me a lot of time with him. What attracted me about the show is that it wasn't on my shoulders; it's mostly on Sherie Rene Scott's shoulders. And now I can go out to dinners with friends afterwards and yell and scream and laugh with my son and not have to worry about being able to do the show tomorrow.
TM: Does Ellington understand what the show is about and that his daddy is playing a horrible womanizer?
BSM: No, not in those words. That's a little hard to explain to somebody his age so I just say there are lots of people in the show and we have lots of fun. He hasn't seen it yet, but he got to ride in the taxicab that we have in the show, and he took a backstage tour. He's a social kid, so everybody really loves him and he's just fascinated by everything. He loved seeing how everything worked and looking at all the props.
TM: Has being in the show made you want to go to Spain?
BSM: I was actually in Madrid many years ago and I had the best time there. I studied a lot of Spanish when I was young.
TM: Oh, so you can read the Gazpacho recipe that greets the audience on the stage curtain?
BSM: That's actually one of the first things I did. So much Spanish leaves your head when you're not using it every day.
TM: So was growing the mustache your idea?
BSM: It was. I wasn't sure I wanted to do it at first -- I was afraid it would be too stereotypical, too Latin lover -- and then I started growing it in for this photo shoot, and when we looked at it we decided that it was the perfect look for Ivan. So I kept it for that reason. But it's probably coming off the day the curtain comes down.
TM: Is it fun to be a part of Broadway during the holiday season?
BSM: Yeah, because everybody comes to New York during the holidays so it's wonderful to walk up and down Fifth Avenue and see all the decorations there. There's a great spirit everywhere and everybody is happy. The tourists that are here are happy that they are here, and those of us who are in the theater are happy that they're here.
Actually, neither my wife [actress Allyson Tucker] nor I have a lot of wants and needs. I don't like to have too much stuff -- and I have way too much as it is, as most of us do. So when Christmas comes all I want is someone to organize and clean all this stuff out. We end up doing a lot of donations, because that's a favorite thing we like to do. We've been trying to instill that idea in Ellington, as well. We'll often times go to the post office and get letters to Santa Claus and adopt a kid or three and do that. We have different charities that we always give to. One of my favorite gifts is that I ask people to donate to the Actors' Fund or to BC/EFA or to Doctors without Borders. That's usually at the top of my Christmas list.