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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, May 18, 2012 - Volume 40 Issue 20
Seattle's leading man: An interview with Brian Stokes Mitchell
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Seattle's leading man: An interview with Brian Stokes Mitchell

by Eric Andrews-Katz - SGN A&E Writer

MARVIN HAMLISCH'S AMERICAN SONGBOOK
SEATTLE SYMPHONY
MAY 31 - JUNE 3


Brian Stokes Mitchell is the true definition of a theatrical leading man. Not only is he handsome with a strong stage presence, but his rich baritone voice conjures memories of great male actors of the Great White Way: Alfred Drake, Howard Keel, or Richard Kiley, to name a few. He was seen on Trapper John, M.D. for over seven years and has appeared on Broadway 10 times, earning several award nominations and wins. He's even appeared on Glee as one of Rachel's two Gay dads. Now he's coming to Seattle to perform with the Seattle Symphony under conductor Marvin Hamlisch. SGN caught up with the local boy (Seattle is his hometown) who grew into a talented man with a gregarious spirit.

Eric Andrews-Katz: Who were your earliest influences in becoming a performer?

Brian Stokes Mitchell: I remember being very young, my dad would play jazz albums, and those were my first influences: Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Sarah Vaughan. I'd also have to say my brother John (who passed away a few years ago), who was a talented, interesting Renaissance man. When we were young we were always singing duets, and he taught me how to sing. My brother George was the first in the family to study theater and ended up becoming a costume designer on The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson. My sister was studying voice for a long time also, so my immediate family would have to be it. Also, Mom would commandeer the hi-fi at home and play Harry Belafonte.

Andrews-Katz: Returning to your Seattle roots must bring back memories. What do you look forward to the most?

Stokes: Smelling that thick, green, wonderful, clean, verdant air. That's what!

Andrews-Katz: Earlier in your career you were known as Brian Mitchell, so at what point and why was 'Stokes' officially added?

Stokes: It was added when I did Ragtime. Right before we brought the show [to New York], I knew Ragtime would be a major shift in my career. I had a feeling. At that time people would call me Michael if they couldn't remember my name. Also, when I was doing Jelly's Last Jam there was a guy named Brian Mitchell who was performing across the street. Then there's the Brian Mitchell who's a football player, there are too many in the world. As a performer you want a unique name so there is only one. I analyzed Brian Mitchell and it's not a very good stage name. It's forgettable, neutral, the rhythm is redundant, and doesn't make any kind of statement. Stokes is my given name and it's interesting. I would just as well have everyone call me Stokes - that way there's only one.

Andrews-Katz: You met Allyson Tucker in the 1990 revival of Oh, Kay! and have appeared together in several shows since. Do you find it easier or more challenging having a spouse in the same profession?

Stokes: That's an interesting question. Normally it's more challenging, but not so with her. Also because of where and when we started to get together and got married helps define our relationship. Our personalities and our skill sets are very different. She started out as a dancer and that was her thing mainly, while I'm a singer. I was more established when we got married and so there wasn't that kind of competition. [As a performer] she understands what I'm doing when I can't talk, or when my head is in creating a character, or when I'm working on a song, so it's good then, and helpful. The hardest part is now that we have a son, it's hard for her because she has to sacrifice more than I do to take care of him. I travel so much and unfortunately that means that she can't right now.

Andrews-Katz: You appeared in Kiss of the Spider Woman with Vanessa Williams. How did you come to audition for the leading part of Valentin?

Stokes: They were looking for a replacement for Tony Crivello and people started looking at me. I was this new face on Broadway (doing Jelly's Last Jam) and got some attention. I auditioned in this tiny studio with John Kander (composer) and Hal Prince (director) at the other end. I sang 'The Day After That' and that's a very big song to be singing in such a small room. I was told later that after I left, John immediately called Fred Ebb (lyricist) and said they'd found the guy they were looking for. They knew as soon as I left the room. They told me shortly after.

Andrews-Katz: In Ragtime you were Tony nominated for your role as the antagonist Coalhouse Walker, Jr. The brilliant musical is filled with racial slurs reflecting the time period. Did hearing those words so often ever affect you personally?

Stokes: It was interesting to be part of the creative casting as my wife was in the show as well. We [the cast] had lots of discussions on that. When it was originally written there were many more racial slurs, and a lot of the cast members thought the n-word was being thrown around a little too casually. We had a meeting and vented and discussed it. Lynn Ahrens (lyricist) and Terrence McNally (the play's author) really took what we said to heart and integrated it beautifully into the show. [The language] is a necessary part of the power of that show. The trick is that you have to make it count when you do say those words, so they aren't desensitized when they hit. I've never done a show where an audience reaction was so gigantic.

Andrews-Katz: How would you describe the symbiotic responsibilities between actors and fans?

Stokes: No one has ever asked me that before and that's a far-reaching question. I would have to say it varies with the individual. There are people in the theater and TV who do their work and feel that's as far as it goes. They think, 'My job is not to impress or to interact with fans. I'm an artist, so I don't have any further obligation.' Not all performers want or need fans. However, people who have gained a certain amount of fan adulation think it's important. It's the fans that keep coming to your movies and shows and give you support. Performers know that if [fans] are doing that, they are doing their jobs. For some it's easy to get lost in that fan adulation.

I tend to think that people who are really serious artists and see it as a career tend to be less excited about their fandom. We do it because we love it and are compelled to do it; we want to make some sort of connection to humanity. You need an audience to appreciate your work. On the other hand, if a performer is on TV they go into the living rooms of people everywhere and fans assume they know you. It only takes one or two fans to go over the edge and get to an inappropriate place to make performers shut down. It makes performers wary. Some fans respond graciously and some don't.

Andrews-Katz: What kind of music will your concert with the Seattle Symphony include?

Stokes: This is a concert with Marvin Hamlisch (A Chorus Line) - I'm nuts about him and we work well together. He tends to go for a more musical theater and American type music for concert. We are celebrating the American Songbook and what I want to do is be true to him, but mix it up with my own take on it. I will probably throw in some musical theater and jazz-ish types, not like Coltrane or Davis but something that's accessible. Given my own devices, I like to mix up my show a lot. Give audiences what they are expecting and then slowly make the transition to drive them around the concert corner. That way they are enjoying themselves when you introduce something new.

Andrews-Katz: Regardless of gender, what theater roles would you like to play?

Stokes: Mama Rose! It's one of the great roles of the theater. She's big and brassy. It's [Gypsy] also one of the best scores ever written for the theater. It's one of those shows where you know pretty much every song. It's about as perfect as a show can be constructed and it's brilliant. That character takes such a journey, and then there's the 11 o'clock number ['Rose's Turn'], and I tend to have an affinity for characters who are greatly flawed and have a dark side; all of my [theater] characters are. Mama Rose is another character like that, an iconic character.

Andrews-Katz: If all of your theater characters are flawed, where is the flaw with Don Quixote?

Stokes: Well, he's crazy! (Or is he?) That's the question debated by [Man of La Mancha] fans. The summarization of that show is in the song 'The Impossible Dream.' Originally it was called 'The Quest' and it's about reaching for an impossible goal. Is that crazy? Yeah. But that's what has allowed us to get to the moon, and come up with a cure for polio, and will allow us to find one for AIDS, and any other challenges. His 'nuttiness' is a positive quality; he has vision.

Brian Stokes Mitchell, or Stokes as he prefers, has been performing for over 20 years. His television credits include Frasier, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Roots: The Next Generation, and cartoon voiceovers for Tiny Toon Adventures, A Pup Named Scooby-Doo, and Pinky and the Brain, to name a few. His theater credits include Jelly's Last Jam, Kiss of the Spider Woman, his three Tony Award-nominated performances in Ragtime, King Hedley II, Man of La Mancha, and his award-winning performance in Kiss Me, Kate. His self-titled debut CD presents contemporary songs with a jazz influence. Currently, he's producing a new album covering Broadway standards. The Seattle Symphony will be offering five concerts featuring Stokes and Hamlisch. More information is available at www.seattlesymphony.org.

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