‘Kiss Me, Kate’ was my ‘Ragtime’ Tony.
‘Ragtime’ is about how we get through ugliness, how we talk together, work together, get through it together.
‘Ragtime’ was the most magical show that I’ve done. I had an incredible experience with that, with the show itself, with the cast, with the audience. The response to that show – my God, it really blew me away, the reactions to that show, the way it changed their lives and altered their thinking, their own self-discovery.
Artists make our lives livable and enjoyable.
Astaire was ballroom, basically, and Gene Kelly had such athleticism – that’s always what I responded to and what just blew my head open when I watched Gene Kelly’s numbers. But, Fred Astaire was just so incredibly inventive and so, so smooth – so smooth.
At our house, we’d always open presents with our Christmas records playing. ‘Little Drummer Boy’ was one of my favorites when I was a kid because it was about a kid.
Cabaret presents different challenges, as it is all on me. I love having the freedom to say anything you want – do anything you want. It is a lot of responsibility, and if it works, you get all the kudos, and if not – all the blame.
Doing eight shows a week is hard.
Each time I have performed in Utah, I had a great time, and the audiences seem to enjoy what I do. The audiences are very warm and very appreciative.
Everybody comes to the planet with certain gifts. It may be writing, it may be acting, it may be singing, it may be being a lawyer, it may be making a beautiful cabinet, it may be being a spectacular dry cleaner. It could be anything. We all have gifts in different areas.
Fear is destructive. Fear and creativity don’t mix. Ultimately, it doesn’t do you any good.
For a while, I couldn’t get arrested in television because everybody thought of me as that guy on ‘Trapper John.’ So I thought, ‘Great, I’ll come out here to New York and do some theater, and when they get tired of me, I’ll do something else.’
Honestly, I hate watching myself on TV – I have always hated watching myself and listening to myself.
I always call myself the luckiest actor in the world because I made a living solely as a performer from the time I left home at 17 years old.
I always like to talk about how important space is. Art is in the spaces. Anybody can sing a note; it takes an artist to sing the spaces. Anybody can paint a brushstroke; it takes an artist to know when not to put the brushstroke.
I always say it takes three weeks to know a character and three months to own it. And I think that’s probably true of every theater artist. If you really want to see a performance of the show, wait three months.
I am always looking for the next show.
I can count on one hand the number of conductors-composers-arrangers that I enjoy working with, and at the top of that list is Mack Wilberg. I feel like I’ve known Mack forever. I’m just nuts for him.
I can’t remember ever not singing.
I didn’t really think I liked jazz all that much until I was about 18. That’s when the freedom and possibilities of it began to seem appealing to me.
I don’t recommend skipping college, but things have worked out for me.
I gravitate to rhythmic music, so I listen to jazz, world music, Indian music, Hawaiian music, all kinds.
I hate those vacuous musicals, the happy-happy, ‘Let’s have a good time’ shows.
I have been fortunate in my career to play a lot of lead roles. The downside to that is I don’t have a life outside of the show. I go on lockdown even with my wife if the show is really difficult and I am having vocal problems.
I kind of feel the career chose me. My motto has always been, ‘Go where I’m wanted.’
I like being different people.
I like to capture the spirit of what the writers intended but find my own nuances. That comes from jazz – the invention and freeness within a structure.
I like to sing the songs people love, like ‘Impossible Dream.’
I love being outside, and I love the fresh air.
I love doing theater. It’s what I grew up in and is my roots. I get a huge fulfillment from it. But if my path is to go someplace else, hey, I’m there.
I love rearranging and reimagining tunes, so I want my audience to enjoy hearing songs in a new way and make their own discoveries.
I love rethinking and reimagining songs.
I love seeing the stars, and I love being around my friends and family.
I love the theater, and I just don’t love television like that.
I started out on the stage, then I had a great career in television for quite a few years. The good news about a TV series is that they give you a certain amount of fame and money. The bad news is that you’re in people’s living rooms every week and get associated with a particular character.
I studied arranging and orchestration a number of years ago, so I have a home studio and arrange about three-fourths of my songs on the computer. Since writing orchestration is tedious, I often put an arrangement on the keyboard and let someone better-qualified finish it.
I studied film scoring and orchestration and conducting and arranging in my twenties, and I scored a lot of television shows and other things.
I think I just had it by osmosis: an appreciation of Duke Ellington before I really even knew who he was.
I think the Oscar is the big money award; that means you’ve made it in a money sense. The Tony has always represented – to me, and most actors that I’ve talked to – an artistic award. It means you’re an artist and not just a popular performer.
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.
I was practically raised with Christmas music.
I was raised on jazz. My father, from the time I was born, used to get up early on Saturdays and Sundays and put on Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Kenny Burrell, Sarah Vaughn, John Coltrane – all these great, classic albums.
I wouldn’t call what I do ‘dance.’
I’d always been a huge fan of Stephen Schwartz.
I’d been playing the piano since I was 6 and wanted to be a composer, but I also wanted to be an actor. I decided to just pursue both and see which won out.
I’m a fan of odd meters. For example, I’ve decided to sing ‘No Business Like Show Business,’ but I’ll be doing it in constantly changing 5/4, 7/4 and 11/4 time signatures. I’ve found a way to make that work.
I’m fortunate that I’ve been able to work on Broadway, but it doesn’t give me an outside life. So I decided to go into the concert world. I do 40 to 50 shows. That takes one to three days a week, and I’m home the rest of the time.
I’m having a ball on ‘Glee.’ It’s a joy to be working there – the whole cast is so talented.
I’m not a pop singer; I’m not a jazz singer. And I know I sing like not a whole lot of people do; I also know that a lot of other people act like I do. And better than I do. But what informs the singing is the acting. They’re not separate from each other.
I’m one of the few lucky actors in the world. I’ve never waited tables. I never pumped gas. I’ve always earned a living. I never had to borrow from my parents. I was the first in our family to own a new car.
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.
I’ve always felt that my career was in wiser hands than mine. Whatever, in its good time, is supposed to happen will happen.
I’ve been really fortunate that my concert career has taken off hugely. I can make a living. I enjoy performing in front of a live audience, and I can do something different every time. Sometimes I’m with a quartet, sometimes I’m solo, sometimes with a symphony, and I get to go to different cities and meet different people.
I’ve sung a whole lot of jazz. It’s my favorite style of music to sing. People don’t realize it, because they’re so accustomed to hearing me sing musical theater.
If anything, when I was young, I wanted to be an orchestra.
If you can make an audience laugh, you can make them love any character.
It’s nearly impossible to make a living in the arts.
Left to my own devices, I would go to bed at 2:30 or 3, but I can’t do that if I’m getting up at 6:50!
Music is liquid. It’s meant to be messed with and played with and stretched and pulled and pushed, I think.
Music, for me, is the most sacred of the arts. I say that because music communicates in a way that no other art form can. All great art has a spirit that we recognize and appreciate, but music goes directly to your heart.
My family’s very, very mixed. I am, I guess, a kind of melting pot in a person.
My father was a huge jazz fan, so I remember him playing Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughn, and Count Basie.
My favorite music is jazz, actually. It’s what I listen to, it’s what I was raised on, and it’s what I prefer to sing.
My job as an entertainer is to give a great show.
My mother was the first African-American policewoman in Seattle – recruited, actually – and she did it for only 2 years, as she did not want to carry a gun. She worked mostly on domestic disturbances. The NAACP wanted her to do it. She did not actually have the temperament to be a cop – she was very sweet. She had a Masters in social work.
Oddly enough, I almost never listen to show tunes. But there are some shows I love, like Adam Guettel’s ‘Floyd Collins.’
On Broadway, you are working with some incredible people, and they have great reasons for doing things the way they do.
One of the best pieces of wisdom I ever got is you work because you work, meaning you work because you’re saying yes to things, and you’re connecting with people.
One of the interesting things an artist does is they keep rediscovering things, whether it’s a jazz piece or a role you’ve done for 3,000 performances or a song you’re singing for the 3,000th time. My job is to find that spark that keeps it fresh and alive.
People comment on the way that I phrase. And in my 20s, I realized, my phrasing is jazz phrasing. I don’t comply strictly with musical theater phrasing. Musical theater tends to be very one and three, and jazz is definitely two and four.
People in the performing arts have a lot of other skills they don’t realize they can utilize, and part of what the Actors Fund program is there to do is wake their head up to realize there are other things they can do.
People who are artists professionally are not artists because they want to be artists; they have to be artists. They’re compelled to get that creativity out and to share that with others.
Performing in the theater is a very ethereal profession because you do it once and it goes out into the ether and it goes into people’s minds and that’s the only place that it ever exists. And it never exists truly; it only exists in the way that people think they remember it. But it’s a really powerful way to tell a story and to pass something on.
Something is guiding my career; I don’t know what it is. When I look back at my career, I call myself the most lucky actor in the world. It is all I have ever done. I do master classes, and I tell people not to use me as an example. I do not know anyone like me – not to brag – it is just very unusual.
Stay as connected as you can. Sometimes that means you’re going to do a job that may not pay you much but may give you a great connection. If the work is not going the way you need it to go, create your own!
That’s the magic of art and the magic of theatre: it has the power to transform an audience, an individual, or en masse, to transform them and give them an epiphanal experience that changes their life, opens their hearts and their minds and the way they think.
That’s what I love about New York. So many people crowded together, pushing against one another. And that’s what I hate about New York. So many people crowded together, pushing against one another.
The Actors Fund is a human services organization, so our focus has been on caring for the entire human as opposed to dealing with the disease.
The first audition I did was for ‘Trapper John, M.D.’ I was surprised to get the part, and then to have it last for seven years was a bonus.
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.
The first time I really had an influence on a show was during ‘Ragtime.’ It’s still the most magical show that I’ve ever done.
The older I get, I realize, ‘Man, I’m a very rare bird,’ and that’s not because of necessarily my talent or ability; it so much depends on luck and just the grace of the universe.
The thing about doing concerts is that it’s doing a live show. It’s on my schedule. It’s songs I want to sing. It’s saying what I want to say. It’s working with the people I want to work with. I don’t have to worry about pleasing other people – I can do what I want, and people come along and go for the ride.
There are some projects where you have to just start doing it, and, after a while, the show starts telling you what it wants to be. You put your spirit in and, after a while, something bigger takes over, and it turns out to be much more fun and creative than what it was at the beginning.
There is a built-in appreciation for music that is so much a part of the LDS culture. Utahns know that music can be divine and can touch a person’s spirit in a unique way.
There’s a lot of risk involved in acting, and you can’t take the same kind of risks when you have a kid to feed.
Through most of my life, music has been like a radio that plays and plays in my head.
To me, a theater is a kind of a sacred space. It needs a kind of ceremony, like what happens when you consecrate a church.
To take the ugly language out of ‘Ragtime’ is to sanitize it, and that does it a great disservice.
Usually, I don’t feel comfortable with a character until I’ve played him before an audience for several performances. It is not until after three months of performing that I learn to discover what I call ‘all the nooks and crannies’ of the person.
Variety is the key to not being bored.
What I love about piano and vocal is it’s incredibly pure, and it gets down to the essence of the song because you’re not distracted by an orchestra. When it’s just a piano and a voice, it’s about the purity of singing the song.
When I moved to Los Angeles, I thought, ‘Whatever hits, I’ll go that direction. If it’s music, fine; if it’s acting, fine.’
When I was 6 years old, I asked my parents for an organ. I don’t have any idea why I wanted an organ.
When I was preparing ‘Kiss Me, Kate,’ I did go to the Museum of Broadcasting and watched an old kinescope of Alfred Drake doing the role on a television special. It was interesting, but I didn’t feel any need to try to copy him.
When you have a community that’s strong in the arts, it brings all sorts of attention and different businesses into the community.
When you’re doing eight shows a week, you don’t have much of a personal life.
Years ago, I couldn’t get arrested in commercials because of my look: ‘Is he Jewish, Hispanic, or African-American?’ I ended up doing voiceover work, which has been great. Honestly, I can’t complain.
You lose more than you win in life, and that’s OK. That’s the nature of life.
You need raw talent to be successful.
Quotes by Brian Stokes Mitchell
Quotes by Brian Stokes Mitchell
‘Kiss Me, Kate’ was my ‘Ragtime’ Tony.