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June 12, 2017
Interview: Dissecting the Essence of a Song with Brian Stokes Mitchell
Courtesy: Feinstein's/54 Below

Tony winner Brian Stokes Mitchell will be making his solo debut at Feinstein’s/54 Below with a series of concerts from June 13-24. The charismatic leading man will do songs from fan favorites like Ragtime and Man of la Mancha, but like he explained at our sit down interview in the prestigious New York nightclub, he’s looking to take audience members on a journey to somewhere new. After previewing a number from his show, Mitchell explained how he selects the songs for his concerts, the importance of art, and why he thinks of songs as little plays.

You said that you thought of songs as one act plays, so what is the Macbeth of songs for you?

Wow, it would have to be Sondheim I’m sure, and probably something from Sweeney Todd. The interesting thing about music is if you take the time to really learn and understand a song, I think any song can be the Scottish play of songs, because there really is a universe to delve into when you really look at a song. That’s what I try to do in my shows, I want people to rediscover songs and see them in ways perhaps they never knew the song could be about.

Once I know why the song was created then I go deeper Click To Tweet
How often do you go through that process of going “oh wow, this is what this is about” when you sing?

All the time, when I’m learning a new song I have a very detailed system, first I diagram it out, I diagram the rhyme schemes, interior rhymes, I put it on a piece of paper and the scribbles probably make me seem like a crazy person. Then I listen to the music, how it’s composed, what the harmonic structure is, the way it flows up and down. The first thing I need to do when I sing a song is understand why the composer wrote it, why that way, why the lyricist wrote the lyrics that way. Once I know why the song was created then I go deeper, one of the things I like to say is anybody can sing a note, but what you want to do is be the artist who can sing the spaces. Anybody can paint, but it takes a certain kind of artist to paint the space. I try to find the spaces in songs, even in simple songs that makes them into different kinds of experiences.

This sounds very Sunday in the Park.

Sondheim! See? He knows that trick.

When you’re putting together a setlist for a show, do you try to challenge yourself in going beyond your hits? How do you achieve a balance between pleasing your fans and yourself?

Programming a show is really important and really difficult. I have an audience that’s coming with an expectation of what I do, how I do it, and how they wanna hear it, so what I find is really important is to give an audience what they came to hear but also stretch their minds, stretch their expectations of what a song can be. I like to start out doing something more usual and then stretching, for example you just saw me do “There’s No Business Like Show Business” which is a song everybody knows, but then I put it into 7 /8 time and 5/4 time and I did a lot of other unusual things with it. I hope it doesn’t feel too far away from the original but also that it feels fresh. The trick is to make it different like that.

Courtesy: Feinstein's/54 Below

That thing about expanding people’s minds made me think about Shuffle Along. I showed up to see it expecting to see all of the ensemble singing and tap dancing, and left wanting to set the world on fire because the message was so powerful. Is that also the way you approach characters, do you want to open people’s eyes rather than just give them a fun night out?

Yes, absolutely. I have a luxury now that I’ve had a long career where I can do that. When I was starting out, I couldn’t do that, you do any part that’s offered to you. Now I know what I want to do with art, with my life and the things I want to say, so I look for roles and songs that help me to express that. I’m a big proponent of the arts, I do a lot of work helping politicians understand why the arts are so important, the arts can open our minds and our hearts and make us see the world in a way nothing else can. When something terrible happens - a war, a car accident - the only thing that can change your life in a similar way is art, you can leave a show and realize your life has been changed forever, or see a piece in a museum, listen to will change you forever. It changes people in a positive way, it opens them up and makes them more inclusive, rather than exclusive, and man do we need that in the world right now.

Has art has been giving you solace as of late?

Constantly, I love art, I go to a museum and I’ll riff with the pictures in my head, I go to concerts, I just saw Come From Away a really beautiful show about kindness, empathy, humanity, connections and that’s what we need right now. One of the most powerful things about going to that show was sitting in the audience and listening to people laugh and see them respond to what’s going on in the stage. Then you have a show like Dear Evan Hansen which is very different but it shows you an aspect of humanity or life that you may not have understood so well. That’s one of the things I love about Sondheim he does that with characters and themes that you don’t normally explore, you realize you’re not that different from everybody else and they’re not so different to you.

You’re working on television currently, are there any shows you have time to binge?

Oh there’s many shows I intend to binge, but I also have a 13 year old son, I’m still the chairman of the board at the Actors Fund, and Americans for the Arts, I’m also working on an album, I’m doing these shows at Feinstein’s/54 Below, I’m doing other concerts, I’m recurring on two TV shows, Mr. Robot and a pilot, so there’s not a lot of time to binge watch. If somebody asked me what I would like the most to have in life, it’s time. Not even in the year, just give me 29 hours in a day, that would be useful.

For more information on Brian Stokes Mitchell at Feinstein’s/54 Below click here.

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Written by: Jose Solis
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