15 Questions in 15 Minutes with Brian Stokes Mitchell

A two-time Tony Award winner, inductee into the Theatre Hall of Fame, and veteran of ten Broadway shows (including Ragtime, Man of La Mancha, Kiss Me Kate, and Shuffle Along) – and those are but a few of his innumerable honors and credits – renowned stage, screen, and recording star Brian Stokes Mitchell, in addition to being acclaimed for his illustrious career spanning more than 40 years, is also famous for his caring charitable endeavors. During the pandemic shutdown, he serenaded NYC with “The Impossible Dream” from his apartment window every night for weeks to honor our essential workers. Since 2004, he has continuously served as Chairman of the Board of the Entertainment Community Fund (formerly known as the Actors Fund), a national human services organization founded in 1882, to provide support for industry professionals. He is also on the Board and Artist Committee of Americans for the Arts and is a founding member of Black Theatre United.

Brian Stokes Mitchell. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Now adding to all that, Stokes will make his Diamond Series debut at Feinstein’s/54 Below this month with a cabaret concert of standards and showtunes from his celebrated professional journey, accompanied by a trio led by his long-time pianist and collaborator Tedd Firth. Between his powerful baritone vocals, the amiable artist will share personal stories with the audience, and even solicit requests for what favorite songs they’d like to hear him sing.

Along with the first-class concert, a specially designed four-course dinner, a complimentary welcome drink, tax, and gratuity are included in the Diamond Series ticket price (additional alcoholic drinks are extra), and the capacity of the intimate room will be limited to ensure an unforgettable exclusive experience. Following the performance, the audience is welcome to spend the rest of the evening at leisure in the club.

In anticipation of the premiere of his five-night engagement, playing June 20-25, Stokes generously made time in his non-stop schedule to answer our Pop quiz about the show, his background, and his personal tastes.

Brian Stokes Mitchell. Photo courtesy of Feinstein’s/54 Below.
  1. What is it about the Diamond Series?

Stokes: I love the venue, the location, the lighting, the sound, the food, and the audiences. People who come to this venue are very music savvy and have a real appreciation of the art. It’s a real “happy place” for me, and I hope that rubs off on the audience as well when I perform.

  1. What do you enjoy most about performing at Feinstein’s/54 Below?

Whether I’m at the Hollywood Bowl or a small venue I want folks to feel like I’m performing in my living room just for them. 54 Below is really intimate and up close, so it’s easy to do that there!

  1. Do you have a favorite dish or drink on the menu there?

Scallop ceviche, crab and shrimp cocktail, ricotta and English pea risotto, mango-coconut cake. OK, that was more than one dish, but it’s hard to pick since everything is so good. They also have a great post-show margarita.

  1. Will your concert feature a specific theme or a mix of genres?

This show is going to be fun because it’s largely going to be a “wild card” show, where each night I’ll let the audience tell me what they want to hear me sing. Every show will be different and personalized for that particular audience. I’ll also throw in some of my personal favorites where I can, so that’s the show on one level. On another level, my aim is for the audience to feel recharged, invigorated, empowered, and LEVITATED when they leave the venue! Ultimately, it’s about reconnecting to our joy space because we’ve ALL been through it over the last few years, haven’t we?

Brian Stokes Mitchell. Photo courtesy of Feinstein’s/54 Below.
  1. Which number are you most looking forward to sharing with the audience?

If there’s room with all the requests, I may throw in Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” as a duet with the amazing Tedd Firth on the piano. It’s a challenging song that I’ve always wanted to do and recently I think I found the “in” for the song for me.   

  1. What three emotions do you feel when you’re on stage?

Gratitude, gratitude, gratitude. I’m not sure that’s an emotion but I’m finding myself experiencing gratitude more and more.

  1. What three things do you always have in your dressing room?

I’m not superstitious so there is not much outside of the practical – like my show clothes, shoes, maybe salt water or lemon and honey water. Lots of water. Singers drink a lot of water.

  1. What’s been the greatest honor in your career to date?

There have been so many – I recently received my second Honorary Doctorate, this one from the Boston Conservatory at Berklee. Last year I got the Key to the City of New York. I’ve received the Actors Fund Medal of Honor and the Isabelle Stevens Special Tony Award for my work with the Actors Fund, which was just renamed the Entertainment Community Fund for our 140th anniversary. I’ve won the Tony and every theatrical award that NY can confer with some extras thrown in, to boot. If I had to pick one, I might have to say the first NY award that I received after my Broadway debut in a show called Mail, which unfortunately ran for only two months. That was the Theatre World Award. It was and still is a rather small “niche” ceremony and many outside of the Broadway community are not familiar with it. It’s that purity that I find most appealing.

Brian Stokes Mitchell. Photo courtesy of the Entertainment Community Fund.
  1. What three words would you use to describe yourself?

Curious, playful, grateful.

10. What’s the best reaction you’ve ever gotten from a fan?

When I was singing “The Impossible Dream” out my window during COVID in the Spring of 2020, a neighbor from across the street who I never met stopped me to say “Thank you. Hearing you sing out your window every night is the one time in my day I feel joy.” I was singing as an act of gratitude for the essential workers, but his comment reminded me that that was not the only reason people gathered under my window every night. We were all especially searching for a special connection then – and still.

  1. Are you more like Fred Graham from Kiss Me, Kate, Coalhouse Walker in Ragtime, or Don Quixote in Man of La Mancha in real life? 

Don Quixote. 

  1. What came first for you, singing or acting? 

Singing, by a longshot. I remember singing with my older brother John when I was only three or four – he taught me harmony – and he was only six or seven at that time! He was a remarkable person and a huge influence on my life. I didn’t start studying acting until the ripe old age of fourteen. 

  1. What’s your first creative memory? 

I have had many but perhaps the deepest and most lasting was when I was six and I got a fan organ as a gift from my parents while we were living in Guam. I sat down at that instrument for hours on end transfixed by the way that pressing certain note combinations made me feel. I also realized very quickly that that I could listen to songs from the radio or TV and, with only two or three listenings, later pick them out of my memory and sit down and play them – complete with chords and all – and that was before I even knew what chords were. I have a lot of creative epiphany memories. Like the moment I realized that an orchestra was not a sound in itself, but a combination of many simpler sounds – a sonic “recipe.” And I could quickly recognize the ingredients’ names as I listened – bassoon, French horn, viola, harp, celesta, alto flute . . . I guess my brain is wired for sound.

Brian Stokes Mitchell. Photo courtesy of Feinstein’s/54 Below.
  1. What do you do for fun when you’re not working? 

Well, my work is fun for me. But I spend a lot of my free time in nature – in NYC that means getting away to Riverside and Central Parks. I think I know nearly every square inch of each. I also do tai chi and breathing meditations – I am a great proponent of Wim Hof’s method.  

  1. What’s the best thing about being famous?

You get to pay it forward and people usually pay attention to you, to teach those coming behind you to do the same.

My sincere thanks, Stokes, for sharing a fabulous fifteen minutes with us to take our Pop quiz and to give our readers a preview of your highly anticipated Diamond Series concert. I can’t wait to be there!

Brian Stokes Mitchell: Songs and Stories plays Monday, June 20-Saturday, June 25, 2022, at 8:30 pm (doors open at 6 pm), at Feinstein’s/54 Below, 254 West 54th Street, cellar, NYC. For tickets (priced at $300-475), call (646) 707-2990, or go online.


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