By Scott Dowd
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Louisville Orchestra returns to its home in the newly renovated Whitney Hall this month with its traditional opening night gala concert, Fanfara. Music Director Jorge Mester has invited Principal Pops Conductor Bob Bernhardt to share the Fanfara stage in a show of force to launch the Orchestra’s seventy-fifth season. An audience favorite for three decades, Berhardt has loaded the scales with a stellar Pops Series to mark his own milestone season with the organization. Next month, he and the Louisville Orchestra will be joined by Tony Award-winner Brian Stokes Mitchell – the versatile star of Broadway, television and film – who will sing some of his favorites from the best days of the Great White Way. I caught up with Stokes as he was navigating his rental car through crowded New York City streets. He was heading toward a recording studio in Yonkers where he was putting the finishing touches on his new album, Simply Broadway, which he just released on August 31.
BSM: I’ve been working on this album of classic Broadway tunes. My last solo album was more Broadway classics from my point of view, utilizing influences from many different styles, including jazz and world music. This time I decided to do a classic Broadway-style album with selections from the 1940s to the 1970s. I’m a big baritone singer, and that’s the kind of music I’ve found people like to hear me sing. Composers of that era really wrote for baritones in a way that allows me get under them.
SD: What are some of your favorite songs that you really enjoy singing?
BSM: They are the songs that I and people who appreciate Broadway love – like “Impossible Dream”; “This Nearly Was Mine”; Stephen Sondheim’s “Sorry-Grateful,” which is a song of his I love from the show Company; and another one of his from the early ’80s called “Finishing the Hat.” Camelot has a lot of great possibilities, and I’m doing “How to Handle a Woman.” I have a concert planned at Lincoln Center around this project, and I’ve done it a few times lately in preparation for releasing the album in time for Christmas and the holidays.
SD: Is this concert you’re doing similar to what you will bring to Louisville?
BSM: Louisville is more orchestral, but there will be some crossover. The concert in Louisville is, of course, with a big full orchestra, and that is very different from the album. The album is much more simple and bare bones in its approach, because I really wanted to put the focus on the singer and the song.
SD: You have performed with a number of other major orchestras, including the National Symphony Orchestra with Leonard Slatkin. When did you decide you wanted to sing with orchestras?
BSM: That happened almost nine years ago when my son was born. I decided to take a bit of a sabbatical from Broadway, and the natural thing to do was to go into concerts. I started off small with cabaret. That took off and quickly grew into performances with orchestras.
SD: Is that pretty steady?
BSM: As you well know, orchestras can be up and down with their season and their finances. We were actually first scheduled to do this concert a year ago. I didn’t know if it would happen, and I am ecstatic that the concert has been rescheduled because it means the community is supporting the orchestra and that those musicians are able to make a living. I’m glad to be coming and really happy that things are going better in Louisville.
SD: Have you ever worked with Bob Bernhardt before?
BSM: I sure have. I love Bob.
SD: One of the challenges to putting on a concert like this is the charts – usually the soloist has to provide his or her own.
BSM: A lot of people have written for me over the years. My first solo orchestral concert was at Carnegie Hall. To prepare, I contacted all of my favorite orchestrators – people I had worked with and had come to know during my career. Among them was Jonathan Tunick who is, of course, Stephen Sondheim’s orchestrator; Don Sebesky, one of the greatest orchestrators on the planet who did the orchestrations for Kiss Me, Kate and a lot of other shows and a number of albums; Jorge Calendrelli and Larry Blank, both great orchestrators. I chose people whose music I knew and who think about music in a way that makes sense to me.
SD: You have worked with these people throughout your career, which has been exceptionally broad and successful even in show business terms. That career has even taken you twice to the White House. How was that?
BSM: The first time I performed in the White House was for President Clinton. It was the first time I was ever in the White House. So to be performing for the President of the United States and his wife, who are sitting ten feet from you, looking at you, watching you perform in the East Room filled with politicos from all over the world, who you’ve seen on television day-in and day-out – it was like, “Oh man! This is an incredible life experience!” Overall, it was a good feeling, but also a little frightening.
SD: Was there a difference in the feeling the second time for President Obama?
BSM: They were all very warm and genuine people. I first met President Obama at a fundraiser here in New York. It’s interesting: my wife noted the difference between the two. When Bill Clinton walked into the room, everybody’s head turned because he comes in with this great presence. Obama was just suddenly there talking to everyone. He was already engaged and connected to people, but there was no fanfare. He does it in a very quiet way. It’s similar, I think, to their presidencies and personal manner as well.
SD: It sounds like a humbling experience.
BSM: It was. But when you’re walking all over the White House looking in rooms and places most people don’t get to go, you begin to feel like this special VIP!
SD: Right now you’re working on the new album, Simply Broadway, and doing benefit concerts for the Irish Rep, among others. What’s next for you? Are you going back to Broadway at some point?
BSM: I’m not looking at anything for Broadway right now. I’ve done two episodes of Glee for television as one of the character Rachel’s two dads; Jeff Goldblum is the other father. They have asked us to do more, but I don’t know when those are going to be. I just finished a voice-over for a PBS show on presidents and religion, which is really fascinating. It’s about the separation of church and state, how that came about and why. But concerts are the main thing I’m doing now. I love them because I have nearly complete control to sing what I want, say what I want, go where I want. Sometimes it’s just with a pianist. I work with a jazz quartet a lot, and sometimes it’s with a full symphony orchestra. For me, it doesn’t get better than that and it’s not eight shows a week.
SD: That you love to sing is a given, but do you miss acting when you are away from it for a while?
BSM: Yes and no, because I also act in my concerts. It fills all my needs. I have a connection to a live audience, which is very satisfying to me. My approach to a song is more as an actor than a singer. I look for the acting beats in the song. The songs that tend to appeal to me are the ones with strong emotional arcs. They are like mini-scenes to me, so I feel I’m giving a full-on performance with each one.
SD: You received the Tony Award for Best Actor in 2000 for your portrayal of Fred/Petruchio in Kiss Me, Kate, and you have been nominated for three other Tonys. You were Mr. Watson in the TriStar feature film Jumping the Broom last year. You were a regular on the television series Trapper John, M.D. and now have a recurring role on television’s Glee. You mentioned that you’ve done voice-overs, released solo albums and built a successful concert career. Is there any unexplored direction that interests you?
BSM: You know, I call myself the luckiest actor in the world because I seem to have gotten to do all the things I ever wanted to do and more. I’ve always enjoyed my career, no matter where it’s been. Whether I was working for almost no money in a repertory company, doing television, on Broadway, or now doing concerts – I’ve enjoyed every minute of the journey.
SD: Was it tough for you breaking into the business?
BSM: No. I never had to wait tables or pump gas…I never even borrowed money from my parents. That’s why I’m so lucky as an actor. I’ve been able to make my living doing just that since I was 17 years old. Because I’ve been doing it so long, it has allowed me the opportunity to do a lot of different kinds of things. What I would like to do, actually, is more television.
SD: What is it about that medium that appeals to you?
BSM: It fits my schedule and lets me better manage my personal and family life. I enjoy doing it, and the exposure is great. I love working with the level of talent there, and it flexes a different set of muscles. But if the right Broadway show came along, I would absolutely do it.
SD: What was it like standing on stage accepting the Tony Award?
BSM: That’s a milestone like performing at the White House. Every performer dreams of winning a Tony, or an Oscar, or an Emmy…and to finally have that dream come true is a really neat thing. But it’s only partially about talent. It’s also about timing and getting in the right show. You may give a great performance in a mediocre show, but you won’t get the awards – that happens all the time. I have tried to never live for the awards. When I talk to young people at colleges or universities, I always tell them not to make that their goal. For me, the goal was always to work consistently and to work with great people. The Tony then becomes the icing on the cake. It’s not the award itself – it’s the fact that you got it. What’s more important is that I have “Tony Award-winner” that now goes along with my name as a permanent attachment.
SD: You also hold the title of Chairman of the Board.
BSM: I do chair the board of the Actors Fund, and I am glad for the opportunity to give back. I feel very blessed. So whether it’s kids, the Actors Fund, a charity event like a fundraiser for the Irish Rep, or a retired member of IATSE [the stagehands union] who needs a hand, I’m glad to lend mine. I just think it’s good karma.
SD: The New York Times once called you “the last leading man.” How do you feel about that?
BSM: I’ve always thought of myself as a character actor. People see me as a leading man, but I’m kind of like a character actor in a leading man’s skin. For me, Fred Graham and Petruchio [Kiss Me, Kate] and Coalhouse Walker [Ragtime] are character roles. People think of the “leading man” as the big handsome man who comes on and sings the big-hit song, charms all of the ladies, and leaves. Those are not the most interesting roles for me.
SD: You’re heading up to the recording studio in Yonkers. Everyone has their own style for managing a session. How do you approach it?
BSM: I wear a lot of hats. This is a minimalist album, and I’ve been working with pianist Tedd Firth on it. I wanted to keep the original spirit of these songs but rethink the arrangements. When people listen I don’t want them to think, “Oh, that’s really different.” I want them to feel like it’s an enhanced arrangement or maybe even the original. I’ve played the piano since I was six; I’ve studied orchestration, conducting and film scoring – and even did some film scoring when I was in Los Angeles. Music is constantly playing in my head like a radio station, so I’m always hearing different things and I get different versions of a song as I’m thinking about it. Then I work with Tedd – he has the facility I wish I had. We think about music in similar ways, so I can say, “I want to do something impressionistic here,” or “Let’s do something kind of silly and wacky.” From there, we go back and forth and he’ll usually have better voicing or harmonic ideas. Then I take that back to the studio in my apartment and do the editing with Pro Tools.
SD: You are producing the album as well?
BSM: I am. As I’m editing the tracks, I’m listening to us work through maybe thirty takes of a song and refining it as we go along. That might be something I release for students some day.
SD: Audio engineering isn’t the kind of thing everyone just picks up. How did you get into that?
BSM: My dad was an electronics engineer back in Seattle and built the hi-fi stereos we had in our house. He’s 92 now and still a gigantic fan of jazz. Growing up, we would wake up to these beautifully rendered jazz recordings playing on state-of-the-art equipment. As he replaced it, my brother and I would get the old equipment. So from the age of eight or nine we always had a tape recorder that we could play with. First it was a reel-to-reel, then reel-to-reel with sound-on-sound so you could get the feel of multiple tracks, and then more and more advanced. When I got out on my own, I bought an 8-track recording system, then a 16-track, then a 16-track digital system, and grew along with the industry. Since I am largely self-taught, a professional can do it a lot faster. It’s a lot of fun to do it, but it’s also incredibly tedious.
SD: Speaking of industry changes, the way music is distributed continues to evolve at quantum level. How are you navigating it?
BSM: I’m glad you asked me that, because I am producing this album without the backing of a record company. The huge record companies are dying because they don’t really have anything much to offer an artist anymore. In the old days they would front the cash and handle the distribution to record stores and slip some payola to the right people to get it on the radio. Now most people get their music from the internet. There aren’t even record stores anymore! When I debuted my last album in 2007, we were at the largest record store in New York City – Virgin Records on Times Square. It doesn’t exist now! So I thought, “All I need to do is put out product and let people know where to get it.” If you make it, they will come…and that’s how I’m going to market this album.
SD: I imagine that will be on your web site?
BSM: Yes, at www.BrianStokes.com. I’ll also have information about the album when I come to Louisville in October to sing with Bob and the Louisville Orchestra. It’s going to be an entertaining evening; and anyone who loves classic Broadway fare will, I hope, walk away happy and satisfied.
Brian Stokes Mitchell will sing with the Louisville Orchestra as part of the 2012-13 Pops Series in Whitney Hall on October 13 at 8 p.m. For ticket information, call The Kentucky Center Box Office at 502.584.7777, or go to www.kentuckycenter.org.