NEW YORK CITY — Utah and Brian Stokes Mitchell are, in his own words, “a match made in heaven.”
When the Broadway superstar and concert soloist steps on stage for the Oct. 6 and 7 BYU Spectacular homecoming event, it will be Mitchell’s fifth performance in the state, following three guest artist invitations from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and a previous BYU de Jong solo concert.
“Each time I have performed in Utah, I had a great time and the audiences seem to enjoy what I do,” Mitchell said in a Deseret News interview from his Manhattan home. “The audiences are very warm and very appreciative. 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.”
Following his BYU concert last May, BYU vocal-performance students had the unparalleled opportunity to attend an intimate master class taught by Mitchell. “And we just fell in love with him, as a performer and a gentleman,” said Janielle Christensen, artistic director for Spectacular. “He is a great talent and shares so many of our same values as far as the performing arts and how they can enrich and enlighten us to become better individuals.
“He does so much more than sing a song. Mr. Mitchell makes the song live and makes you feel better. He has an intense vision that he brings to performing that involves light and truth and his own joie de vivre.”
His joy-enfused performing is a unique trait that has been heralded as “happiness bursting out of him that is as natural as breathing” by the New York Times’ Stephen Holden. The reviewer has also called Mitchell “a singer who dares you to be happier than you ever dreamed.”
Utah concert audiences were first introduced to Mitchell’s powerhouse baritone at the 2008 O.C. Tanner Gift of Music American Songbook concert that featured Mitchell performing with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the Utah Symphony. Not only did concertgoers respond enthusiastically to his joyful, commanding performance, but a warm friendship developed between Mitchell and the choir’s musical director, Mack Wilberg.
“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,” Mitchell said. “I feel like I’ve known Mack forever. I’m just nuts for him.”
Wilberg speaks just as enthusiastically about Mitchell and his contributions to the choir’s excellence. "Brian Stokes Mitchell is one of those rare complete performers," Wilberg said. "He can do it all: sing, play, compose and arrange. And he does it all with such great charisma and aplomb. He is a true friend of the choir.”
The Tony Award-honored Mitchell was raised in a musical household and said his family recognized the majesty of Mormon Tabernacle Choir music.
“When I was asked to perform with the choir, I was, of course, very excited but also slightly intimidated. The choir is a wonderful American institution and widely known for its musical gifts. But after I started working with Mack and the choir, I realized, Wow. You can’t work with better people.
“And the Conference Center is an amazing performance space. Even though it’s a 21,000-seat hall, it has a very intimate feel.”
His most recent choir performance was at July’s Pioneer Day commemoration concert with soloist Linda Eder, the first time the event had featured guest artists.
Mitchell’s “Ring, Christmas Bells” performance with the choir at the 2008 Christmas concert was the first DVD release of the annual event — and both the CD and DVD are strong sellers and critically acclaimed, both within and outside the LDS recording community.
One of the songs, “Through Heaven’s Eyes,” a Stephen Schwartz composition that Mitchell introduced in the animated hit “Prince of Egypt,” is “consistently in the top-five downloads of all of the choir’s recordings every reporting period,” according to the choir’s general manager, Scott Barrick.
The number of Mitchell’s choir performances is unprecedented. “We wouldn’t have someone back three times unless he is wildly popular,” Barrick said.
While it was not on the evening’s song list, at the personal request of the president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Mitchell performed “Impossible Dream,” which President Thomas S. Monson has said is among his favorite songs, at the Christmas performance he attended. Mitchell received one of his four Tony nominations for his role in the 2002 Broadway revival of “Man of La Mancha.”
“The song ‘Impossible Dream’ is very powerful,” Mitchell explained. “It was such a joy to sing it for President Monson. He responds to ‘Impossible Dream’ the same way that everyone does. You can’t help but be affected by its strength.”
Mitchell sees the great power that is transferred through song.
“Music for me is the most sacred of the arts,” Mitchell said. “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.
“When I perform, I try to tap into that part of me and try to touch people in a metaphysical way that I don’t fully understand,” he said. “It’s wonderful space, but also a terrifying space and a joyous and happy space.”
At the BYU event, Mitchell will perform both solo and with the university’s student performing groups. The Spectacular artistic director explained she was astonished to find Mitchell so willing to perform songs for the two-night event outside his usual concert repertoire.
“His concern for his BYU performance was not personal but he wanted to know how he could help to make the show the best it could possibly be,” Christensen said. “We feel that it was a magical moment that we were able to make this performance happen.”
Among other songs, Mitchell will sing “They Call the Wind Maria,” in a “Paint Your Wagon” segment with Men’s Chorus and the Philharmonic Orchestra, and “Stand By Me” in the Young Ambassadors’ trio of numbers dedicated to families. Additionally Mitchell will perform “Make Them Hear You,” a song he premiered in the hit 1998 Broadway show, “Ragtime.” In the show’s finale, he will sing “Impossible Dream” with the Men’s Chorus and Philharmonic Orchestra.
If you go:
What: BYU Spectacular Homecoming Concert
Where: Marriott Center
When: Oct. 6-7
"Through Heaven's Eyes"
Brian Stokes Mitchell performance with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir's 2008 Ring, Christmas Bells Christmas concert.
Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company