Brian Stokes Mitchell is such a familiar presence at Broadway events from his years of service to the Actors’ Fund, it’s a jolt to realize that this Tony-winning star last acted on Broadway in the 2002 revival of Man of La Mancha. After that show closed, Stokes (as everyone calls him) became a first-time father at age 45, and he’s spent the past seven years as an in-demand concert artist and doting dad to Ellington, his son with actress wife Allyson Tucker. It took the role of Milanese lady-killer Ivan in Lincoln Center Theater’s musical adaptation of Pedro Almodovar's Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown to coax the ever-suave Mitchell into doing eight shows a week again. During a busy week of prep before a pair of Christmas concerts with the New York Pops at Carnegie Hall, Stokes discussed the appeal of playing a charming anti-hero and reflected on a career that has spanned more than 30 years, from his long run on TV’s Trapper John, M.D to Broadway and more.
First things first: It’s so nice to have you back on the musical stage.
Thank you. I had been on a seven-year hiatus from Broadway raising my son and had gone into the concert world, which has been really wonderful and successful for me. But when this show came along, I couldn’t turn it down.
What was the appeal of Women on the Verge?
I had four or five things that I was looking for: I wanted to do an original musical, I wanted to do a role where I wasn’t carrying the entire show, I wanted to work with an A-team of creators and a great cast, and I wanted to do a limited run. With this show, I got all my wishes.
What’s your take on Ivan? Three women on that stage [Sherie Rene Scott, Patti LuPone and de’Adre Aziza] are obsessed with you!
He’s an iconic kind of character, like the lawyer in Chicago, Billy Flynn. He’s the cheating guy. What I love about him is that he doesn’t pretend to be something he’s not. He sings “I love all of the women, yesterday, tomorrow and today.” There’s no artifice about it. The hard part is finding what makes him sympathetic to the audience rather than a turn-off, and the trick is in the comedy. If you can make an audience laugh, you can make them love any character.
Ivan seems so different from you. Is that fun to play?
It is, but I’m embarrassed to say that I’m more of this character than I thought. [Pedro] Almodovar said about this movie, “The world would be a perfect place except for one thing: Men abandon and leave women.” And I thought, “Ah, that’s not true; I’ve been married to my wife for 16 years.” Then I thought of every relationship I had before that and said, “Oh, maybe that was kind of true.” Maybe I’m not as different as I like to think—at least before I got married.
This production has gotten a ton of attention, good and bad. How is the show playing, a month after opening?
It’s much more comfortable now. It takes time to settle in, especially in a show as technically difficult as this one. What I love is that this is audacious, adventurous theater, and you don’t find that very often. [Director] Bart [Sher], the designers, the writers—everyone was trying to do something incredibly wild and wonderful and new, and it’s so exciting being a part of a project like that. This show doesn’t follow any established rules, even in the way the set and the projections work. For people who love the theater, it’s a fun show to experience.
You mentioned taking a hiatus from Broadway to raise your son. It’s rare for a male star to make that kind of career adjustment.
The nice part about it was that I could. I had established myself in the concert field, and then it just took off. Had that not gone well, I would probably have been back doing a show sooner because you’ve got to pay the rent. The roles I had been doing were of a nature and a size that it was difficult to have a life. You’re always thinking, “I can’t have drinks with friends” or “I can’t make funny noises with my son if I’m going to do a show tonight.” This role has worked well for me, other than having to get up at 6:50 in the morning to get my son off to school. 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! [Laughs.]
It sounds like you’re enjoying having a young child now, rather than 20 years ago.
I’m glad I waited because I watched so many of my friends have kids and give up on their dream of becoming performers. 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. I got married late, too, for that matter. I was able to get to the point where I felt established and comfortable enough in my career that I could take time and have a kid without feeling that one thing was compromising the other.
Is your son named for Duke Ellington?
Not really. He didn’t have a name for four days! He was going to be called Kai, which is Hawaiian for “ocean,” but after he was born, we said, “Oh, he’s not a Kai.” I had made a list of names, and when I got to Ellington, I said, “That’s it,” and Allyson agreed. It’s a name that’s jazzy and cool but also classy. It can work in a board room or a jazz band or anything in between. And it fits his personality really well.
Before becoming a Broadway star [in Ragtime and Kiss Me, Kate], you composed music for episodes of your TV show, Trapper John, M.D.. Would you ever want to write a musical?
I have one show that I thought I would love to do, but I’ve worked with so many great composers and orchestrators who do it all the time, I realized it’s much better to leave it to them. I still arrange and orchestrate occasionally—I’ve done a lot of the arrangements for the [holiday] concerts at Carnegie Hall. What’s fun is that I can speak to musicians in terms that most singers probably aren’t able to. I understand the colors of the orchestra and how to make them work.
At this point, have you decided to concentrate more on singing than acting?
My motto has always been “Go where you’re wanted.” 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. That’s why you don’t generally see people after they’ve done a television series; [audiences] think they’re seen everything the actor can do. Sometimes that’s correct. But I had this whole other career and desire to do musical theater, so I went into Broadway, and for the past 15 plus years that’s where I’ve been wanted. And now I’ve moved into the concert world, where I'm wanted. I always try to go to the open door.
Will we see you in another Broadway show after this?
There is one show that I’ve been talking about doing—I don’t want to mention it because things are still in the works, but it would be a revival of a show hasn’t been done on Broadway for a very, very long time. I would like to spend more time doing television and movies, too. I just did a film in Nova Scotia called Jumping the Broom, in which Angela Bassett plays my wife. Really, I call myself the luckiest actor in the world just because I’ve been able to do so many different things for so long, and make a living doing it. It’s like, Wow! I’m having an incredible life.
See Brian Stokes Mitchell in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown at the Belasco Theatre.