A winner of a Tony Award for best leading actor in a Broadway musical is uniquely qualified to talk about what makes singing in a Christmas special at the front of the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square a singular experience.
Brian Stokes Mitchell explained the phenomenon after accepting a $100,000 donation from the choir to the Actors Fund on Wednesday during a luncheon at Feinstein’s/54 Below, a basement supper club in Manhattan’s theater district.
“It’s one of my favorite places to be in the world,” he said. “I wish you could all feel what it feels like to stand on the stage with this incredible group of 360-plus artists. You feel the power of those artists, the voices working as one, coming through you. It really is spectacular, and just to hear that sound, feel that vibration, is magical and it’s transformative, and it’s uplifting and, man, is that what we need.”
Mitchell compared that power to the collaboration between the choir and the Actors Fund, which provides aid to struggling entertainment professionals. He is the chairman of the board and helped introduce the Church’s Giving Machines to the New York media last week at Rockefeller Center. The machines accept donations to the Actors Fund.
“When I think of my experience out there and my experience with the Actors Fund, I think it’s one of the things that we share,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is uplift people and bring them to a higher place to, bring them up when they’re down, to help them out when they need help. It’s one of the things that I think we have in common as an organization and as a choir, and it’s one of the reasons that I feel so at home when I’m out there. I’m just so pleased and so, so honored that you have chosen us.”
The choir chose to make a donation beyond what is raised in the machines this month as a way of thanking the entertainers who have performed in its annual Christmas concerts ahead of the premier of the choir’s two-hour special ”20 Years of Christmas with The Tabernacle Choir,” which premieres Monday at 6 p.m. MT on PBS, PBS.org and the PBS video app and airs Dec. 16 on BYUtv.
“We’ve been really blessed over the years to have so many performers come and participate in the Tabernacle Choir concert. It really comprises a who’s who in the performing arts industry,” said Gary Porter, second counselor in the choir presidency and senior vice president of Deseret Management Corporation.
The special is the choir’s solution to the cancellation of the live 2020 Christmas concert at the Conference Center, which was scheduled to be its 2021 Christmas season broadcast.
Music director Mack Wilberg and other choir officials found the solution in the special.
“We wanted to find a way to keep that Christmas tradition alive, and between Stokes and Mack, they found a way to do just that with this 20-year retrospective,” Porter said.
The special includes 60 songs, caroles and stories performed by more than 40 stars during the choir’s past 20 Christmas concerts.
A struggling industry
The pandemic capsized the Tabernacle Choir’s schedule and shuttered Broadway’s 41 theaters for 18 months. Unemployment among actors, dancers and other theater and entertainment workers reached 50%. Many Broadway performers left New York City, went bankrupt or abandoned their careers for good, Mitchell said.
In the time the Actors Fund typically would spend $2 million to help about 1,500 people, during the pandemic it has given $24 milion to more than 17,000 professionals, Mitchell said, most of whom are gig workers who rely on secondary jobs in Manhattan that also disappeared when theaters closed.
“Thank you on behalf of the Actors Fund, our board, our staff and all the people we have the blessing to be able to help,” Mitchell said to choir officials, his voice breaking. “I can’t tell you how touched I am by what you’ve done for us.”
The Actors Fund is trying to help those who want to return come back as Broadway reopens. About 30 theaters are staging shows again, and the rest are expected to join them by spring, if the pandemic permits.
A long relationship
Porter praised Mitchell’s work on the upcoming broadcast.
“He just did a marvelous, marvelous job narrating this 20-year special,” Porter said.
Wilberg said Mitchell was a natural choice to host and perform in the special.
“A famous conductor told me once,” Wilberg said, “‘I don’t know anyone with more charisma than Brian Stokes Mitchell.’”
Mitchell said he’s cherished his long relationship with the choir, which dates to the mid-2000s. He performed with the choir for its 2008 Christmas special and a 2011 Veteran’s Day celebration. He also has performed at BYU’s Homecoming Spectaculars in 2011 and 2021 and at BYU-Idaho’s Christmas concert in 2018.
“I’ve never worked with a finer conductor, arranger and orchestrator,” Mitchell said. “I feel like Mack got me immediately, and understood what I loved about music, and I think we work from the same place. We kind of feel music.”
Communicating through music
During a discussion with Wilberg during the luncheon, a New York journalist asked Mitchell why performing with the choir was special.
He noted that all the 600 or more performers at a Christmas concert — the choir, the Orchestra and the Bells at Temple Square the dancers and more — are volunteers.
“Everybody is working for the same end. Everybody is working for the same spirit,” he said. “One of the things that I think that I have learned over the years of seeing and performing now is music has this strange way of, to be a little bit metaphysical now, music has a way of kind of opening a portal, it feels like. You can communicate with people in a way that you would never be able to communicate with them if you were just talking to them or you were just lecturing to them. Music opens people up. It opens their minds, their hearts, their spirits.
“Art in general has that that very rare and wonderful ability to do that, and one of the great things about performing with the Tabernacle Choir is there is this mixture of dance, the spoken word, this incredible orchestra that is conducted by Mack and he does a lot of the arrangements and orchestrations and composing as well. And all of these elements together just open this grand portal in your heart. You can’t you can’t help but feel something special. You feel it when you watch the television special, but being there, something else happens.”
Mitchell wasn’t the only Broadway star to thank the choir for its donation. Kristin Chenoweth, who was the choir’s 2018 Christmas guest performer, taped a message to the choir.
“I would personally like to thank the Tabernacle Choir for its generous donation to the Actors Fund,” she said. “We love you, we thank you and God bless you.”