When Chautauquans gather tonight in the Amphitheater, ready for an evening of Broadway hits and a superstar headliner, that is exactly what they’ll get.
Just maybe not from the superstar they’re expecting.
In a last-minute, under-the-wire program pivot, Hamilton star Renée Elise Goldsberry had to cancel her Amp performance; in a matter of hours Thursday morning and afternoon, a new headliner was announced: Brian Stokes Mitchell, a Tony Award-winner whose baritone voice has been a staple on the Great White Way for decades. He’ll perform with his longtime collaborator and friend, pianist Tedd Firth at 8:15 p.m. Friday, July 8, in the Amp for a program titled “Songs and Stories.”
When Deborah Sunya Moore, senior vice president and chief programming officer, got the call Thursday morning that Goldsberry had tested positive for COVID-19, she and her team sprung into action.
“When someone cancels — and of course, this has happened before in our programming, and it will happen again, especially in this time of COVID — even on a short timeline like this, the first thing we try to honor is something that’s in the same vein as what everyone was expecting,” she said. “And so for me, the first thing was: ‘Stick with Broadway.’ ”
And since the mid-1990s, Mitchell has been synonymous with Broadway. Nominated for four Tony Awards and earning the win for Best Actor in a Musical for his 2000 role in Kiss Me, Kate, he’s also known for Ragtime, Man of La Mancha, and King Hedley II. Simply put, Moore said, Mitchell is “a Broadway star. People truly think of him as Broadway royalty.”
Honored in 2016 with the Isabelle Stevenson Award for his work chairing The Actors Fund, which supports members of the entertainment community in crisis or transition, he also made headlines at the beginning of the pandemic for similar acts of heart.
“He was the one leaning out of his New York City apartment balcony, singing to the essential workers, honoring them and uplifting them,” Moore said.
Mitchell took to his tiny balcony on Broadway and West 98th Street, night after night in the spring of 2020 — the height of lockdown, isolation and despair — to sing one song: “The Impossible Dream,” from Man of La Mancha, for which he had been nominated for a 2003 Tony.
Mitchell continued the performances of “The Impossible Dream,” a song with fresh relevancy and comfort during the pandemic, until the crowds outside his apartment grew too large to continue.
“Singing both felt like a performance and I didn’t want to do that,” Mitchell was quoted in the outlet Chelsea News in May 2020. “ ‘The Impossible Dream’ is the perfect song for the moment. It gives people hope. It’s also a song about trying — just to hear the lyrics — ‘to fight the unbeatable foe, bear with unbearable sorrow, and to run where the brave dare not go.’ ”
During the pandemic, The Actors Fund was able to provide $4 million in emergency assistance to thousands of artists and actors left jobless when Broadway went dark.
Beyond his work on Broadway, Mitchell has a longlist of acting credits, from “Frasier,” “Trapper John, MD,” “Glee,” “Madam Secretary,” and many more. He’s twice performed at the White House, and has appeared with such acts as the United States Marine Band, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and the Muppets.
“He’s done everything,” Moore said. “I think the minute people see him, see his face and hear his voice, they’ll say, ‘Oh, my gosh. That’s Brian.’ ”
Moore said that the quick shift in programming, coming together in mere hours between Goldsberry’s cancellation and Mitchell’s confirmation, is a testament to both the draw that Chautauqua has for artists, and the way in which performing arts organizations and venues have leaned on each other during the pandemic.
“This community has become so supportive of one another. One of the things that has happened with COVID, in our industry, is that it has felt less and less competitive and more supportive,” Moore said. “We’re a closer-knit community. … That’s one of the things that’s come out of this, in a really positive way.”
And when Chautauquans take their seats, they’ll bear witness to what that community has been able to do, and what actors and artists have been able to accomplish with each other, and for each other.
“This is going to be one of those evenings of intimate sharing of stories and personal experiences on Broadway, with incredible singing,” Moore said. “That makes it one of those evenings Chautauquans will love because it’s not just the talent. It’s not just the Broadway songs. It’s going to Brian, with Tedd, who is one of his best friends, sharing their experiences in that way of storytelling that really resonates with this place.”