Brian Stokes Mitchell, the Tony Award-winning actor-singer best known for his powerful performances in Ragtime, Man of La Mancha and Kiss Me, Kate, began contemplating a solo album nearly a decade ago. That idea, which has just reached fruition via "Brian Stokes Mitchell" - the premiere release on the newly launched Playbill Records label - was delayed, laughs the charming Mitchell, "by the good fortune of working. It was interrupted by three Broadway shows, two Encores! presentations and a whole bunch of concerts. Basically I had to put it on the back shelf while I was doing other shows because there was never the time or the voice to finish it."
That voice - a lush, malleable, vibrato-filled instrument that The New York Times says "rumbles out of him like thunder underlined by drumrolls" - can be heard with its many distinct vocal colors on the new self-titled CD, which thrillingly blends the sounds of musical theatre and jazz, the two worlds that have had the most impact on Mitchell.
"My father," Mitchell explains, "was a huge jazz buff. I was raised on Billy Eckstine and Sarah Vaughan and Count Basie and Duke Ellington. My mother loved Harry Belafonte. My brother George introduced the family or the stereo to musical theatre, and then my sister started studying classical voice when she was in her teens."
For his debut solo recording, Mitchell says, he chose songs that reflect "my life and who I am - not only my musical journey but my journey through life, while also still giving [my] musical theatre [fans] what they were hoping for but being true to the sounds that I hear and my musical influences. What I ended up doing was taking mostly theatre songs and giving them arrangements that weren't Broadway-style arrangements but were my unique way of arranging music." Mitchell not only arranged most of the disc's 12 songs, he also produced the recording and orchestrated half of its tracks. Among those tracks are tunes by Cy Coleman, Jule Styne, George Gershwin, Adam Guettel and John Bucchino as well as a healthy dose of Stephen Sondheim, which, Mitchell says, was not a conscious choice. "It's just that I love so many of his songs. Sondheim resonates deeply with people who really like to sing good theatre music because his music is so deep. It's deep on a musical level, it's deep on a lyrical level, it's deep on a philosophical level."
When asked if he has a favorite track on his new recording, Mitchell says it's difficult to choose one because "each tune becomes representative of a place in my life and a part of my journey. It's like picking a favorite child. It's impossible to do - they all have a resonance and a value." As for the decision to call the disc "Brian Stokes Mitchell", the acclaimed vocalist says, "I went through about ten different titles in the course of doing the album. I could never find one that best expressed what the album was. But then it occurred to me that the album is kind of a sonic portrait of me, so," he says with a laugh, "the best title for it was my name."
Philip Birsh, the president and publisher of Playbill Magazine, says Mitchell was a natural choice for the very first recording on the Playbill Records label. Birsh, who is also president of Playbill Records, says, "We wanted to launch with Broadway's most famous leading man. Stokes is a multifaceted performer - truly a popular and wonderfully entertaining, talented man. We are really proud to be associated with such a great friend of Playbill and such a great talent."
Birsh had been toying with the idea of a record label for several years but says the idea jelled when Sony and BMG merged their tremendous libraries of Broadway musicals. "That event encouraged us to take a very strong look at how our audience and their resources would work really well together."
Birsh, along with Playbill Records executive producer Richard Jay-Alexander, plans to offer three different categories of recordings on the new label. "First," he says, "is original music like the Stokes CD. The second will be the creation of great compilations, which will go under the heading of Playbill Editors' Choice. Our goal is to have more than a dozen compilations that create a core collection for people who love Broadway music.
"Though we'll be working with Sony/BMG for the compilations," Birsh adds, "we will be using music from all labels. We really want to have as comprehensive compilations as possible." The third part of the joint venture between Playbill and Sony/BMG "is the re-releasing of remixed and remastered Broadway recordings that haven't been out in a while that we feel the public would want to have and enjoy greatly."
Birsh, however, is currently focusing his attention on "Brian Stokes Mitchell", which will hit stores June 6. "We really are looking forward to rolling it out and telling the world about this great new CD," he says. "We'll be using Playbill's marketing power, with its circulation of almost four million copies per month, and the Playbill.com website, which gets eight million page views per month. The CD will be available everywhere - in stores, on Playbill.com, on iTunes. Sony will be manufacturing and distributing it throughout the country and the world." *
Visit www.playbillrecords.com for more information.