How Brian Stokes Mitchell Nearly Starred in the Original Once On This Island on Broadway

Interview   How Brian Stokes Mitchell Nearly Starred in the Original Once On This Island on Broadway
The Tony Award winner tells the story of an audition gone awry.
Dramatists Guild Foundation Gala_2019_HR
Brian Stokes Mitchell and Lynn Ahrens Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Brian Stokes Mitchell and the writing team of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty have been in one another’s orbit ever since Mitchell originated the role of Coalhouse Walker,Jr. in their American opus Ragtime.

But their creative partnership almost started a decade earlier. In 1988, a young Mitchell had just made his Broadway debut in the musical Mail. “It lasted about five minutes, it had a very short run,” Mitchell says now with a laugh. Before he left New York for Los Angeles, his agent called him with an offer to audition for a new musical.

Brian Stokes Mitchell and Audra McDonald in Ragtime.
Brian Stokes Mitchell and Audra McDonald in Ragtime. Catherine Ashmore

“I said, ‘What’s the show?’” Mitchell recalls. “‘It’s called Once On This Island.’” The show was brand new, and Ahrens and Flaherty were unknown; so Mitchell asked for the script and the music. The package script arrived, but Mitchell had trouble following the story without hearing the music, so he popped in the cassette. It was blank.

“I had to catch a plane, and so I said, ‘I’m going to take this as a sign that I’m not supposed to do this show,’” he says.

Mitchell was being called in to play Daniel, a role originated instead by Jerry Dixon, who, of course, made his own indelible imprint on the role.

“Lynn only learned this story maybe a year ago,” says Mitchell. “To this day I think, ‘Oh man!’ Because I love that show and that’s when I first fell in love with them!”

But Mitchell, Ahrens, and Flaherty were destined to work together. He received his first Tony nomination for Ragtime in 1998, which earned the duo a Tony win for Best Original Score.

“They are a huge part of career and my life,” says Mitchell of Ahrens and Flaherty. “I love them so much.”

Listen to an Exclusive Track From Brian Stokes Mitchell’s Upcoming Solo Album Plays With Music

Brian Stokes Mitchell has performed as part of Playbill Travel’s Broadway on the High Seas cruises. Cabins are now on sale for Broadway in the Great Northwest, Playbill Travel’s first domestic cruise featuring Kate Baldwin, Tedd Firth, Christopher Fitzgerald, Aaron Lazar, and Faith Prince (April 26–May 4, 2020), and for Broadway on the Mediterranean (August 31–September 7, 2020), featuring Audra McDonald, Will Swenson, Gavin Creel, Caissie Levy and Lindsay Mendez, and for Broadway on the Nile (December 27, 2020–January 7, 2021), with performers soon to be announced. To book a suite or stateroom, call Playbill Travel at 866-455-6789 or visit

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