In March, Brian Stokes Mitchell was just four days away from performing a concert at New York’s City Center when the pandemic forced theaters to close. All the other jobs that Mitchell, who won a Tony in 2000 for his performance in “Kiss Me Kate,” had lined up for the year also vanished. In April, he battled COVID.
With the discovery of vaccines, Mitchell can begin to imagine when Broadway reopens. “I’m going to be in a seat in one of those theaters for that first show,” he says. “I really look forward to doing that and doing some ugly crying next to the person that I’m sharing the armrest with that I don’t know.”
Until then, Mitchell continues his work as chairman of The Actors Fund, the 138-year-old organization that offers aid for people in the entertainment business facing financial hardship. One of the earliest COVID-related projects he was involved with was helping organize an Actors Fund benefit music video of the cast of “Beautiful — The Carole King Musical” singing “You’ve Got a Friend.” “I was lying in bed deep in COVID. … I had a huge fever,” Mitchell recalls. “But it’s like, ‘What can I do? Even while I’m sick, you can still help people out.’”
While the organization normally distributes about $2 million annually to 1,500 people, those numbers have ballooned to more than $17 million to 15,000 recipients since March. “One of the things that I think is the best way to get through situations like these is to help other people,” says Mitchell, who went viral in April with his nightly performances of “The Impossible Dream” from his New York apartment window to salute health care workers.
Mitchell has been chairman of the fund for 16 years. While nothing could have prepared the organization for the pandemic, he says it should have no problem continuing to offer assistance. The board has been starting meetings by reading letters from individuals the fund has helped. “We have the very good fortune of hearing back from people and connecting with people,” Mitchell says. “We get to hear people say, ‘Thank you.’”
While the fund has received corporate support from Netflix and TikTok, Mitchell says a lot of the smaller donations come from Broadway fans who tune into fundraisers like the “Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical” and Seth Rudetsky and James Wesley’s YouTube series “Stars in the House.” “Remember that a lot of those people that are giving this money are very likely out of work themselves,” Mitchell says. “Yet they still want to give and help others, even if it might be what some would consider a small amount. That adds up. All of the individuals that love and appreciate these performers that are giving $5 here or $1 here or $10 here is what gives me hope. That’s what makes me optimistic.”
As for the success of “Ratatouille”, which was created by TikTok users and raised $1 million, Mitchell says, “A pandemic cannot keep artists down. We’re just going to find different ways of doing things.”
You can hear a selection of the interview with Mitchell on this week’s episode of the Variety and iHeart podcast “The Big Ticket” above. You can also find “The Big Ticket” at iHeartRadio or wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts.