NEW YORK CITY — Last month, Tony Award-winning actor and singer Brian Stokes Mitchell taught a master class at BYU and said great art happens in the spaces between musical notes, actors’ words and painters’ brushstrokes.
On Wednesday, he thanked the Tabernacle Choir on Temple Square for helping him and others try to fill the staggering number of agonizing spaces between jobs for entertainment professionals after Broadway’s 41 stages fell silent during the pandemic. The unemployment rate in the industry soared above 50%, far beyond an already painful national average.
“These spaces have been very, very rough this year and very, very lonely for people,” Mitchell said. “So many people left (the city). A lot of people have gone bankrupt. We’ve lost a lot of people that could not take it.” Some died by suicide or from the coronavirus.
The choir donated $100,000 to the Actors Fund during a luncheon at Feinstein’s/54 Below, an intimate-but-formal Broadway basement supper club owned and designed by Tony-winning producers and designers under the former famous nightclub Studio 54. The event included a panel discussion between Mitchell and choir music director Mack Wilberg.
Mitchell, the chairman of the board of trustees for the Actors Fund, stood on a stage bathed in seasonal green-and-red lighting and sang to choir officials the lyrics, “Grateful, grateful. We are truly blessed and duly grateful.”
The Actors Fund has provided aid ranging from counseling to paying utility bills, health insurance costs and more. It is offering $5,000 grants to encourage theater professionals to return to New York City after curtains began rising again in September.
Typically, the fund provides about $2 million to 1,500 entertainment professionals in need, Mitchell said. This year, the fund has provided $24 million to 17,000 people.
“Most of these people are gig workers,” he said. “They go from job to job to job, and this has been a particularly difficult last 20 months. It’s been particularly difficult in New York because a lot of people’s secondary jobs didn’t exist. When the theater goes down, restaurants and other businesses go down, too.”
The Tabernacle Choir, just like Broadway’s shows, shut down through the first 18 months of the pandemic.
“COVID changed everything in the entertainment business, and it was no different for us,” said Gary Porter, second counselor in the choir presidency and senior vice president of Deseret Management Corp.
“This is a hat tip to all the artists who have come out to Salt Lake City over the last 20 years and done so much for the choir by performing in the Christmas concerts,” he added.
The donation, he said, was a way to thank all the performers who have come to Salt Lake City to perform in the Tabernacle Choir’s annual Christmas concerts.
Mitchell is hosting the choir’s two-hour special “20 Years of Christmas with The Tabernacle Choir,” which premieres Monday at 6 p.m. MST on PBS, PBS.org and the PBS video app. BYUtv will broadcast the special beginning Dec. 16.
The special will include more than 60 songs, carols and stories from over 40 guest artists and narrators who have starred in the Christmas tradition since it began in 2000. (See the list of performers below.)
After the late Walter Cronkite, who narrated the concert in 2002, suggested the choir should “own Christmas,” the choir has teamed with PBS since 2004 to make each year’s live concert the following year’s national concert broadcast.
“The performances featured in this special anniversary program are treasured moments for audiences across America and ratings bear that out,” said John Bredar, vice president for national programming for PBS member station GBH in Boston, Massachusetts. “Last year, viewers continued to view online the choir’s holiday performance long after December.”
In December 2020, the choir canceled its Christmas concert because of health guidelines that sidelined the choir and prohibited mass gatherings. PBS and BYUtv aired the 2019 concert as scheduled. But without a 2020 concert in the can, it was unclear what the stations would broadcast this year.
The solution was a 20th anniversary retrospective.
The two-hour special includes Broadway songs sung in past concerts by Alfie Boe, Angela Lansbury and Kelli O’Hara, as well as performances by other Broadway stars like Kristin Chenoweth and Audra McDonald.
Lansbury’s rendition of “Not While I’m Around” from “Sweeney Todd,” which won the 1979 Tony Award for Best Musical, is especially poignant because the music and lyrics were written by legendary composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, who died Nov. 26.
“The fact there is a Sondheim song in the concert is a very lovely tribute,” said Ruthie Fierberg, an entertainment journalist who moderated Wednesday’s luncheon panel discussion between Mitchell and Wilberg.
The first plays returned to Broadway on Sept. 14 and about 30 shows are open now, but it’s been a roller coaster. Performances of “Chicago” and “Wicked” were canceled over the weekend when cast members or theater staffers tested positive for COVID-19.
The remaining 11 or so theaters are expected to stage shows in the coming weeks and months, including what is being billed as a grand revival of “The Music Man” with Hugh Jackman as Henry Hill and Sutton Foster, another alum of the choir Christmas specials (2017), as the librarian Marian Paroo.
If those openings happen as scheduled, unemployment among performers will ease. During one quarter of 2020, when national unemployment reached 8.5%, it hit 55% for dancers, 52% for actors and 27% for musicians, The New York Times reported. One performers’ representative said the pandemic was creating “a great cultural depression.”
The choir’s $100,000 donation “will go a long way,” Fierberg said. Those funds are above and beyond whatever is being raised this month for the Actors Fund in the Giving Machines operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in New York’s Rockefeller Center, Porter said.
Mitchell helped introduce those machines to New York media at an event last week.
Mitchell was the choir’s guest performer for its 2008 Christmas concert. He also has performed at BYU’s Homecoming Spectacular in 2011 and 2021 and at BYU-Idaho’s 2018 Christmas concert.
Videos of Mitchell singing “The Impossible Dream” to New York’s essential workers from his apartment window during the pandemic went viral.
“Artists are essential workers of another kind,” he said Wednesday. “We get to heal people’s hearts and their souls and their minds and their spirits and lift them when they’re down. Artists got me through this pandemic as well, and that’s why it was so important that we’re able to take care of artists.”
Wednesday’s donation came days after the Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square reached No. 1 on Billboard’s Classical Traditional chart for the 15th time with their newest album, “Christmas Best,” a compilation of music from the past 15 Christmas concerts.
Here is the complete list of guest performers at the Tabernacle Choir’s annual Christmas concerts:
2001 — Angela Lansbury
2002 — Walter Cronkite
2006 — Sissel
2007 — The King’s Singers
2010 — David Archuleta and Michael York
2011 — Nathan Gunn and Jane Seymour
2012 — Alfie Boe and Tom Brokaw
2015 — Laura Osnes, Martin Jarvis, Metropolitan Opera soloists
2016 — Rolando Villazón
2018 — Kristin Chenoweth
2020 — Brian Stokes Mitchell