Standing in a massive – and empty – concert hall, Brian Stokes Mitchell (shown here) had a bittersweet feeling.
He’d been there years earlier, when it was packed with sound, spectacle and people. There were 21,000 in front of him then, more than 500 more behind him in the chorus and orchestra.
And now? “The bitter part was that there weren’t any people there,” he said. “But the sweet part was that we were still able to make a show. We were still able to celebrate.”
The result is “20 Years of Christmas With the Tabernacle Choir,” airing twice on PBS (8 p.m. Dec. 13 and 24) and four more times on BYU TV. It offers epic moments in the past and adds a few new ones. We see Mitchell singing alone with a pianist – and, in an amazing number, backed by 300-plus choir members, each recorded separately at home.
“I would have gone crazy putting that together, making it so beautiful and artful,” he said.
Consider it a sign of resilience in the face of COVID – which has been persistent in Mitchell’s life.
Early in 2020, the pandemic had started to grip New York City. Broadway – where Mitchell has done nine musicals and a play, winning a Tony and getting three more nominations – closed March 12. By the end of month, there was a hospital ship in the harbor and refrigerated trucks outside hospitals.
In early April, Mitchell came down with COVID. “I was feeling really awful …. It was the worst anything I’d ever felt.”
His temperature hit 104.8, but he was mostly better after two-and-a-half weeks. It was four months before he felt fully recovered.
Meanwhile, he noticed the noise at 7 p.m. each day — New Yorkers’ way of cheering essential workers. So Mitchell joined the cheers; one night, he also sang “The Impossible Dream.”
The next night, he was back to cheering. “Afterward, someone shouted ‘Sing the song.’” For the next 10 weeks, this was a new tradition: From his 5th-floor window, Mitchell sang of pandemic resilience: “To fight the unbeatable foe/To bear with unbearable sorrow/And to run where the brave dare not go.”
Mitchell did that same song, in an empty theater, for PBS’ 2020 4th-of-July telecast. He did a few shows in social-distanced settings. (“One was in a theater with 650 seats, with 45 people there. It was one of the best audiences I’ve ever had.”) And he flew to Salt Lake City.
The Ta bernacle Choir holds a mega-concert there for three nights each December, then turns it into a PBS/BYU special the next year. But no concert was being held in 2020, so he taped the basics for this year’s special: There are snippets of the past 20 music guests – sometimes in spectacular montages of the same song – and 20 storytellers. And there’s Mitchell in a theater that was bare, except for the crew. “There were maybe 50 people there – not the 21,000 the last time I was there.”
He could unleash the voice that, for a while, TV viewers weren’t aware of.
Jackson had been discovered at 20, while doing a musical, but given drama roles. In 1988, two years after a seven-year run on “Trapper John,” he has his first Broadway musical. A decade later, he filled “Ragtime” with a blistering blend of passion and power.
Now he’s a key Broadway figure, president of the Actors Fund. He’s been in the audience as theater returns and especially recalls the “Lackawanna Blues” opening night: “There was an announcement that we were the first people in those seats in 18 months; the audience broke into applause.”
For a time, at least, the unbeatable foe had been beaten; Broadway was back to its impossible dreams.
– “20 Years of Christmas With the Tabernacle Choir”
– PBS: 8-10 p.m., Dec. 13 and 24.
– BYU TV (all times ET, changing in each time zone): 9 p.m., Dec. 16; 7 p.m., Dec. 19; 10 p.m., Dec. 24; 3:30 p.m., Dec. 25.
– Based at Brigham Young University, BYU TV is available via cable, DirecTV (Channel 374), streaming and online.