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From 'Glee' To Gettysburg: Brian Stokes Mitchell Speaks For Lincoln

Jul 4, 2012
Originally published on July 4, 2012 4:08 am

Aaron Copland is considered one of America's greatest composers. Among his most famous works is a tribute to an iconic figure in American history. In 1942, Copland wrote A Lincoln Portrait, which features a full orchestra playing while a narrator reads excerpts from Lincoln's speeches and other writings.

There's been a long list of notables who have performed A Lincoln Portrait: Henry Fonda, Katharine Hepburn, Walter Cronkite and Margaret Thatcher, among many others. The latest addition to that illustrious list is Tony Award-winning actor and singer Brian Stokes Mitchell, who has made a new recording of Copland's work for NPR Music with The President's Own, the United States Marine Band.

Stokes, as he likes to be called, is best known for his leading roles on Broadway. He was Don Quixote in Man of La Mancha, the title character in Sweeney Todd and Fred Graham in Kiss Me, Kate. On TV, he's had roles on shows including Glee and Frasier. "I'm kind of a chameleon as a performer, and people have been taking advantage of that," he says.

Stokes says it was difficult to figure out the right tone of voice and delivery he should use to read Lincoln's words. "We know what we want a president to sound like — which is hard to do," he says.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And now we turn to another man known for patriotic music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: Aaron Copland is one of America's greatest composers. And among his most famous works is a tribute to a towering figure in American history.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

In 1942, Copland wrote this piece, "A Lincoln Portrait." A full orchestra plays while a narrator reads excerpts from Lincoln's speeches and other writings.

(SOUNDBITE OF "A LINCOLN PORTRAIT")

HENRY FONDA: Fellow citizens we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this administration will be remembered in spite of ourselves.

MONTAGNE: That's actor Henry Fonda. He's one in a long list of notables who've performed "A Lincoln Portrait."

(SOUNDBITE OF "A LINCOLN PORTRAIT")

KATHERINE HEPBURN: No personal significance or insignificance can spare one or another of us.

WALTER CRONKITE: The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down in honor or dishonor to the latest generation.

MARGARET THATCHER: We, even we here, hold the power and bear the responsibility.

MONTAGNE: That was Katherine Hepburn, Walter Cronkite and Margaret Thatcher. The latest addition to that illustrious list is Tony awarding-winning actor and singer Brian Stokes Mitchell.

(SOUNDBITE OF "A LINCOLN PORTRAIT")

BRIAN STOKES MITCHELL: As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master.

WERTHEIMER: Stokes, as he likes to be called, is best known for his leading roles on Broadway.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "MAN OF LA MANCHA")

MITCHELL: (as Don Quixote) (Singing) It is my quest to follow that star no matter how hopeless, no matter how far.

MONTAGNE: Stokes was Don Quixote in "Man of La Mancha," Sweeney Todd in "Sweeney Todd," Fred Grahm in "Kiss Me Kate." On TV he's had roles on shows including "Glee and "Frazier."

MITCHELL: I'm kind of a chameleon, I guess, as a performer, and people have been taking advantage of that.

WERTHEIMER: Stokes says it was difficult to figure out the right tone of voice and the delivery he should use to read Lincoln's words.

MITCHELL: We know what we want a president to sound like. And particularly we know what we want Lincoln to sound like, whether or not he sounded like that. When I think of Lincoln I think of Gregory Peck, you know, and his Lincoln. The piece has been done a lot of times. So I'm trying to find a new, fresher approach to it, which is hard to do.

(SOUNDBITE OF "A LINCOLN PORTRAIT")

MITCHELL: And that government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the Earth.

MONTAGNE: You can hear the performance of Brian Stokes Mitchell in "A Lincoln Portrait" today on many NPR member stations. You can also hear it at NPRMusic.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WERTHEIMER: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.