Jerry Mitchell is a man of many faces — literally. The legendary Broadway choreographer and director has gone through too many costume changes, makeup brushes, and dance belts to count. But that’s what makes him a true theater gypsy.
The choreographer-director took time to chat on our sister site The Advocate's new series Inside with The Advocate from his home in Fire Island, where he discussed Broadway Bares: Zoom In (which streams this Saturday), his career on Broadway, his friendship with Terrence McNally, and the future of theater post-pandemic.
In addition to his nearly 30-year career, Mitchell is a philanthropist and visionary. In 1992, in response to the HIV epidemic that was ravaging New York City at the time, he and six friends created the first Broadway Bares, an annual striptease fundraising event that raises money for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, an organization offering people with chronic health conditions receive food, medication, financial assistance, counseling, housing, and much more.
In its first year, the event raised in $8,000. Fast forward to last year, the event brought in over $2 million. Talk about a smash!
“When I created Bares I had no idea what the response would be,” says Mitchell. “I just knew I had to do something. I was in a show at the time and I was dancing practically naked and I wanted to raise money for Broadway Cares. At that time Broadway Cares and Equity Fights AIDS were two separate organizations. I got some other guys together and we went down to Splash [a popular NYC queer nightclub that has since shut down] and we danced on the bar. We only planned to do one show but there was a line around the block. So we added a second show.”
After the event, Mitchell recalls bringing in a bag of dollar bills to the organization. He later learned they’d raised $8,000.
“Obviously sex sells,” he says. “When you’re doing a fundraising event, they have a tendency to die out after about 10 years even with the best intentions. With Broadway Bares, there was something about the [theater] community coming together in a way they hadn’t been able to. It allowed different members from different casts to work together in a way they don’t get to work together in other events. Plus, they got to do some sexy dancing they don’t get to do in their own Broadway shows. They get to use their body, they get to use their talent to make a difference, which is what I did myself in the very first one. I used what I had to do what I could, and it’s continued to snowball into this event.”
Of course, since news broke that Broadway theaters will be closed until next year, it’s put a lot of talented performers out of work. Mitchell, who in many ways is a mentor to young Broadway talent, has used his platform to help navigate their worries.
“I’m trying to keep them in a positive headspace,” he says. “For myself, a month into this, I said ‘OK this is not going away. What am I going to do with this time?’ I have to look at it as a gift of time that I don’t usually receive and how can I use it? I turned dit into extreme writing time with creators that I’m working on future projects with. I have three new musicals that I’ve been spending time with, a new film that I’ve been spending time with, and that’s really helped a lot.”
He continues, “In our business, we’re used to shows closing and getting another job, but this is much bigger than that. This is a big intermission. This is now turning into a one-year intermission for everyone in our industry and it’s drastic.”
The pandemic has had very obvious parallels with the HIV pandemic. For gay HIV activists like Mitchell, it brought back deep memories.
“In the beginning [of the COVID pandemic] I thought a lot about Broadway Bares and I thought a lot about the friends that I lost,” he says. “One of the first people who passed away from COVID was Terrence McNally. He was not only a great playwright, but he was somebody I knew and considered to be a friend. His husband, Tom, I’d known. I worked with Terrence three or four times. He was one of the first writers — he and Jack O’Brien, the director — who hired me to do The Full Monty, which was really the start of my life as a choreographer on Broadway and gave me that opportunity.”
“I choreographed [McNally’s] plays, Lips Together, Teeth Apart and Corpus Christie,” he continues. “When we lost Terrence, I thought, OK this is serious. I thought about all the people I lost in the early stages of HIV and I wondered how I can get people to understand the parallels and the need to help and raise money because Broadway Cares is providing health care to people who are already affected by HIV and AIDS across the United States. Put on top of that this new pandemic and you’re getting some of the same people coming in for food services and clinics needing medicine, needing doctors, needing rent, and there’s no Broadway shows collecting money.”
One of the main sources of income for Broadway Care/Equity Fights AIDS, besides Bares, is to have theatergoers donate money at the end of every show as they leave the theater. But with theaters being closed, “there’s no way to fill the coffers so that Broadway Cares can give back to these communities,” says Mitchell. “That’s why it was so important in some way to do Broadway Bares this year.”
As an added bones, Broadway Bares will also be launching its annual “Strip-a-Thon,” an online pledge driven by individual dancers to raise money from their own networks and fans — all of which goes back to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.
This year, the Strip-a-Thon will run all the way until Labor Day so all the dancers who usually do their fundraising leading up to Bares will have more time to reach out and ask for donations.
Outside of Bares, Mitchell is staying busy. Once the pandemic is over, Hairspray, a treasured show with iconic choreography by Mitchell, is launching a national tour in America. Not to mention, Broadway’s Pretty Woman will be back on its feet in London, Germany, and also a U.S. tour.
“The one show that is in rehearsal now and will start rehearsals on August 21 in Seoul, South Korea is Kinky Boots,” he says. “It’s the fourth time being performed and it’s already selling out. They got the virus in control very quickly and had great leadership, and now they’re able to go to the theater. Their restaurants are open. Their tourism is up.”
He continues, “We could have taken another path [in the COVID response], and that’s really what is most upsetting to me and angers me the most, and why it’s so important that every one makes sure they vote. If they aren’t going to show up in person, register today and get that mail-in ballot because it has to be in extra early this year. It’s important.”
Watch other episodes of Inside With the Advocate, which features an array of virtual stories with LGBTQ+ artists, trailblazers, and allies including Rosie O'Donnell, Emily Hampshire, Harvey Guillén, Ross Mathews, Kalen Allen, Sherry Cola, Fortune Feimster, Brandy Norwood, Bruce Richman, Tonatiuh, Josh Thomas, Ser Anzoategui, the Indigo Girls, Sara Benincasa, Dustin Lance Black, Alphonso David, Jonica "Jojo" Gibbs, Lena Hall, Mary Lambert, Elijah Mack, Rahne Jones, Thomas Beattie, and Wynonna Earp.