Filichia Features: Corey Mitchell, the Tony Teacher

Filichia Features: Corey Mitchell, the Tony Teacher

After Tommy Tune won his first Tony Award, he put it on a table in his home foyer so it’d be the first thing anyone would see while visiting his apartment. He wouldn’t run the risk of your missing it, because he kept an always-lit spotlight focused on it.

Corey Mitchell mostly keeps his Tony Award in his car.

“Well, so many people want to see it: students, teachers, friends and relatives,” says the 2015 Theatre Education Tony Award winner. “So it seems easier to keep it in my car. Oh, occasionally I bring it home, and sometimes it’s in a case at school, but most of the time, it’s in my car in case someone wants to take a look at it.”

Mitchell is the first teacher to ever be given the prize. And thereby hangs a tale for the theater instructor who’s now in his 15th year at the Northwest School of the Arts in Charlotte, North Carolina.

First he started as an English teacher at Emsley A. Laney High School in Wilmington, North Carolina. There he found that two other instructors who had planned to do Damn Yankees had bowed out. He didn’t want the students to lose the opportunity to be in a musical, so he stepped in to direct.

“We didn’t even have an auditorium,” he says, “so I moved us over to the middle school, which did have one. I didn’t know the show at all. However, when I was in high school, I’d been in Sweet Charity, another Bob Fosse show, so I knew his style.”

The show was a success and for of all Mitchell’s troubles, he was fired at the end of the year.

It had nothing to do with the show; Mitchell’s classroom techniques made his department head as mad as a Charlotte Hornet. “I do approach teaching with a certain bombast,” he concedes. “When we read Macbeth, I had the kids do some stick-fighting with mock-ups of swords. There were kids outside my window looking in and getting more and more curious. When we recited The Ancient Mariner, I had them get on top of desks and pretend they were on a ship. All this really helps the kids to get into what they’re reading.”

So Mitchell went to Burgaw, North Carolina and The Pender Learning Center, a school for alternative learners. “No musical had been done there in several years,” he recalls, “so another teacher and I decided to co-direct Once Upon A Mattress. Because the school only had about 100 students in it, we recruited kids from all over the county.”

Mitchell thought the students could profit from seeing the TV version of Once Upon A Mattress that Carol Burnett did in 1964. Most of us would have gone on Craig’s List or found a musical theater enthusiast who has videos and bootlegs of every musical from The Act to The Zulu and the Zayda. Mitchell instead took his kids to New York City to the Paley Center, where well over 100,000 television programs reside – including Once Upon A Mattress. “And because a couple of kids were afraid to fly,” he says, “we all had to take the train.”

Once Mitchell & Company arrived, they had to see a Broadway show, of course. The Lion King was the choice, so Mitchell arranged for Christopher Jackson, then the current Simba, to conduct a backstage tour. Says Miller, “I’ll always remember one girl squeezing my hand and saying, ‘Mr. Miller, I can’t believe I’m actually on a Broadway stage.’”

Mitchell wanted to fit in a trip to B.B. King’s to see Carol Channing’s night club act, but when that became logistically difficult, he passed. Nevertheless, with a lot of local encouragement and support, he was later actually able to get Channing to come and perform in Charlotte.

So this is a man who makes things happen. Since Mitchell has been at Northwest School for the Arts, he’s done approximately 40 musicals there.

“We won nine Blumeys for Shrek,” he says, referring to Charlotte’s local high school theater awards. “Our Fiona won our local contest which entitled her to compete at the Jimmy Awards” – the National High School Theatre Awards held each summer in New York – “but she came down with appendicitis.”

One of Mitchell’s other students certainly attended the awards after winning her local competition: Eva Noblezada who in 2013 did her big song from Mitchell’s production of Footloose as well as a number from Ghost. She finished second, but casting guru Tara Rubin knew that Cameron Mackintosh was readying a new production of Miss Saigon for London and recommended her for the role of Kim. Not only did Noblezada get the part, but she also received reviews that included the adjectives remarkable, sensational, superb, astonishing and flawless.

Mitchell was her theater teacher in the sixth grade, and although he wasn’t when she was in the seventh, he was there for the rest of her high school career which abruptly ended in January, 2014 when she had to fly to London to begin Miss Saigon rehearsals.

“The voice, the presence, the technique, the style, the confidence,” he says, listing her assets. “They were clear to me by the time she was in the eighth grade.”

Now Mitchell tells us to keep an eye out for Abby Corrigan, who played his Peter Pan and will soon be on an Equity tour of a Tony-winning musical. “She’s done everything from commercials to episodes of Homeland, which is filmed near here,” he says.

Not that everything always goes beautifully for Mitchell. When he was doing Aida – “partly because I wanted to stress the beauty of Egyptian culture” – he had to part company with his leading lady two-thirds of the way into rehearsal. “She was skipping school,” he says. “What a shame, for this girl was ah-MAY-zingly talented and could hit high C’s.”

The lad who played the title role in Shrek made a big impression when Mitchell took The Color Purple to the International Thespian Festival in Lincoln, Nebraska in 2013.

“He’s now at The University of North Carolina School of the Arts, which is pretty impressive, given his background; his father has been in prison.”

Less-than-perfect backgrounds are often the case with Mitchell’s students. “I never look at them as simple inner city kids,” he says. “I see them as artists right from the start.”

So in addition to two or three annual musicals, Mitchell gives his students additional opportunities. Over the years, he’s staged more than a dozen revues and cabaret shows – “and eight Broadway Backwards,” he says, in which women sing show songs usually assigned to men and vice versa.

“These revues and cabarets are homages to the time I entertained on cruise ships, right after I was graduated from the University of North Carolina in Wilmington,” he says. “I even do actual jokes that the emcees did on those cruises, and, oh, do they get groans.”

Mitchell also helps the kids choose songs that would suit them. He tells girls to study the vocal stylizations of Carpathia Jenkins, Gretha Boston and Sherie Rene Scott, and urges boys to pay attention to Brian Stokes Mitchell, Billy Porter and Gavin Creel.

Lest someone cite the ignorant canard that “Those who can’t, teach,” Mitchell appeared as Hysterium in Theatre Charlotte’s Funny Thing Happened and received two local awards for his efforts.

As for the Tony Award for Teaching Excellence, Mitchell isn’t above admitting that when Billy Porter announced on the 2014 Tonys that such an award would be given in 2015, he said “I’d like to win that!”

Two organizations – the school’s Musical Theatre Booster Club and GreyHawk Films – recommended Mitchell for the prize. The latter company had made a documentary, Purple Dreams, dealing with Mitchell’s taking The Color Purple to Lincoln.

The Tony committee received another recommendation when Mitchell’s former student James Kennedy lobbied for him. “James was The Little Boy in our Ragtime,” recalls Mitchell, “and even then, he could play the score on the piano. Now he’s a directing intern at Actors Theatre of Louisville.”

But Mitchell was thinking less about the Tonys and more about moving on, finding new challenges and, to be frank, a job that would pay more money. When he heard about teaching opportunities in Dubai, he applied for a position there and was accepted.

“I was just about to sign the contract before the Memorial Day weekend,” he says, “when I was told by our principal to join a conference call on that Tuesday. And that’s when I discovered that I’d be given the Tony. Our principal said ‘Now you can’t leave. You’re even more important to our students.’”

So Mitchell has stayed, and hasn’t regretted not setting out for United Arab Emirates. Since school began in September, he’s staged In The Heights and will soon open The Pirates of Penzance before tackling another revue, cabaret and Broadway Backwards.

And then there’s his classroom work. He’s proud of introducing the students to such shows as Company -- “which they love,” he insists. He also gives “drop-the-needle” tests, in which he plays 15-to-25 second snippets from various songs from H.M.S Pinafore to Hamilton; students must identify the song, the show, the artist and a few other facts, too.

“They study for this as if it were a math test,” he says.

So look for Corey Mitchell to be at Northwest School of the Arts for some time and taking that Tony out of his car for all to see. 

Read more Filiciha Features.

You may e-mail Peter at Check out his weekly column each Monday at, Tuesday at and Friday at His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at