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Saturday, February 5, 2011

Deeper Dish with Karen Mason


Karen Mason has such a marvelous laugh - and I could easily listen to her share stories about her fascinating career forever. I was fortunate enough to recently have a phone conversation with the lovely singer and actress, in which she discussed her upcoming Chicago cabaret show, Setting New Standards, as well as the brand new Broadway musical, Wonderland, that she will be appearing in this spring.

But before we get to the interview, here are a few highlights of Ms. Mason's life upon the wicked stage:

She is a ten-time MAC (Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs) Award winner and has won the MAC Award for Major Female Vocalist of the Year for six consecutive years.

Her Broadway debut was in the 1982 musical, Play Me a Country Song. She has also appeared in Jerome Robbins' Broadway, Carnival, Sunset Boulevard (as Glenn Close's standby for the role of Norma Desmond), Mamma Mia! and Hairspray. Karen received Drama Desk nominations as Outstanding Featured Actress in a Musical for both Carnival and Mamma Mia!, and she won an Outer Critics Circle Award for her performance in the 1991 musical revue, And the World Goes 'Round: The Songs of Kander & Ebb.

She has released six critically acclaimed CDs, including Right Here/Right Now (which received a 2009 MAC Award for Album of the Year), Sweetest of Nights, When The Sun Comes Out (for which she won the 2002 MAC Award for Major Female Recording of the Year), Better Days, Not So Simply Broadway, and Christmas! Christmas! Christmas!

The talented lady has performed all over the world and in such renowned venues as Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center. And now she is returning to Chicago to sing in a much more intimate space at Davenport's Piano Bar & Cabaret for six performances, beginning this Wednesday, February 9. She will then be back on Broadway next month as the Queen of Hearts in Wonderland, a contemporary version of Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass with music by Frank Wildhorn (Jekyll & Hyde). I am so thrilled to have the fabulous Karen Mason here on the Dish to discuss her career and answer a few pop culture questions.


Let’s begin with Setting New Standards. What was your inspiration for creating the show?
Barry Kleinbort and I were just talking and I said, "You know I would like to do a couple of original songs." I wanted to do his song called "Time", which was from a show that was produced at Northwestern as part of a new works program a few years back. It is one of my favorite songs.  I wanted to do some new music, but also to cover some older stuff we haven't done. And just try to put the spin of a woman who's where I am in my life. So that was kind of the inspiration - just a little bit of everything but certainly wanting to do this song, "Time", was the trigger.

Can you share another song or two that you will be singing in the show?
I've always been lucky enough to work with great people who like the idea of taking a very well-known song and making it fit me as opposed to trying to make me fit the song. It's always a very delicate dance I think between that. You don't want to change the intention of the song, but you certainly want to make it seem as if it's coming from your mouth and from your heart. And there is an arrangement of "Chicago" that was done for me many, many, MANY years ago by Brian Lasser.  Both of us were living in Chicago at the time and having trouble finding dates so Brian decided that he would put a little map within the song itself going from downtown Chicago to both our homes in the city.  It was just kind of a fun thing that we thought would kind of boost our dating life. And my musical director, Christopher Denny, thought that would be a really fantastic thing to do for Valentine's Day. It's also an arrangement that I really love - an old standard that Brian set in a new way.

How did you get cast as the Queen of Hearts in Wonderland?
Like every other actor who walks the face of the earth, I auditioned. It was about two-and-a-half years ago - I had just finished Hairspray and I was doing a lot of concerts and cruises. And my husband and I were about to go on this working cruise from Istanbul to Barcelona.  Now the breakdown for the audition said "R&B singer Margaret Dumont-type" - and I thought, "I'm not quite sure where I fit in there, but I've always wanted to work with Frank." I'd also heard great things about the show, so I went in and auditioned for the Queen of Hearts, who at one point was a black woman and then she was a white, younger woman.  The character still seemed to be kind of all over the place - and I thought I had as good a shot as anyone. So I went in and sang "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" because I thought that was sassy and sexy - and sometimes you just know when the audition goes well. They may not use you but you just feel that you did the best you could.  I thought I really nailed it. And as I'm leaving, I said to the casting director, "I know this is really presumptuous, but just in case you're thinking of calling me back, I'm leaving today at 4:30 to fly to Frankfurt and then to Istanbul. I know that sounds like a really cheesy excuse but it's true." Then I got an email about a week later from my agent saying they made the offer. And it's been an interesting journey. I've fallen so in love with everybody who's involved with the show.

What else can you tell us about Wonderland and the Queen of Hearts?
My character is probably not the Queen of Hearts that most people expect. Frank actually rewrote a song that he had written called "Off With Their Heads". It was a real R&B song, and I'm not really an R&B singer. So when they hired me, a good friend of his - who was a fan of mine - said, "Oh, you have to listen to And the World Goes 'Round." She was so excited that we were going to be working together. So Frank listened to it and wrote for me a very Kander & Ebb theatrical song, "Off With Their Heads". And this new version totally suits me. It's a big belting number - very personality-driven and I get a lot of great notes - and great costumes by Susan Hilferty, who won a Tony for Wicked.  The Queen is just very lovable and ditzy and grounded in her own crazy, out-there way. She's just kind of full of fun. And it's been nice to be able to create a new character.  That's the interesting thing about this show. It's not that we're doing Alice in Wonderland. Instead we're utilizing the characters of Wonderland to tell a different and more modern story. We're all part of a dream so it can be absolutely anything. I don't have to be the hateful Queen. I can be the Queen who everybody's supposedly afraid of - but "Off With Their Heads" is basically just part of her vocabulary. It's a great show. It's got heart and humor and amazing performances, and it appeals to a lot of different age groups - to both the young and the older people who have to sit through it with their daughters and sons. It makes people laugh - and it makes people cry at the end.



Has Wonderland changed much during its pre-Broadway engagements in Tampa, Florida, and Houston, Texas?
Oh yeah, quite a lot. They're still making a few changes. Even throughout the year, we would all be brought in to do table readings, so that they could hear how the changes worked. It's a big endeavor. One thing impacts upon the next upon the next upon the next and sometimes you don't really hear those changes and those impacts until you actually hear the actors saying them.



Did you always want to be a singer and actress?
Yes, that was what I always wanted to do. Whether I had the guts to do it was always the question.

Do you remember your very first cabaret performance?
Yes, my first cabaret performance by myself as a solo performer was New Year's Eve 1976. We were performing at a place that no longer exists in Chicago called The Other Side. They had hired Brian to play piano and he said, "Would you mind if I brought a singer?" And they said, "Mind? As long as we don't have to pay her." That was my first job. We did a lot of very depressing songs 'cause that's what we really loved doing. I would say probably most cabaret singers really do love singing sad songs.  I would bet that most of them have great memories of those moments when they were growing up and they would have the most depressing song on and they would just get lost in them. And that's kind of what we did. Brian and I both really loved over-the-top dramatic songs and depressing songs - a lot of ballads.  Not necessarily a great way to greet the new year, but we were having a great time. And The Other Side had really great beef sandwiches - they were fantastic!



Now let’s discuss a few of your other film and stage performances over the years. What’s the first thing that pops into your mind about:

Play Me a Country Song?
Closing opening night. We had two weeks of previews - and it was not anything what I thought it was going to be. On opening night they took all of the actors out on the Circle Line Tour because they didn't want us to be able to read the reviews and know that we were closing. So there was a boat filled with drunk actors and all of the people working on the show circling Manhattan just awaiting their doom.

The 1985 film version of A Chorus Line?
I was cut. It was during the time when I had a paralyzed vocal cord. It was a viral thing like Bell's palsy, and it affected my left vocal cord. I really couldn't speak for about six months - and I wasn't sure if my voice was ever coming back or in what shape it was coming back. I've been very blessed that it came back at all. So I was looking around for other things to do, and my agent got me an audition to play the wardrobe mistress.   So I basically had to hand Michael Douglas a hat and I think it was a cane - but they cut the scene. So there you go - I was on the cutting room floor. My big film debut.

And the World Goes 'Round?
The first thing would be singing on roller skates - belting at the top of my belt on the tips of the roller skates as we're doing a kickline. But that is certainly some of the best music I think ever written. It was an amazing show to be a part of.  For my type of singing, it really was a perfect fit. I got to sing "Colored Lights" - which is probably one of my favorite pieces ever - and "Isn't This Better?" and "Ring Them Bells". I had a great time doing that, but it was probably one of the hardest things I've ever done because you're not only singing big numbers, you're also working with Susan Stroman who kept us moving the entire time. So it was a challenge - but I was in great shape.

Sunset Boulevard?
My first night going on would be the thing that I remember the most. I have in my mind a picture someone took of me as I came out for my bow in Los Angeles and I had a big huge shit-eating grin on my face. I was so relieved that I hadn't screwed it up - and that everybody had been so amazingly generous with me and that I got a chance to do it. Oh my god, what a phenomenal opportunity to not only play that role, but to get to wear those costumes and to act out as Norma Desmond. It was a lot of fun. I loved the enormity of that show. Everything about that show was gargantuan - the emotions, the costumes, the music, the moments - everything was big. The challenge for me as a standby was to make my own mark - to create my own role - but also not to get in everybody's way.  Standbys, covers and swings are the unsung heroes of every show  because their responsibility is to come in on everybody else's show. After awhile there's a reliance on each other.  You know how things are going to go and you know how to create those moments - and when somebody is out, suddenly you have someone else with a new tempo - a new way of doing things. Their job is to come in and make sure the show still operates beautifully as a well-oiled machine - and yet not totally mimic what the other person is doing.  It's a real challenge - especially with somebody of Glenn Close's caliber and stature.  As my husband said, I was a very well-paid insurance policy - but it's also the type of thing where you're sitting around doing nothing until you're called upon to be the star of a big musical. So there were nights I was watching Star Trek and then suddenly we'd get a call that she's not feeling well - but I have to say that Glenn didn't miss very much because she's a very strong and directed person.




Mamma Mia!
Probably the thing I remember the most about Mamma Mia! is our first preview because it was right after 9/11.  I think we were all a little concerned that it was going to be kind of a fluffy piece after something so horrendous happened to our city. I will never forget the energy of the curtain call during that first night - and pretty much the entire year I did the show.  People in New York were going through really horrible things during that time - we lost people in the building where we lived.  It was a sad and horrible and confusing time and then when they started the bows for Mamma Mia! and we were all part of that, there was a surge of energy that came at us from the audience that I will never forget. It was just overwhelming.



Is there a role in any musical or play that you would love to do someday?
Mame. I would love to do it and sing it I would also like to do Mrs. Lovett. I would love to do Funny Girl again, but I'm a little old. So I'm probably just going to have to settle for singing the songs.

If you could go back and give your 19-year-old self a wise piece of advice, what would it be?
It would be don't be afraid. Just go and do anything you possibly can. Just don't be afraid.



In high school I was:
Always trying to please everybody else.

My favorite comfort food is:
Cheetos.

When I was growing up, I never missed a television episode of:
Mary Tyler Moore.

Today I never miss a television episode of:
Dexter.

If I was stranded on a desert island for a year, I would want to listen to:
Bonnie Raitt.

If I could go back in time to see any Broadway show, I would see:
Funny Girl with Barbra - or Mimi Hines. Either one - or Lainie Kazan. All three of them I adore.

Three of my favorite movies to watch are:
Random Harvest, Carousel - "I loved you, Julie.  Know that I loved you" always makes me cry - and Young Frankenstein.

If I was asked to choose the Sexiest Man alive, it would be:
Wow, I better say my husband.

But besides him.
I would have to say Sean Connery.

If I could have anyone in the world - living or dead - be a guest at my dinner party, I would invite the following three people:
Sean Connery, Bill Clinton and Mother Teresa - I recently heard that she had a crisis in faith, and I would be curious to know about that.



What's next for Karen Mason?
Hopefully Wonderland will be keeping me occupied for awhile. After that I've never been a great planner so I'm hoping that I can just keep working and keep traveling - I love to travel and go to new places.

What is your favorite place that you've been to?
Barcelona is by far my favorite place. I love Barcelona - it's got an energy and a vitality - and at a certain point you go, "I think people are crazy here." When you look at the architecture and the artwork, it's just - Wow! It's fantastic! As for Karen Mason, I just want to keep feeling freer and freer.  I know that probably is going to sound strange.  Sounds like I'm having my mid-life crisis - but it's too late for that anyway. I just want to keep enjoying what I have and using my voice to make music - and hopefully making some money at it so that I can continue doing that traveling that I like to do.

Thank you, Karen, for getting Deeper with us here on the Dish. To learn more about Karen Mason, check out her website at www.karenmason.com. You can also become a Facebook fan.

For reservations to Setting New Standards at Davenport's (1383 N. Milwaukee Ave), call (773) 278-1830 or go online at www.davenportspianobar.com. Karen will be performing Wednesday, February 9, through Monday, February 14, and tickets are $35 with a two-drink minimum. And for tickets to Wonderland, which begins previews on March 21, call Ticketmaster at (877) 250-2929, go online at www.wonderlandonbroadway.com, or go to the Marquis Theatre Box Office, which will open on February 14.

2 comments:

becca said...

i love when you post these interview i find the very interesting and i love lerning about these people. great job

Marc said...

Thanks, Becca, I'm so glad you enjoyed the interview!