DIVA TALK: Catching Up With Capeman Star Luba Mason

News   DIVA TALK: Catching Up With Capeman Star Luba Mason
 
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Luba Mason
Luba Mason

LUBA MASON
Luba Mason, who was most recently on Broadway in the Tony-winning revival of Chicago, will return to one of her earlier roles in the Public Theater's Aug. 14-16 concert staging of Paul Simon's The Capeman, which will be directed by Tony Award nominee Diane Paulus at the Delacorte Theater. In the original 1997 Broadway production, Mason originated the role of Mrs. Krzesinski, the mother of one of the two young men slain by Puerto Rican gang member Salvador Agrón, who later became a poet while serving his jail sentence. The roles of Krzesinski and Mrs. Young, the mother of the other slain youth, have been combined into one character for the summer staging, which also features Ivan Hernandez as Agrón and Natascia Diaz as Agrón's mother, Esmeralda. Although its original run was brief, The Capeman was a life-changing experience for Mason: The Paul Simon musical not only introduced her to the world of Latin music, which she would further explore on her solo recordings, but it is also where she met her future husband, Ruben Blades, who played the role of the older Salvador Agrón (Marc Anthony played the younger Sal Agrón). Last week I had the pleasure of chatting with the singing actress, who has also appeared on Broadway in Late Night Comic, Sid Caesar & Company, The Will Rogers Follies, How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying and Jekyll & Hyde; that interview follows.

Question: Take me back to the original production of Capeman. What are your memories of that rehearsal process?
Mason: Well, you know, I got in at the tail end of the casting. I was basically a replacement for Jan Maxwell. Jan had gotten Sound of Music, and so she left and they were kind of frantically looking for the new Mrs. Krzesinski. I think they auditioned almost everybody - The Capeman was, like, "the show" that fall. There was such anticipation for that show, and it was Paul Simon, which was unconventional. I think I was one of the last people who auditioned, and I got it. It was very exciting to become a part of it, first of all. And when I came in, I just remember how the rehearsal process was somewhat unconventional in the sense that we were rehearsing with a full orchestra almost every day. It wasn't just the piano – we had a full orchestra. It was led by Oscar Hernandez, who was, yet again, someone that was not in the typical Broadway community of conducting. And he was a person who knew Latin music really well. That was his repertoire, and actually, my husband had worked with him quite a bit.

Rehearsal was very interesting. I mean, we had Mark Morris – I think he might have been, like, the third or fourth director at that point. [Laughs]. And, Mark was mostly known as the choreographer of his wonderful dance group. His approach was very unusual. He kind of worked from the inside out; it was kind of this aesthetic feeling that he had of how he wanted the actors to move onstage and respond to the music.

Question: How did you find that as an actor compared to a more traditional approach?
Mason: Oh, I loved it. I loved it. I just found the whole Capeman experience to be just very interesting, fulfilling. It was very unconventional, I found, and I loved it because it was so different, and I really thought the piece was different. I really felt the piece was ahead of its time, which I think was part of the problem.

Question: I remember enjoying it. I thought the sets were so innovative and the story was moving.
Mason: Oh, Bob Crowley's sets, I thought were out of this world! I thought they were so unusual and striking. And, you know, the cast – I think  [only ] four or five of us had done Broadway shows before. Everyone else was Latin, and they [came] from singing in their bands or just their own [musical worlds] – some people just hadn't done Broadway shows before, including my husband. I think it was Ruben's first Broadway show. I believe it was Marc Anthony's first Broadway show. Ednita Nazario, who played Esmeralda, was from Puerto Rico, and she was a very famous pop Puerto Rican singer. So I just loved the atmosphere. It was creative for everyone, it was new for everyone. It was very exciting. And having Paul there – you know, Paul Simon, the icon. I remember just meeting him for the first time. I mean, I was just shaking because, you know, it was Paul Simon! Anyway, it was very exciting.

Mason and husband Ruben Blades

Question: It must have been quite disappointing that it didn't get to run very long.
Mason: Very much so. I think the show did get a lot of flack that it didn't deserve. And then the press got on board, and just really started making a mountain out of a molehill. Yes, the show had problems because it had gone through so many directors, and there were just too many chefs in the kitchen. And it was Paul's first Broadway show and he really wanted it to be perfect, and that might have gotten a little bit in the way. I guess too many people started putting in their two cents, and it started to backfire. That's unfortunate.

Question: What's it like for you revisiting the show now? Did you start rehearsals yesterday?
Mason: Yeah, I had my first rehearsal yesterday. I didn't really know who was cast. I did know Natascia Diaz was Esmeralda. That's all I knew. I don't know who the two Salvador Agróns are. I mean, now I know them by name, but I've never worked with them before. We were primarily going through a lot of the singing parts – some of the chorus stuff where they need to use my voice just to kind of fill up the vocals. And, Paul is there, which is wonderful. That kind of surprised me. I thought he'd be coming in more at the tail end of rehearsals, but he's very much a part of it. Our director is not there yet. She's coming in on Thursday, I believe. She's finishing up a show – I believe she's in Boston – directing.

Question: Are you playing the same character?
Mason: I am, but they basically have combined the two mother roles into one, both Mrs. Krzesinski and Mrs. Young. So I get to sing a bit more, which is nice. [Laughs.] Instead of two verses, I sing four now, and then also, I believe, in the second act, she comes back out again and sings another small segment.

Question: Didn't you have a big duet in the original?
Mason: Actually, it was a trio. It was the two mothers confronting the mother of Salvador Agrón. And the song is called "Can I Forgive Him?" Basically, the mothers are questioning [and Salvador's] mother is basically saying, "My son came from this poor background and he's been serving his sentence. Please find somewhere in your heart to forgive him." It's this confrontation in a church, and I think it's one of the best songs in the entire show. Paul thinks it's the best song in the show.

Question: I remember it being very moving.
Mason: It's a beautiful, beautiful song.

Question: So now it's a duet between you and the woman playing Salvador's mother?
Mason: Yeah. And it's a pivotal point in the piece — it's one of the few times where you get the voice of the other side, from the mother of the boys that were murdered by her son.

Question: I remember there was a bit of controversy around the time of the musical.
Mason: There was. I believe it was because they felt the musical was glorifying a murderer, which is silly. What about Assassins or Sweeney Todd? There have been so many shows. That's silly, but I think it was the Latin community that kind of came forward more, saying, "There are so many other things you could write about. The star of your show is a young Puerto Rican boy, and does he have to be this murderer in a gang?" [They thought] it was kind of glorifying that, and it was kind of scarring the community. 

Question: Do you remember after it opened and people saw the show whether it changed anyone's minds?
Mason: I don't know if it changed people's minds, but I think what began to take over was the fact that there was lack of direction. I think all of that took over, and the show was very long, and in previews, we were really in trouble. And I think that basically took over, and of course the press loved that. It just started to build up to "Yes, we've been saying it's going to be this big flop, and yes, of course, it is. And it's just horrible." And then we switched over to Jerry Zaks, who then began to strip the show of whatever Mark had done. It was just too late to really do anything at that point. It was just not worth helping at that point. It was unfortunate.

But did it change people's minds? No, I don't think so. I think the show just needed some restructuring, and it really just needed direction … I think there [were] probably a lot of elements in the show that could've been cut. I think also that the show is really about redemption and whether someone can be redeemed after doing such a hideous crime and even after serving a sentence. And, it wasn't really stating whether he was redeemed or not. It was basically asking the audience the question for you to decide for yourself. That's what Paul was presenting. He was presenting the audience that question. And people just really didn't like that. I think they wanted the show to have more of a point of view.

Question: Have they restructured it for the upcoming concerts?
Mason: I don't know the full scope of it just yet, but I do know a major character has been cut from the show. The one that Sara Ramirez played. So they've cut her character. I believe they have restructured it. I think they're beginning with Salvador's funeral, and then I believe [his mother ] goes into her dream, into the flashback of how the whole thing started. So yes, they are restructuring it. That's what I began to get yesterday.

Question: Sara's role was a pretty big role if I remember correctly.
Mason: Yeah, she was pretty much the whole second act. But I think the show was a bit long, and I think it kind of took us maybe a little bit more away from what Paul really wanted to say in the show.

Luba Mason in rehearsal for the Capeman concerts
photo by Nella Vera

Question: Do you know if there are any plans to transfer it if the concerts are successful?
Mason: Well, it looks that way, doesn't it? I think with The Public being involved, I think they really do want to give it another shot. And it's been about 12 years, so timing is pretty good. They did that with Hair, and they have Hair's director at the helm here, so I think The Public has a lot invested in it. I don't know for sure. I think we're going to see how this turns out at the Delacorte and how the reviews will be.

Question: Would you be interested in doing the show again on Broadway, should it move?
Mason: Yeah, I think I might be. You know, I'm always "a step at a time" at this point. It is a role that I've done before, and we'll see how the role either develops or does not, and whether they keep it to one mother or they'll add a second mother or not. You know, it all depends on a lot of different factors, I think. But I never say no at this point, anyway.

Question: Was this the show where you met your husband?
Mason: Yeah. [Laughs.] I did, and I really didn't even know he was a singer! [Laughs.] I knew him as an actor, which is kind of funny. I mean, he's just this big icon in the Latin music community, this big salsa singer with Grammys, and I just knew him from a couple of small movies that I saw him in. I remember at rehearsals he started singing, and I'm like, "Oh, he's a pretty good singer for an actor." I really just knew nothing about his background or who he was. The show was just such an eye-opening, ear-opening experience for me, just to the Latin world, the community, and most of all to Latin music. Ever since that show, the two albums that I've done – the first has a lot of Latin-influenced arrangements, and the second one is a Brazilian jazz album. It really is the result of meeting my husband, who turned me onto Latin music. I just fell in love with the rhythms of Latin music, and it just opened my world up. A whole new vocabulary for me.

Question: The show changed your life on a lot of levels.
Mason: Oh, absolutely. Of course, I married him. Yeah, my life just really kinda opened up. [Laughs.] And my husband is Panamanian. He's not an American citizen. And he's served in office for the last five years. He's Minister of Tourism in Panama. So there I was in Panama, [I] found myself in Panama quite a bit, and I've been learning Spanish. It's just really been a wonderful ride – just a wonderful, wonderful ride, very rewarding.

Question: Was he approached about doing Capeman again or could he not do it because of his work now?
Mason: You know, I don't think anyone personally approached him. I was kind of unclear as to the audition process. I stated that I was interested as soon as I heard that they were going to be bringing it back. Both Ruben and I responded saying we'd be interested, and the next thing I know, they started casting. So I just responded again, and I believe at that point my husband already had other commitments. He's actually doing a film right now in Mexico, so he wouldn't have been able to do it in any case, but we were both interested when we heard about it. Question: Who would you say are your musical influences?
Mason: Well, Paul is one of them. They're all very different. I grew up with pop music, and Barbra Streisand was another one. I just loved the way she sang. Paul I loved, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell. I also love Annie Lenox a lot. And then, of course, I just loved my Broadway show albums. I remember memorizing Funny Girl and Chicago, so that was a whole other influence that I grew up with. And the other influence I grew up with was – I'm first-generation American. My parents are from Slovakia, so I grew up with Slovak folk music in the house. That was another influence. And the other is, I was a classical pianist growing up. I played classical for 12 years, so there was that whole repertoire of classical piano that I just drilled for 12 years. So my influences are pretty diverse and now, with the Latin vocabulary, like I said, it just kind of opened things up. I thought I kind of explored every area, and lo and behold, there's more to discover.

Mason as Velma Kelly

Question: Do you have a favorite Broadway experience so far? Is there any one show that sticks out for you?
Mason: They're all so different. I have to say Will Rogers Follies was a fabulous experience 'cause it was my first hit Broadway show. I did Sid Caesar and Company, and I got to work with Sid Caesar! And, that was a flop. It lasted three days. How to Succeed was fantastic because that was really my big first role of coming out to the Broadway community, and that character was just so loveable and explored my comedic side. And then, of course, Capeman, as I said, opened my world up to the Latin world and meeting my husband. Jekyll and Hyde was the first time I sang. I took over for Linda Eder in that show, and they wouldn't even see me. They wouldn't even give me an audition for that show because I was told by my agents that they were really only auditioning "real singers" for that show. It just so happened that I knew the musical director of the show. I had done a workshop with him. Jason Howland, I believe his name was, and I just sent him a note backstage saying, "I think I'd be really right for this. Please just give me an audition." And he gave me an audition the following week. So it was kind of like coming out and saying, "I'm a singer. I've trained, and I can really do this." So that was really fulfilling. And then Chicago — that was really my last Broadway show that I did. That was five years ago, and I got to do it with Brooke Shields and getting back and dancing again after 15 years. That was a challenge, I have to say. But Ann Reinking was my coach. I did coaching with her, and she was somebody who I saw in Dancin' years and years back. I remember seeing her onstage just wrapping herself around a pole with those long legs and that long hair that she had, and I thought, "That's what I want to do. I want to be her." So I kinda came full circle with meeting her and being coached by her, and that was kind of a great dream come true in a way. Every show has its experience for me, and I think I've been really lucky that I get challenged every time I do a show, so it's been really kind of great.

Question: Are you involved in any other projects at the moment, or are you just focusing on Capeman?
Mason: Well, I just got back from Pittsburgh CLO, a production of Hairspray. I got to play Velma von Tussle, and this was a role that they actually asked me to audition for several times in the run on Broadway, and I was living in Los Angeles at the time and it was just always very challenging. If I were to come to New York to do a show, the timing had to be right. Whenever they came calling, the timing just wasn't right. So I was just happy to do it and be able to explore the role. That was a lot of fun, and actually, I just spoke with Sergio Trujillo, who's a choreographer, and he was talking to me about a new project. I don't want to jinx it at this point, [but] I hope that happens in the very near future. So yeah, I hope to be back on Broadway as soon as I can. [Laughs.] It would be very nice. We just moved back to New York this past winter, so I'm very anxious to get back into the swing again. I would love to.

Question: It would be great if Capeman got a second life or the life it really didn't get the first time.
Mason: I agree. I think the one thing that people did come away with with Capeman the first time around was people loved the music. The score was really beautiful. . . . I think Diane is gonna do something with it. I hope so. I hope the whole show gets a second shot. I mean, it is getting a second shot, but we'll see what happens.

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Free tickets for The Capeman will be distributed in the same manner as all Shakespeare in the Park productions. The Public is also making reserved seats available for patrons wishing to donate $175, $250 or $500. Paid tickets are limited as a majority of seats are made available to the general public at no cost.

To reserve phone (212) 967-7555. For further details visit PublicTheater.

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