As good an actress as she is, there may be one song Karen Mason should not add to her current repertoire,"The Laziest Gal in Town." It's not that she couldn't sing the Cole Porter tune, but would anyone believe this former Mamma Mia! star who is actually one of the busiest gals in town? In fact, within the next few months the multi-talented singer-actress, who combines a thrilling voice with an unerring sense of comic timing, will release a brand-new CD ("The Sweetest of Nights"), celebrate that recording with a two-week engagement at Manhattan's Encore, perform at several clubs around the country and will play Dorothy Parker in a new musical about the late literary wit. The latter, entitled You Might As Well Live, began performances Sept. 22 at the 45th Street Theatre, where it will reside through Oct. 2. Part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival, the one woman musical features book and music by Norman Mathews, lyrics by Parker and direction by Guy Stroman. I recently had the pleasure of chatting with Mason, who spoke openly about her many projects as well as her critically acclaimed performances in such Broadway musicals as Mamma Mia! and Sunset Boulevard. That interview follows:
Question: How did you get involved with You Might As Well Live?
Karen Mason: I'm not totally sure how Norman [Mathews] found me! I think it was through [director] David Armstrong. When Norman was first putting the show together, he had spoken with David — David was going to be directing at that time — and David recommended a few people for it. At that time Norman was also doing the demo for the musical. I did his demo with Barry Levitt quite a few years ago. I never did one of the readings though — Michele Pawk did them. Then, there were a couple of opportunities that came up — one in Chicago, and Norman asked me if I'd like to do it. I said, "Sure, that'd be great." It was just a reading, sitting there with a script in front of me. Of course, I learned the entire score in a week. [Laughs.] Chris Denny was the musical director for it. It was kind of like his musically dragging me through the songs. He'd plink out these very loud notes — "Okay, that's where I need to go!" [Laughs.] We did it there, and then we did it as part of the Chicago Humanities Festival.
Q: How was it received at the Festival?
Mason: Well, they put us into a very large space, actually too large of a space for this type of a show. It was in a 1,500-seat theatre that was used for ballet companies. A long, narrow [stage], and I'm at the other end doing very large hand gestures and trying to emote for 1,500 people! [Laughs.] It was a little too large, but people — the people who were close enough who could see it — really loved it, and that, again, was just a reading where I, literally, had the script in my hands. This will be the first time that I've actually memorized it.
Q: How is it performing a one-person show? You're used to performing alone on a cabaret stage, but I would think it's different in a theatre.
Mason: It sure is. I asked my friend Frank Ventura, who runs CAP 21, if he had somebody who could come over and run lines with me. She's been a doll — she's smart and funny and gets me through it. It's really just repetition. [Director] Guy Stroman said, "You just have to find where the gointas are." How does this go into that? And, he's right. . . [One person shows are] a very different animal. There's nobody there to save your butt! [Laughs.] Which doesn't always scare me, but I have to admit this is a little overwhelming, but you should always do things you're afraid of, I think. Q: How is the score? How many songs are there?
Mason: I honestly haven't counted them, [but] there seems like about 600! [Laughs.] It's all of [Dorothy Parker's] poetry [set to music], and the score has some really beautiful songs. There's one piece called "The Waltz" that Denis Jones is choreographing. It was a short story of hers, and he's edited it in such a way that it's this little seven-minute piece that tells a great story through music and dance. It's a really interesting, fascinating, full piece that I hope I can do justice to.
Q: Had you been a fan of Parker's?
Mason: It's kind of like with ABBA, I really wasn't. Not that I wasn't a fan, I just knew little bits. . . . I ran into a friend of mine recently at a voice over audition. She was saying she has the Dorothy Parker writings in her nightstand. She just adores her. [Parker was] an amazing woman. Here she was in the twenties and the thirties in a male — the world is male-dominated now, but not even a portion of what it was in the twenties and thirties. What she was doing was so outside of what was considered — not even the norm but what was considered sane and standard. She's a powerful presence and so brilliant. That mind is amazing. What I didn't know is she left all of the royalties from her writings to Martin Luther King, and if he died, they went to the NAACP. So, she really became quite an activist. This is a woman who was leading marches, really putting her money where her mouth was and still had this incredible, sharp, biting, funny sense of humor. And she was as neurotic as the rest of us! I think that's the thing that always astounds me. You always think that they're going to be in a better position than the rest of us because they'll understand. They're just as neurotic and screwed up as the rest of us. [Laughs.]
Q: Is there hope for You Might As Well Live having more of a life after the Festival. Could you see traveling with the show?
Mason: I think once I have it memorized [laughs] I'll be ready to go anywhere. I would love to do that. . . . I don't think Norman would put himself in this position unless he envisioned that it could sit somewhere. People's response to it has been really positive, and yet it's not necessarily a subject that you'd go, "Oh, I have to go see that." The musicals that people always clamor to are the ones that look like entertainment [and audiences] can really hook into it quite easily. Whereas with this, I think you need to know that it's safe to come and see this show, and it's not going to be "Oh God, another diatribe about. . . " It's really quite funny. Her sense of humor is so brilliant but not offsetting.
Q: You also have a new album coming out.
Mason: We're calling it "Sweetest of Nights" because we recorded the Shelly Markham/Judith Viorst song "The Sweetest of Nights (and the Finest of Days)." It's probably the most romantic CD we've done. There are fewer big, bombastic songs — less belting I guess — so you can neck in front of the stereo! That was always the kind of album I wanted to do, one you can just put on and dream away. It's very romantic — it's got "A Whole New World" and this really phenomenal arrangement of "Let's Face the Music and Dance" that Chris [Denny] and Barry [Kleinbort] did. It's so gorgeous. I was at the string session at the studio, and I just started crying because it was so beautiful. Violins get to me anyway, but they were just so sweet and so beautiful, and we had some incredible players. I'm very excited about it. We're going to have it out at the beginning of October, and we're going to do the CD release in conjunction with two weeks at the Encore.
Q: When are you playing there?
Mason: Oct. 27 for two weeks, we're doing Thursday to Monday night. I haven't performed a run in quite a few years [in New York], and I really wanted to do that. . . . Personally I can't stand the pressure of a high cover [laughs], so we're going to have a $30 cover, and I just want people to come in.
Q: Do you have favorite rooms that you've played across the country or any rooms that are now closed that you miss?
Mason: Over New Year's I did Le Chait Noir in New Orleans. It was a gorgeous room. It was a very intimate room and yet it had an elegance to it that made you feel like those older rooms that we had in New York — like Ted Hook's OnStage, which almost looked like a mini Las Vegas show room. It was a great place to play, and Le Chat Noir was like that. The rooms are changing so much that it's hard to keep up with all of them. And everybody's just trying to keep their heads above water . . . so they can stay open. I think if we can all survive this tough time, I think we'll all be a lot stronger for it.
I look at KT [Sullivan] and Mark [Nadler], and I think, "They found a really great niche for themselves." They created this niche, and they're making the most of it, and how smart it is to do the composer shows or lyricist shows. It's not something that I think I could do — I'm way too middle child to share the stage! [Laughs.] Although Chris [Denny] and I have been working together now for a long time. Brian [Lasser] passed away in '92, and we started working together then. I love having him at the piano, and when he can't do it because of his other commitments, it's really hard.
Q: You also work all over the country. . .
Mason: I'm very lucky that I do. I get to go to Chicago and work at Davenport's. That's a favorite. I got to open it, and it was built by friends of mine in Chicago who have been fans for a long time and didn't have to put their money into a cabaret, but they just love it. I'm going back for their anniversary in November after the Encore. . . Then, I'm going to Oklahoma City to work with the Philharmonic for the Christmas show.
Q: I would think that keeps things interesting — playing so many places.
Mason: I love it because I never am allowed to get tired of one thing. Nothing becomes too toxic or overwhelming. You never get bored with something because you're always on to that next thing.
Q: How does performing in clubs and concert halls compare to being on Broadway? Did you enjoy the year in the original cast of Mamma Mia!?
Mason: Yeah, I loved it. What's great about that is somebody gives you money every Thursday! [Laughs.] That's really lovely, and you get to perform to all of these people who probably don't know what you do, and suddenly you're in their presence. Especially with that show — people just loved it. People came with the idea that they were going to have fun. And no matter what anybody thought about Mamma Mia!, it was just fun. If you could just come with the idea that you're going to have a great time at this party, you did. The music was fantastic — I really didn't know [much of ABBA's work]. I knew "Dancing Queen," but they have an amazing catalog. I never realized how vast it was. . . . As a matter of fact, on the new CD we're doing "Winner Takes It All." We're doing it with piano, bass and percussion and cello. Paul, my husband, produced it, and what he gets out of players and how he makes it all sound is so beautiful — it's thrilling.
Q: We couldn't talk without mentioning Sunset Boulevard. How do you look back at that experience?
Mason: [Laughs.] I learned a lot from Sunset Boulevard. I learned quite a lot and didn't even know I had learned it at the time. Growing up in the midwest — I was a middle child and I was a fat kid, [and] I had such a horrible self image. I don't think I was able at the time to [think] that I could do what I did with Sunset Boulevard. . . . I went after the people I needed to go after as far as helping me. I hired a friend to come and coach me. I was lucky to have the support that I did, but I did it. . . . I have a newfound respect for somebody who's in the position of a standby because it's not easy. It's not easy to hear people boo [when they announce the star is out] and then read in the paper after a performance that you were so proud of and all they talk about is the 20 percent loss of tickets.
Q: Yet, you received some great notices.
Mason: I did okay, I really did okay. I became a little bit of a stronger person because of that.
Q: What was it like performing the role once you felt more comfortable with it?
Mason: I had a ball! I got to do everything. I got to go crazy, I got to wear fantastic outfits, sing incredible songs and have that incredible moment in a show where the entire cast is onstage watching you have a moment. [Laughs.] The first night I went on [for Glenn Close in Los Angeles], I had never had the costumes on, and those were behemoth costumes. I had two days notice the first time I went on. I was hell on wheels trying to get ready for it, and the great wardrobe people let me put on the outfits and run up and down the stairs between the floors of the theatre. I couldn't be on the stage because then they'd have to pay union members, but I could wear them in the stairwell! So I had on this big leopard dress going up the stairwell of the Shubert Theatre in Los Angeles, and they talked me through all of the costume changes. There was one that was like a 17-second change. I said it felt like I was in a car wash. You just have to stand there and let people do their jobs. If you start to help — I actually hit someone in the nose. There's just so much that goes on. Once you get past all of that, oh my God, it was fun. You can't be too big. [Laughs.] You can't be too over the top for Norma Desmond, but then you get to have that incredibly vulnerable moment when she has the light in her eyes while you're standing their wearing huge Bambi lashes and fur.
Q: Would you ever standby for a part again?
Mason: Never say never. You never know what your career is going to bring you. Personally, at this moment in my life, it would not be the first choice on my agenda, but you never know what will fit into what you want. I learned a great deal, and I got a paycheck every week. Everybody was incredibly gracious.
I [also] got to go off and do other things. I recorded "Better Days" during that time because I had income, and I could use that to pay for the CD. I could go off and perform once I felt more calm about it. I actually got a phone call when Rosemary Clooney was at Rainbow & Stars. Rosemary Clooney had to cancel one night, and the person who was in charge gave me a call and said, "We're looking for somebody to fill in for Rosemary Clooney. Could you do that tonight?" And I said, "Well, here's the thing. I could, but if Glenn Close misses, I have to go do the show." [Laughs.] [Sunset management] said to go off and do it, but keep your pager right there. So, I had my pager on top of the piano while I filled in for Rosemary Clooney. Talk about a whirlwind! They called me at five and the show was at eight. I called [pianist/musical director] Alex Rybeck, and I said, "What are you doing?" He said, "I could be there in half an hour." We went over some stuff and went to the club and did it. People were very lovely and gracious and were there for the ride.
[You Might As Well Live will play Sept. 23 at 4:30 PM, Sept. 24 at 8 PM, Sept. 25 at 1 PM, Sept. 30 at 8 PM and Oct. 2 at 4:30 PM. For more information visit www.nymf.org.]
The next time Barbara Walsh presents her solo cabaret act I have to make sure to catch it. For the second straight year the star of Broadway's Falsettos and, currently, Hairspray, was one of the highlights of the Broadway Unplugged concert, which featured a host of theatre and cabaret stars performing without amplification. Last year Walsh thrilled with William Finn's "Holding to the Ground," and this past Monday night she was equally dazzling with Stephen Sondheim's "Losing My Mind," building the torch song to a belty climax. Walsh is a singer who takes risks: She sings to the very top of her range, which makes it especially exciting for an audience member. She also is completely focused on each and every lyric she sings, serving the song completely. If Walsh was my favorite of the women featured at Town Hall, Norm Lewis was the most enjoyable of the men, wrapping his rich, creamy voice around A New Brain's "I'd Rather Be Sailing." Other highlights included Sutton Foster's letter-perfect rendition of Rodgers and Hart's "Where or When," Deven May's full-voiced and deeply felt version of Sondheim's "Being Alive," Mary Bond Davis' roof-raising "I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues" and Alice Playten energetic, audience-interactive "No Time at All." Created, written and hosted with charm by cabaret critic Scott Siegel, the sold-out evening was thankfully recorded for future CD release.
Former Evita Florence Lacey, who was part of the recent Off-Broadway musical Under the Bridge, will join the previously announced Carolee Carmello for the new musical Saving Aimee at the White Plains Performing Arts Center. With book and lyrics by Kathie Lee Gifford, music by David Pomeranz and additional music by Gifford and David Friedman, Saving Aimee — about the life of twentieth-century evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson — will play the New York theatre Oct. 14-23. The cast — under the direction of Eric Schaeffer — will also feature Raissa Katona Bennett, Don Bovingloh, Dan Cooney, Angela DeCicco, Aisha de Haas, Matthew Gumley, Will Erat, Steve Horst, Joseph Kolinski, Matt Loney, Ellyn Marie Marsh, Victoria Matlock, Mike McGowan, James Moye, Gabi Nicole, Cristina Marie Norrup, Joe Paparella, Jim Price and Harry Winter. The White Plains Performing Arts Center is located at 11 City Place in White Plains, NY. Tickets, priced $30-$45, are available by calling (888) 977-2250. Visit www.wppac.com for more information.
The upcoming season of Lincoln Center's American Songbook series, which is devoted to the American popular song, was announced earlier this week. The Allen Room of the Frederick P. Rose Hall will offer concert evenings with Ragtime's Brian Stokes Mitchell (Jan. 12, 2006), jazz vocalist Andy Bey (Jan. 13), opera star Deborah Voight (Jan. 25), The Light in the Piazza Tony winner Victoria Clark (Feb. 10), and the Naughton Family (James, Greg, Keira, Feb. 23). Tributes to several American songwriters are also planned for the Allen Room: Daisy Prince will direct It's Only Life: The Songs of John Bucchino on Jan. 27. That evening will feature performances by Jessica Molaskey and Billy Porter, among others. Eric Comstock will celebrate the centennial of Jule Styne with The Music That Makes Me Dance: A Jule Styne Songbook on Feb. 8, and Feb. 11 will feature the Loser's Lounge Tribute to Burt Bacharach. With musical direction by Joe McGinty, the Bacharach evening is set to include singers Deborah Harry, Michael Cerveris, John Flansburgh, Nick Danger, Patti Rothberg and Steve Wynn. Barbara Cook, Brent Barrett and Brian d'Arcy James will lend their vocal magic to the Feb. 24 concert Go the Distance: The Lyrics of David Zippel, and the Allen Room season will conclude with Lillias White in My Guy Cy: Lill' Celebrates Cy Coleman. White's evening is planned for Feb. 25. The Songbook season will conclude on May 1 with a concert from two-time Tony Award winner Bernadette Peters. Backed by a 28-piece orchestra, Peters will perform at Avery Fisher Hall, part of Lincoln Center's Spring Gala. Tickets for the American Songbook season are available by calling (212) 721-6500. Visit www.lincolncenter.org for more information. Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.