"I'm so happy I'm afraid I'll die here in your arms. What would you do if I died like this, right now, here in your arms?" three-time Tony nominee Marin Mazzie sang to her husband, Jason Danieley, in their most recent cabaret show at The Venetian Room in San Francisco. The words come from Passion's "Happiness," a Stephen Sondheim ballad that starts the five-song Sondheim Suite the pair recorded on their first album, "Opposite You," in 2005. Ten years later, those lyrics seem chilling knowing the year Mazzie just endured.
On May 6, Mazzie was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. After 12 weeks of chemotherapy — what she refers to as "healing therapy" — a hysterectomy and bowel resection and 12 more weeks of healing therapy, Mazzie is now feeling "stronger and stronger every day." Tonight, she'll say farewell to 2015 and usher in 2016 with her solo show, Make Your Own Kind of Music, at Feinstein's/54 Below.
Remarkably, Mazzie has kept up performing over the months — a duet concert with Danieley here, a song at James Lapine's lifetime achievement celebration there. Still, New Year's Eve marks her first solo show back. "It's such a right place to be doing my first sort of welcome back in New York City," says Mazzie. "I'm really excited about getting back up onstage."
Known for such roles as Mother in Ragtime; Clara in Passion; Lily/Kate in Kiss Me, Kate; Diana in Next to Normal; and, most recently, Helen Sinclair in Bullets Over Broadway, Mazzie is the actress you call on to play women of strength — no doubt because she is one herself. Of all these women, Mother is the role that Mazzie says has become a part of who she is. It's no wonder, then, that Mazzie's journey feels like a verse from Ragtime's second-act anthem, "Back to Before." Through cancer, Mazzie had to learn to be "unafraid of tomorrow, unafraid to be weak, unafraid to be strong."
"People say this, we all know, we say, 'Just live in the moment,'" says Mazzie. For the first time, she was forced to live in the present, without a thought of tomorrow (let alone any fear of it). "It was only about waking up and saying, 'What can I do today?' and doing that and if I didn't get to do something that I thought I could, it didn't matter."
Thanks to this shift in her outlook, Mazzie has deepened her connection to the world around her. She embraces quiet and has learned to simply be. "I really consider it a gift in a lot of ways because it's just given me a whole different perspective on life," she continues. Still, she did not reach this state of peace completely on her own.
"The outpouring of support from the community and just people has been overwhelming, and I don't use that word lightly," says Mazzie. "At [Feinstein's/]54 Below in October, Jason sang that Huey Lewis song 'The Power of Love is a serious thing,' and it truly is."
Yet, no love was more healing than her husband's. His strength and care saved her in her darkest hours. His stability allowed Mazzie to feel unafraid to be weak.
"There was some post-surgery darkness — trauma — going through me that I couldn't get out of," says Mazzie. The way she describes it is reminiscent of another strong woman she portrayed: Next to Normal's Diana. The rock musical told the story of a woman battling the demons of her mind through bipolar disorder and her husband who struggled to keep her, their marriage and himself afloat. Coincidentally, Mazzie's real-life husband played her onstage spouse in that story.
Some couples may have been wary to team up on such an intense piece. But Mazzie and Danieley thrived. "Actors, we develop relationships very quickly with people because you may meet somebody the first day and you may have to kiss them or be in bed with them…you have to develop an intimacy very quickly," she says. "Obviously, I didn't have to do that with Jason. The deepness of our relationship just added, I think, to the plight that Dan and Diana were going through."
"The emotion of that piece was so extreme, so I felt so supported by him," says Mazzie. "That's one of the reasons I love to work with him." Certainly, it's one of the reasons the two could weather cancer. In fact, Mazzie confesses that not only did the experience deepen her connection to the role she played four years ago, it also profoundly impacted her connection to her husband. "It has deepened our relationship and our love and respect for each other just a bazillion times," says Mazzie.
One can only imagine how this would translate in a collaboration between the pair. "I would love to find a show we could do together," she says. "We started out with a zinger. … I think we need to do something completely opposite. We need to do some big crazy musical comedy or something." It's not out of the realm of possibility for 2016.
"I'm looking to the new year in an open way and see what comes to me," she says. "I want people to know that I'm coming back." As they sing at the end of their Sondheim Suite, Mazzie and Danieley are ready to "move on, stop worrying where you're going, move on."
As an artist, lyrics have always guided Mazzie, but they really pack a punch now. "Those are the greatest songs… the ones that continue to live and really touch people."
Indeed, if the cancer survivor has proven one thing in 2015, it's that Marin Mazzie is unafraid to be strong.