DIVA TALK: Catching Up With Wonderland Star Karen Mason

News   DIVA TALK: Catching Up With Wonderland Star Karen Mason
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Karen Mason
Karen Mason

"I was told the breakdown for the original character," the multi-talented Karen Mason said earlier this week, explaining how she became involved in the new Frank Wildhorn musical Wonderland, which officially opened at Broadway's Marquis Theatre April 17. "It said, 'Queen of Hearts,' and then it gave a short description, and the description was: 'Black R&B singer. Margaret Dumont type.' And I thought, 'I'm not quite sure where I fit into any of that,'" Mason says with a laugh, "but I'll give it my best shot! ... I went in, and what I decided to do for my audition was 'Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend,' and I figured it kind of showed me off a little bit. I always wanted to work with Frank — I had been a fan for a long time, and known him through ASCAP. ... It was an opportunity to work with him at the audition and so I prepared, and prepared the parts of the scripts that they gave me.... I took it very seriously and went in and thought the audition went pretty well, and that's really all you can do is hope that your audition goes as well as you would like. And, I guess it did, and they offered me the role, and that was kind of the beginning of the journey."

That journey has included tryout engagements in Tampa, FL (twice) and Houston, where the musical's director, Gregory Boyd, is artistic director of the Alley Theatre.

Mason plays the wickedly zany Queen of Hearts in a cast that also boasts Janet Dacal, of In the Heights, as a modern-day Manhattan mom named Alice, as well as Darren Ritchie (Little Shop of Horrors, Thoroughly Modern Millie) as White Knight, E. Clayton Cornelious (The Scottsboro Boys, A Chorus Line) as Caterpillar, Jose Llana (Spelling Bee, Flower Drum Song) as El Gato, Kate Shindle (Legally Blonde, Cabaret, Jekyll and Hyde) as Mad Hatter, Carly Rose Sonenclar (Les Misérables, Little House on the Prairie) as Chloe, Edward Staudenmayer (Spamalot, Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me) as White Rabbit and Danny Stiles (regional productions of Guys and Dolls and Sister Act: The Musical) as Morris.

Mason, who was also part of the premier Broadway cast of the long-running Mamma Mia!, said that throughout the various incarnations of Wonderland "it was hard to find that balance between the scary Queen that is part of the 'Alice in Wonderland' tale and kind of the zaniness that we all wanted to bring to her. I would say that probably now she is the most well-rounded. It is a fantasy, and it's utilizing the characters, [but] it's not necessarily telling the 'Alice in Wonderland' story. I think that's what kind of interested me — was that it used the characters to tell a little bit of a different story. It is her dream. It's how she uses them to figure out an answer for herself."

Mason in Wonderland.
photo by Michal Daniel

Mason says the use of the dream in the new musical parallels her own journey through therapy following a paralyzed vocal cord she suffered in 1984. "It kind of freaked me out a lot, and a friend of mine recommended therapy — psychological therapy, just to try and get through it, and since then, I have been a big fan, especially of dreams. Dreams are fascinating. The fact that you utilize dreams to figure things out for yourself, and that you are the writer, the director and the star, I find always interesting in what they tell us about ourselves and really how they help us to figure out how complicated our lives are, and how to get through certain things in our lives." Mason's voice, it should be noted, is as powerful and colorful as ever. "Well, most of us actors are pretty superstitious about stuff and most people have little, oh I hate to say, rites that you do right before you go on the stage. But, I do vocalize. I still vocalize, and I find that that really helps me a lot," she explains. "It's funny, I really only do two songs in the show, but ... in a way it's almost more difficult to only do two songs because then you don't have any time to kind of lead in to it or build up to it or kind of mark along the way — kind of build to that moment — it's basically shot out of a cannon.

"But, I do do my vocalizing and try to protect my voice in that way, and when I can, I go and study ...I just had a big birthday, and as I'm getting older, I thought, 'I don't want to let my voice go.' I really enjoy utilizing it to express myself. That's always been a way that I do express myself. Even when I am doing cabaret, I get a chance to sing the sad songs and the angry songs and the songs of discovery and the big fun songs, and I want to continue that. I want to continue to be able to have my voice. I want to be able to continue to utilize all of the colors of my voice until I just can't — until it finally gives away. But, after I had the paralysis, it was certainly a more heightened awareness of each second that I have of the ability to sing, so I want to make sure that I enjoy it and take care of it. It's a gift that I have right now, and I want to be able to enjoy that somebody gave me this gift, and make the most of it — not only for my own psyche, but for my career."

The singing actress, who is also one of the leading lights of the New York cabaret scene, describes her current role, the Queen of Hearts, as "an amalgam — she's a little bit of everything. You know, it's funny, somebody asked me, 'How does it feel to play a villain?' And I think that she is not really a villain in my mind. I think she does wield the power. That's definitely true. And I think she takes great joy in wielding the power. In my mind, and I was thinking about this the other day, if I decide that she really doesn't decapitate everyone who is walking the streets of Wonderland who gets in her way. She says, 'Off with their heads!,' and there is somebody right behind her who takes care of everything and really doesn't decapitate everyone. So she, in her mind, thinks that she has this great power, but in reality, she is powerful in that she makes it known, but nobody really dies in the process. I don't know if that takes away her power, but to me, she has the power and she knows it and just expects that everybody is going to accommodate to her power.... I've seen that certain people believe that they have power, and they walk into a room with that presumption of power, and everybody responds in kind. And that is, I think, what the Queen of Hearts is. I think it's that presumption of power."

Mason takes an opening night bow.
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Mason gets the chance to stop the show in the musical's second act with her no-holds-barred rendition of "Off With Their Heads." "[Frank Wildhorn] wrote a couple of different versions before I came on board, which were all great songs," Mason explains, "but this one certainly fits who I am as a performer, and so he basically wrote this for me, and when we were working on the arrangement of it, of course, I put in all of those wonderful things that I've stolen from other performers... to make it fit me. I have a little plaque at home, and it says, 'Originality is the ability to conceal one's source,'" she laughs. "I think I have kind of stolen from a lot of different people. I do my homage to Liza and Judy in the song, and I love doing that moment. I really do. I love the lead-in to it, and that's probably what has changed the most [through the various productions] ... The book really supports where that song is coming from and where it's going to. Originally when we did it, it opened the second act. Queen is doing her cabaret act in the prison, which was kind of like, 'What? Okay! Well, we're going with it!' It worked in its odd, fantasy-land way, but I know it was strange. So this way, I have a scene, and I have something that kind of leads into it."

"What's so great is that everybody gets a moment," Mason continues. "I think that's why we are a happy company because you do get a chance to strut your stuff and do what you do, and then you can go and support everyone else. That's really important. We are in this so we can perform — so we can entertain. And, when you get a chance to do that, it makes you happier."

Similarly, Mason feels there is also something in the show for every possible type of audience member. "I see the kids coming to see this show and their parents also enjoying it, and the parents enjoying it for their kids," she says. "You can come to this show, and the young kids are going to walk away loving the boy-band and the spectacle and the Mad Hatter and Alice and Chloe, and hopefully the Queen. Then the parents are going to love some of the inside political jokes, and some of the musical theatre references. I think there is something for everyone."

She also loves that the show may be encouraging a whole new generation of theatregoers: "I am happy to see all of those beautiful young eyes seeing this show for the first time and possibly seeing a show for the first time and thinking this is the show that they will remember the rest of their lives. That is remarkable to me," says the Drama Desk-nominated artist. "And, I remember the first show I saw was Peter Pan at the St. Louis Muny, and we were about 12 miles away because it seats 13,000 people, and we were in the cheap seats. My parents were a young couple, with young kids and took us to see Peter Pan. We brought lunch for the afternoon and saw the show at night, and it still takes my breath away. I think I was so dazzled by the magic and, honestly, they must have been, because we were so far away, like an inch, but I still knew that there was magic on that stage. And going out and signing autographs afterwards and seeing these young kids who get the magic, that's great. That's just great."

Mason in Wonderland.
photo by Michal Daniel

What does Mason make of some of the musical's less-than-stellar reviews? "I thought that they were," Mason pauses, "to be honest, a little cavalier about our show. I felt like they wanted to come in not liking it, and that was achieved. I think there are some really fine performers/performances in this show — really great Broadway performers. I read in the New York Times today, Charles Isherwood decrying the lack of voices, and yet not one of our voices was named — not one of the performers in our show was mentioned as having great voices. That's kind of two-faced, honestly. To say that there aren't these great voices, and yet here's an entire show of great voices, and yet nobody mentioned that. To me, it's so odd… I think with any Broadway show, you go in there with an open heart and you take from it what is given, and I think it's probably not a show that's going to change the fate of America or that's going to change all of musical theatre, but two hours of great entertainment is not a bad thing. I think people diminish just being entertained and how hard it is to actually do, and it's not an easy achievement. I think all of the shows that are opening this spring — and there are a lot of them, and all quite different and all have wonderful things to offer — this is what Broadway is about. Musical theatre is about diversity and having these wonderful performers, who are Broadway performers, being able to strut their stuff and make 1,500 people every show kind of forget what is happening outside of the theatre and just be entertained. And maybe you'll cry, maybe it'll touch something that is happening in your life, and maybe you'll just walk away saying, 'You know, I had a fabulous time and I laughed, and I thought they were great, and I loved the costumes, and I loved the music.' There is nothing wrong with that....It is hard to be an entertainer, it is not something you just throw off. To make people laugh is not an easy thing, and I see what our audiences are responding to and I hear the laughter. I listen to the show every night in my dressing room, and I hear the laughter and the thunderous applause and the screaming. This show is about joy for me, and I think when people come to see this show, I think they get to experience something that is kind of fun and joyful — with great music! I think that the music is fantastic."

"Listen," Mason adds, "people in an audience would not be standing every performance if we weren't a good show. They just wouldn't. They wouldn't be laughing, they wouldn't be staying. We had a sold-out house last night, and our week is going to be a great week. We have great sales — great word-of-mouth. So, in spite of all the reviews, I think we are going to have a great run. I think it is a show that appeals to a lot of different types of people. I really see us having a terrific run. I think there is a lot of great talent in our show, and I am very proud to be part of it."

Mason in Wonderland.
photo by Paul Kolnik

Beyond the great music and great talent, does Mason believe the show has a larger message? "I think it's probably one of the most impactful stories for me, and so much of that has to do with not only the show itself and the journey that the company has shared, but also the people that I am onstage with. We truly have become a family, and I think the message of Wonderland is to hold on to the joy. To understand that the people who are around you who are heroes, and to appreciate the things that you have. There are a lot of times when things aren't going your way, and there are a lot of times when things are very complicated in your life and in people around you — in their lives — and to hold on, even as hard as it is, to try to hold on to the good within all of that and try to appreciate people on their own levels. I think with that message that we have in this show, that this community of people that have been through this for two years really do appreciate each other. And, I mean there are a wide variety of personalities in this show and a wide variety of age levels — we go all the way from 11, all the way up to the big question mark of my age," Mason says with a hearty laugh. "So we have a wide variety, not only of age and experience, but I think we all appreciate what each has to offer and to give to this family of Wonderland. I think that's the gift on so many levels is that people get to walk away feeling like they've not only been entertained, but maybe they can get a little bit of a message of, 'Look at the people in your life, and look at your life and maybe really go back to appreciating and enjoying moment by moment what's going on in your life.' There are all the people on stage plus all the technical people and the hair people and the wardrobe people, everybody else — sound and backstage — and we all really do like being with each other and sharing this moment eight times a week. It's probably been one of the most special experiences onstage I've had. ... This is my seventh Broadway show, and I think this is probably one of the really deepest experiences I've had onstage with people. It can be viewed as just an entertaining musical, but I really think that there is more there if you just let it be there."

Mason on opening night.
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Mason says that that family feeling comes from the top, a group of producers who are firmly standing behind the show. "We had a meeting last night, and the producers called everybody onstage. Everybody. It was absolutely all of the backstage people, all of the people who have anything to do with making that onstage show go, and basically they have a plan, they are standing behind us, they want to run, they believe in this show Wonderland and believe in all of us, and believe that there is a value here — something worth sticking with, and that's pretty great. When we got the email from our stage manager saying the producers wanted to meet with us right before half-hour, part of the sentence was that "it wasn't to post a closing notice" because that's what everybody starts thinking. My first Broadway show, Play Me a Country Song, we closed on opening — opening night was it! But, you know, it kind of deserved to close," she laughs. "But, we don't have that. We have people who believe in what this show is about. And, I've been in the business a long time — over 30 years — and I believe that this show has merit. I believe that there is a magic in this show, and I am proud to not only be onstage with everyone and do it eight times a week, I am proud to be singing Frank Wildhorn songs, and I am proud to be working with producers who believe. There is just a sense of you always want somebody to believe in what you do, and to put their money where their mouths are about that, and we have that. I think it's a pretty special confluence of energies in this show, and you know, perhaps every show feels that way — and I hope so, because you put an awful lot of your time, energy, love and passion into your work, and how nice to have all of this kind of support. I've personally never experienced it quite this way. I think it's a very special experience that we are all having, and it's probably setting up a pattern for the people who this is their first show that it's going to be hard to match in future shows, but that's all part of the journey. I'm happy that I am experiencing it right now."

"I think that there is an audience out there for us," Mason concludes. "There is a place for the very dramatic and the political dramas, and there is also a place for just being entertained and telling a story and maybe walking away feeling a little bit better about your future. I've always liked that. I've always been drawn to things — yes, I do love the over-the-top angry songs, personally, and I love the over-the-top ballads — but I also, even in my cabaret shows, I like people to walk away feeling entertained. I think I like to leave people with a good feeling in their spirit and in their heart, and that's what I think you walk away with this — feeling really great in your heart and your spirit. That's not something to be just dismissed. It's really a gift." [Tickets to Wonderland - A New Alice. A New Musical are available through www.Ticketmaster.com or by calling (877) 250-2929, and in person at the Marquis Theatre box office, 1535 Broadway between 45th & 46th Streets. For more information on the musical, visit www.WonderlandOnBroadway.com.]

Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.

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