Karen Mason is quite the wonder. She is one of the few performers out there who is as comfortable and effective playing a larger-than-life character on stage as she is being herself in an intimate cabaret setting. Her Broadway credits include Norma in Sunset Boulevard, Jerome Robbins' Broadway, Play Me a Country Song and Torch Song Trilogy. She received a Drama Desk Nomination for her portrayal of Rosalie in the revival of Carnival, plus an Outer Critics Circle Award for And the World Goes 'Round. Her Christmas shows are legendary, and she recently released a live recording of last year's hit version. I caught up with Karen as she was preparing to inaugurate a new Cabaret space, Arci's Place, with her new show.
Jonathan: Before we start, I have to admit something horribly embarrassing ...
Karen: Oh-oh ... you thought I was somebody else.
J: No, not at all. I didn't realize until today, though, that you sang all the songs that I love on the cast album of And the World Goes 'Round. I listened to your Better Days CD today and thought "God, I know that voice." Then I noticed you had And the World Goes 'Round on your credits, checked my CD and there you were, singing all the songs I like to play over and over again!
K: How funny!
J: I'm thrilled to hear that you are going to be opening a new Cabaret space in November at Arci's Place. (pronounced 'Arch-ees').
K: It's very exciting. This gentleman, John Miller, owned a restaurant called Arcimboldo which was in the theater district. And he bought this space on 30th and Park. He really loves cabaret and wants to make his restaurant into a cabaret restaurant. They want to keep the cover at a really affordable price, so it's going to be $25, which is really great when you consider that a lot of the higher end rooms are charging between $40 and $60. I was looking for a place to do my new show and my director, Barry Kleinbort, mentioned this new space that was going to be opening. They offered me four weeks, and it coincided with the release of my new CD. It's a great space, and I like the idea that they are keeping the price down. It in no way means that the show is going to be less or that they are not going to be having a certain quality of performers there. I think they really want to keep it at a certain level, but they don't want to overprice themselves. And I admire that.
J: That's wonderful!
K: It is nice! It's a real Catch 22, because you want your cover charge to be comparable to other people at your level. But as you keep climbing higher and higher, you keep cutting off people who have been fans for a long time; when you were $15 at some of the clubs in the village. I like the idea that this is going to be affordable, and the food at Arci's Place is amazing. It's fantastic! So it's a win/win situation. People can come in and have dinner before the first show, they can come and just have dessert, or just see the show. There is a minimum, but it's a very small one.
J: This is wonderful, because it gives us hope. Especially since we lost Rainbow and Stars and Eighty-Eight's this year, which made the cabaret community a bit jittery over its future.
K: Oh yeah! I mean where do you go? Especially for my size of voice. I just don't want to be in a room where I feel claustrophobic. It's not arrogance, it's just that I'm loud! I like to work with pianists who are really full, and it just doesn't make everybody comfortable if you are too loud for the room. I think it has a potential to be a really great space. They're willing to put the effort into it and hire the right people to make it work.
K: Brian Lasser was the guy that I worked with for 16 years. We met in Chicago in 1976. Brian was an amazing arranger and was very inventive. We started doing Christmas shows and it became an annual event. He died in 1992 from complications due to AIDS. I didn't want to lose the show, but without him at the piano, it was quite different. Last year, I started doing the Christmas show again. I worked with Barry Kleinbort and Chris Denny and it was the first time I had worked with a director, because Brian directed it for the most part. We were like a little in-house act. He did all the arrangements and picked the music, I learned it, and that's how we operated for the 16 years that we worked together.
J: How did you two meet?
K: We met at a restaurant in Chicago called Lawrence of Oregano's. They had singing waiters and waitresses and Brian was the music director there. I was doing community theater in one of the suburbs of Chicago. I really wanted to be doing it professionally. I loved working in community theater, but here I was, somebody in her 20s, working with these people who were much older for whom theater was an avocation. I wanted it to be my full time pursuit. My sister had heard that they were having auditions for singing waiters and waitresses, so I went down to audition and met Brian. And it was like finding somebody who spoke your same language. We both thought about music and expressing ourselves in the same way. We were both middle children, and we had our neurosis about how we perceived ourselves. So there was this shorthand there. And we kind of filled in each other's gaps. Brian was an amazing arranger and I could sing the arrangements that he made. Somehow when we performed, there was this communication between us that was truly magical. I loved him very much, and he was an amazing mentor for me. So I hated to lose this stuff, but I think I needed some new things around it to kind of freshen it up for me.
J: I read in your press kit a quote that said "No matter what was going on in my life, Brian would turn it into a song." Are all the songs autobiographical that he wrote for your Better Days CD?
K: There are ones that are particularly specific. Like "Hello Tom" was written because I told him that when I went to an all-girl school, I had to find my own date, and how much trouble I had. So Brian sort of extrapolated upon that.
J: That's the song about calling up a boy and asking him to take you to the Junior Prom, right? Oh that's a gut-wrencher!
K: My husband calls that one the saddest song ever written! "Better Days" was written because I had a crush on this guy; it wasn't returned and I was feeling miserable. So he wrote the song to say "Get over yourself; it's really OK. And if it seems bad now, it will be better." " I Haven't Got Time" was more about him. I think he wrote that after he had a relationship that didn't work out. "How Long Has it Been" he wrote for a New Year's Eve show we did. We had just lost a really good friend named Edward Dunne, who wrote a song with Brian called "I Eat" and he was the first close friend that we lost. So that song was written as an expression of that so we could use it in our show.
Brian was an amazing writer. I wonder what he would have written if he were still alive. But that doesn't do anybody any good. His greatest gift was that his songs always felt like anybody could sing those words. They weren't so poetic that you felt they were unobtainable. They always felt conversational.
J: I think that conversational touch is also due to your interpretations of the songs. Although I haven't seen you perform live, from what I have seen on video and the recordings that I have heard, you are a very intimate, conversational performer.
K: Thank you! I like that! Brian would always laugh at me ... I remember I did one interview, and I said "I like to be real." It was totally pretentious (laughs) but I do like that. Over the years, through the hunt and peck method of finding yourself as a performer, I think I just realized that I like being myself. I like being, certainly, a 'heightened' version of myself, but I like going out and feeling like I'm communicating to the people in the audience. That, to me, is when it's really great ... when people are listening and responding and there's that back and forth that happens not only between myself and the person at the piano and the musicians, but also with the audience. It's just an incredible high.
J: Now when "Hold Me" from your Better Days CD won the Emmy for Guiding Light ... did you get a statue too?
K: I got Brian's statue, so it's not as if we received two statues. I have the one that was given to him. He died in 1992 and we won it almost two years ago. My husband produced the Better Days album, and it was a nice way for the three of us to be with each other.
J: I'm going to put you on the spot: which do you like best, performing on stage or in cabaret?
K: You know, they are so different, and they call for such different parts of my personality. I love doing cabaret because I get to sing all the songs. And I get to really express what I want to express at that time, or just be entertaining ... which definitely fits in with the middle child of me! I want the attention! But then when you do a role, you get to explore a lot of sides to yourself that might not be called for in a cabaret act. Like doing Norma Desmond; the giving to the point of going crazy and killing somebody ... that's kind of a dangerous place to go in a cabaret! (laughs)
J: You played Norma Desmond for, what was it, 150 performances over how many years?
K: Between 150 and 200 performances over two and a half years.
J: Did your performance change based on who you were covering for?
K: No. I was in a very enviable position as a stand-by, because I have heard horror stories about people really having to fit into 'that' performance and do the same hand gestures, etc. I was really lucky because they set certain parameters, but then told me to go create my own character. I worked with a friend of mine who is a director, Justin Ross, in Los Angeles and we found the Norma within me. When Betty came in, she did a very different interpretation, and the only thing that changed was perhaps some of the blocking. But they didn't ask me to change my characterization. When Elaine came in, the thing that changed was the physicality of the role, only because she was so short that the stairs had to be changed, so that she could be seen on the steps! I mean, it's a mammoth set, so they had to change the dimensions of the steps so she wouldn't get lost.
J: I wish I could have seen you perform Norma. What was your take on the character?
K: I saw her as a woman who was master of her territory; somebody who really wasn't crazy, but was very sane within her own space. Somebody who created this world which she was the queen of, but the outer world had moved on, and she stayed in this one part of her life. And not really going crazy until the very end. I really thought that, for me, it worked better that way. And I did steal from all three of them! It was like a master class. I got to watch, very closely, three very gifted women. That was a real treat.
J: Who was your favorite? Who could you watch every night and not get tired.
K: I'll tell you ... it was impossible for me to watch it after a while. Because I needed to separate myself from their performances. I needed to separate myself, so I wouldn't get into their cadences. With Glenn, my favorite moment was when she sang for the first time in front of the company and did "As if we Never Said Good-bye." It was the very first time she sang the song, and she hadn't really sung in front of people in a long time. There was such a tenderness to the way she performed it that was riveting. To watch Betty when she went crazy ... that was really interesting. And Elaine was amazing vocally. I didn't watch that much of Elaine, because by that time I was on my way out.
J: You were also in Jerome Robbins' Broadway. How was that? Did you enjoy working with Jerome Robbins?
K: I only met him once. He came three months after I was in the show.
J: So you weren't in the original cast?
K: I took over for Debbie Shapiro. She won the Tony and decided she wanted to do other things, so I took over her track.
J: Your bio mentions that your first show on Broadway was a show I had never heard of, Play Me a Country Song.
K: Yes. It closed opening night. It's funny ... people who consider themselves to be Broadway aficionados have never even heard of it! The writer, I think, wrote the theme songs for the Friday the 13th movies. He wrote some really good songs, though; the score was great! What happened was that the lyricist and composer were never in the same city. On opening night, after two weeks of previews, we were all on the Circle Line Tour for our opening night party. They wouldn't let us read the reviews, which were obviously pathetic, and we were told that the next day we should come and collect our stuff, because they weren't going to keep it open. And that was a really sad reality! This was my first Broadway show, and I had thought "Wow! This is going to be it!" But the way in which it was handled ... I thought some of the community theater shows I did in high school auditoriums were handled better.
J: I heard that while you were performing at Joe's Pub, you mentioned a show which was going to be in your future. What is it? Is it going to be on Broadway?
K: I'm working on a project that is going to be a concert in an Off-Broadway house. I'm hoping to do a really long open ended run with seven instruments and do a concert version of what I do ... certainly more theatrical, but just music and me and the musicians.
J: A scaled down version of what you have been doing with the New York Pops, then?
K: Yeah, kind of ... somewhere in between. Kind of a cabaret thing, but allowing us to do more theatrical things too. So I'm working on that. I've got some pieces together and we are looking for backing. Mainly, I have been working on a movie called Borrowed Lives. A friend of mine saw me do Sunset Boulevard and he wrote this film for me. He's a screenwriter named Joseph Moran, and he also wanted to direct it. It's a beautiful little piece about a woman who adopts a child who gets shot in a drive-by and how she deals with her emotions afterwards ... and gets a little revenge. It's been such a learning experience, because this was my first film. I kept saying "Are you sure you want me to do this?" (Laughs) "Don't you want somebody who has actually done a movie?" And he would say "Shut up! I wrote this for you!"
J: You played Mama Rose at Sundance recently.
K: I did that last summer. And it was great fun. I love being able to do a wide variety of things; you never get bored.
J: Your credits also include a part I just can't imagine you in; the part of Joanne in Company! You are just such the polar opposite of Elaine Stritch.
K: It was an incredible experience. Davis Gaines played Bobby and it was an incredible company of people. I thought it was one of the best productions, just in concept. The director, Larry Carpenter, made Bobby a photographer, so the scene transitions were always done like a photo, to the sound of a shutter. It was just a brilliant concept for the show. And I loved Joanne. She scared the living daylights out of me, because she's a tough one! She's a tough character to find, especially in a perky mid-westerner! But the thing that finally keyed her in for me was my fear. That was kind of how I found her, because I was so afraid of not finding her; of not being 'good' in the show with all these amazing actors. And that's how I found my way into her psyche; that she was so afraid of being alone that she creates aloneness. It's easier to be alone than to deal with the possibility of being in a relationship and not being good at it; being in friendships and not being good at it. So the friendship she has with Bobby was a very unusual one for her, and he really saw through it, let her be who she was, and loved her for that. It was really interesting journey for me. I really loved her and would love to do her again.
It was interesting; I was definitely haunted by Elaine Stritch's presence. During one of the previews, the vamp for "Ladies who Lunch" started, and suddenly, from the front row, I hear "This is the song that Elaine Stritch made famous!" (laughs)
J: Is there a part that you would love to play?
K: Someday I would love to play Mame.
J: From your lips to the Internet's eyes!
K: I keep sending Jerry Herman notes!
J: And I also read that you wrote a musical, One Tough Cookie.
K: You read that I was a writer? Not really. What happened was that Brian Lasser had written the show for me. We tried to get it finished while he was alive, but it was one of those situations where he and the co-writer lived on separate coasts. When Brian died, I felt this drive to get it produced and to get it on its feet, so I asked this friend of mine, Rita Nachtman, to re-write the book, Barry Kleinbort to redo some lyrics, Frank Ventura to direct it, and Chris Denny to music direct. We got some people in Chicago at The Apple Tree Theater to produce it, and it didn't work. It was very important for me to see that. There was some great music in that show, and someday maybe that music will be used elsewhere. But without the person there to rewrite some things and come up with other music, it really was an impossible situation.
J: Well, I wish you the best of fates on your show at Archi's Place, and I look forward to seeing it while I'm in New York!
K: Thank you.
Karen Mason will be performing at Arci's Place, 450 Park Avenue South (between 30th and 31st Streets) starting Wednesday, November 3 at 9pm. The show, directed by Barry Kleinbort, will include songs by Kander and Ebb, Barry Kleinbort, Brian Lasser, and new songs by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens. The show will run through November 27, Wednesdays and Thursdays at 9pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:30pm and 11pm. There will be a $25 cover charge and a $15 minimum. For reservations, call Arci's Place at (212) 532-4370.
For more information on Karen, visit her website at http://www.karenmason.com/
Karen's new CD Christmas! Christmas! Christmas! includes the following songs:
1) What the World Needs Now/We Need a Little Christmas/It's Today/We're so Glad You're Here