Karen Mason is currently performing at Arci's Place, 450 Park Avenue South (between 30th & 31st) at 9:00 PM Wednesday and Thursday, 8:30 & 11:00 PM Fridays and Saturdays, and 8:00 PM Sundays through October 15th. There is a $30 cover and $15 minimum at all performances. Reservations (212) 532-4370.
The show, which features standards from Mercer to the Beatles, will be Karen's only New York cabaret appearance in 2000. It reunites the MAC Award-winning creative team of Barry Kleinbort as Director, Christopher Denny as Musical Director, and Matt Berman as Sound and Lighting Designer. Mr. Denny will be joined by Bob Renino on bass.
Karen Mason is best known to Broadway audiences as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard and has been seen in New York in Jerome Robbin's Broadway, And the World Goes Round, and Torch Song Trilogy. This past summer she starred in the world premiere of a new stage musical based on Irving Berlin's White Christmas in St. Louis.
Nancy Rosati recently met with Karen to talk about her cabaret show.
NR: You opened Arci's last year, didn't you?
KM: Yes. I did the first concert there last November.
NR: Look how it's grown since then. How does it feel to be part of that?
KM: When you open a new club you always hope it's going to last. It's always such a precarious business. Ever since I've come to New York people have been saying that cabaret and theater are dying. Every once in a while they ring the death knell and everybody scrambles. Then everybody finds out it's really OK. It's what it is. It's a rare opportunity to see somebody up close and there are a lot of really great performers. I think what was really great about opening this space is that John Miller, who owns it, has maintained a level of performers. He has a lot of different types of programs going on. Even when he has performers doing the longer runs, on the off nights he'll have somebody who's not as well established, or somebody who has another angle, so he's always using the space. That is great.
NR: You've done a lot of cabaret. What's unique about this show? What makes it different?
KM: It's brand new so it's all new songs. There are only two that we've done in the past, but it's all standards, which is something I've never ... I've done a lot of things in my life ass backwards. (laughs) Everybody starts out doing standards and that's not how we started out at all. I worked with a guy whose name was Brian Lasser. When we started out, he would do some of the most bizarre "out there" arrangements and the reason was because we were just trying to find our way. We were trying to create something for us and find out what our personalities were. Brian liked to do a lot of Stevie Wonder. I think at some point he really wished I had been an R & B singer. I think he was disappointed I was a white girl from the suburbs. (laughs) He loved doing Stevie Wonder songs and there was one called "Ordinary Pain." It was a great song, but not quite me. At one point, Brian had me doing this wail way up high, and at that very moment, the audience actually felt (laughs) ... a lot of pain! That didn't work, but you have to try that. It was great. We were able to try so much stuff that did not fit. He had somebody he could write for so he was writing a lot of songs. Some were good and some were not. But how do you learn how to grow until you make mistakes?
NR: He died in 1992, right?
KM: Yes. I can't believe it's that long. The time has gone by quickly, but it doesn't feel like eight years. I always feel like he's with me. Barry Kleinbort, who directed this show said, "This is probably the first time in quite a few years that you're not doing a Brian Lasser song." To be honest with you, I didn't even realize it until he pointed it out to me, because he's always with me. Even if I'm not doing one of his songs, what I learned through him is always with me.
I was talking with Michael Kerker from ASCAP recently and he really loved this show. He loved the fact that it was standards, not just Gershwin or Porter. It's a wide variety of things. We're doing some Carole King and some Beatles, but it's all very familiar. He said that he truly felt the presence of Brian there even though we didn't do any of his songs. He felt the best thing is that it's taken me quite a long period of time to be able to say that I'm good at what I do. I grew up with "Don't toot your own horn." I always felt that without Brian in my life, I wouldn't be able to perform the same way. What it's taken me all these years to realize is that I learned a great deal from him and that will always be with me. So, even if I'm not doing a Brian Lasser song, the things I've learned from him will always be with me. I know when something doesn't work for me. I may not be able to verbalize why it doesn't, or verbalize how to fix it, but I've gotten to a point now where I can trust my instincts and realize that they're good for me. It's a very freeing feeling. So, this show is kind of powerful for me.
When we were doing the arrangements, Chris (Denny), Barry and I, brought a lot of ideas to it, but I realized when we were working on it, how much the show really is me. I could not do it without them. I couldn't accept all kudos, but it does reflect me.
NR: Is there any one song that stands out in your mind?
KM: Actually, the arrangement of "Help" and "Being Alive."
NR: Is that a medley? You do those two songs together?
NR: That sounds interesting.
KM: You really hear the words for the first time. "Help" is one of those songs we all have in our heads, but we never really listened to the lyrics. My friend, Lina Koutrakos, and I have these "power talks" in the park. We grab a cup of coffee and we sit and talk through things and bolster each other's egos. She had gone to see Tina Turner and there was one moment when Tina was just with the piano and did a really slow version of "Help." Lina said it was so powerful and I thought, "That's really cool. I love that." For some reason, "Being Alive" was going through my head. When I had done Company, that song really resonated. It's very powerful. I thought it was an interesting combination. When I brought the suggestion in they kind of mulled it over. We sat down at the piano and Chris started the vamp to "Being Alive." I started singing "When I was younger, so much younger than today" and we thought, "Oh, my God, it fits!"
What I really love about it is that (and this is kind of sentimental), but Brian was always a real "Beatles person" so that was kind of nice to have that. We do it right after my husband's song which is the only ... we get so many requests for it.
NR: Which song is that?
KM: It's called "We Never Ran Out of Love, We Just Ran Out of Time." Actually it was the song that he finished right after Brian died.
NR: How do you get through that?
KM: I have "out of body experiences." I will never forget the first time I heard it. It was three months after Brian died and Paul (Rolnick) asked me if I wanted to hear the song. I thought I was ready for it. I sat down and I just couldn't get up. I just cried for a long time.
NR: But you can sing it now, so it sounds like you've come a long way in all these years.
KM: I can sing it now. It's so specific to Brian and other friends I've lost, to do that and then to go into "Help" and "Being Alive," is a really wonderful moment for those of us on stage.
NR: You have another Christmas CD available. What is it with you and Christmas shows?
KM: Brian and I did a Christmas show a long time ago. He was Jewish though, so Christmas was kind of foreign to him. (laughing) I think he felt left out growing up. We did a concert in a place called Park West in Chicago. We had backup singers and a band and we just loved doing it so much that we would continually do it year after year. When he died, I felt it was hard to do a Christmas show and be really happy about it, so I let it sit for a long time. Then I thought, "These are really great arrangements." Some of them needed to be freshened. He had written some original songs too.
NR: You've performed in very large theaters like the Minskoff and the St. Louis Muni, and you've also done these small, intimate rooms like Arci's. How do you psychologically prepare for the different venues?
KM: (laughing) Well, the hand gestures are quite different! (seriously) I guess I've been doing it for so long that I go back and forth relatively easily.
NR: Even when you have people right in your face? At the Muni they're very far away.
KM: It's almost harder for me to adjust to the bigness than it is for me to adjust to the smallness. When people are that close you know that you shouldn't be talking really loudly to them. We work on the show enough that I know how to use my voice so that I can save myself for the seven shows.
NR: Do you ever get anyone who's looking at their watch or yawning?
KM: Oh yeah.
NR: They probably do that in the Minskoff too, but you don't see them.
KM: That's the good part about the Minskoff! (laughs) You don't have to see that. But I like to look at people. I'm not one who detaches. If there's a small audience, they're going to be blessed with loads of eye contact. It's harder to go into a large space when you don't feel the reaction from the audience.
NR: Any plans to return to a Broadway stage?
KM: In a second! I would love to be back there. That's a goal - to create a role in a Broadway show. In the meantime, since waiting around for somebody to give you a big role in a Broadway show is kind of a self-defeating activity, I'm working on a couple of other projects that will get me into a theater. It's kind of a one-woman show/concert that I've had in the back of my mind for a long time and we're in the process now of trying to find the right producer. I've got a lot of the money raised and now it's just finding the right people to get it going. It's frustrating to not be doing a lead on Broadway but I really feel lucky that I have cabaret. I get a chance to really sing. I get a chance to go out and have people like me and applaud for me. My husband's a producer so we're going to record this show.
There are a lot of things around, but theater is where my heart is. I went out to Los Angeles in March for pilot season and I realized that I'm a live performer. It's where my heart is. I really love live performing and singing. I love studying and getting better at it.
NR: That's wonderful. Good luck with it.
KM: Thank you.
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