BWW Interview: Jason Danieley of MARIN MAZZIE'S SUNFLOWER POWER HOUR at 54 Below
September 13, 2018. One year ago next week, we all said goodbye to one of the great artists and great women, Marin Mazzie. Well documented on social media was her diagnosis from ovarian cancer and the three years she lived with it, as she and her husband, Jason Danieley, shared the power of positivity, the power of love, the power of living every moment. Marin's favorite flower, the sunflower, came to represent all of those powers, indeed it has come to represent her indomitable spirit.
Marin Mazzie's Sunflower Power Hour is a benefit being hosted by Mr. Danieley at 54 Below on September 22nd, with the proceeds going to The Cancer Support Community, an organization that the couple found invaluable during those three years. The CSC is a global nonprofit providing support and navigation services for cancer patients and their families FOR FREE. Impressed with and moved by the work the CSC did with the Mazzie-Danieley family, Marin and Jason made a wish to bring awareness to their contributions, to their services to the families affected by cancer, so that people in need will know that there is a one-stop shopping organization ready to help with whatever challenges may come up.
Joining Jason Danieley on September 22nd will be the couples' good friends Liz Callaway, Victor Garber, Howard McGillin, Debra Monk, David Hyde Pierce, and Karen Ziemba, all singing songs to lift the spirit, sharing stories that tribute Marin and lending their talents to raise money for a worthy cause. When I asked Ms. Ziemba about the importance of this fundraiser, she immediately told me: "CSC actually does 'walk the walk' in countless ways, supporting those living with cancer... the patients, along with their families and loved ones. I'm proud to support CSC by honoring the legacy of my gifted and generous friend, Marin Mazzie, who always made someone's day a little brighter."
I recently had a chance to speak with Jason about the evening, about his own solo show at 54 Below and the marvel that was and remains Marin Mazzie.
This interview has been edited for space and content.
Jason, I know the answer to this question, but in the last week, a few people have asked me about the name of this benefit: Marin Mazzie's Sunflower Power Hour. I think it would be great for people who are not in the know to hear from you, the significance of the name of this benefit.
Marin's favorite flower was the sunflower and combined with Marin's power of positive thinking, not a Pollyanna or Candide kind of an optimist, but a realist who looked at humanity with a positive life - it's much easier to live that way normally, without a diagnosis of cancer. But then when she was diagnosed and we knew that there would be tough times ahead, we implemented that as our sort of guiding light. I started writing a blog to let everyone know that we were on this journey with cancer, and we wanted to keep everything on the positive side. So while Marin was going through, as we were going, collectively, through her cancer journey, we kept that, and only after she passed did I actually put a name to it .. and I've renamed our company Sunflower Power The Power of Positive Thinking. Trying to find a name for the evening I was thinking about the Tom Jones Variety Hour in the 60s or The Sonny and Cher Show, these variety shows that we loved and grew up watching, I thought Sunflower Power Hour just sounds right up the proverbial alley.
How did the idea for the Sunflower Power Hour develop?
The Cancer Support Community gives up fifty million dollars of free services to people living with cancer, and their families. And that's any kind of cancers, at any stage, helping them with a variety of issues, whether it be financial advice, learning how to read their insurance, see if their insurance is going to cover a particular treatment, nutrition information. They teamed up with Airbnb this last year, so Airbnb gives vouchers to people who might have to travel to different cities, states sometimes. They're an incredible resource. In 2016, through Marin's speaking out about her journey, putting a face on ovarian cancer, talking about that, and my writing of the blog to let everyone know what we were going through, they reached out to us to honor us in their spring gala. This last year they renamed that award after Marin and it will continue in Marin's name -- That's for people who are in our industry, show business, people with a quick profile, people in professional sports, in the news. We became interested in working with them, we went to D.C. with them. We feel a part of their family. At the gala, they had Debra Monk, Karen Ziemba, and Donna Murphy sing to start off the first annual Marin Mazzie Empowerment Award. They said, "We should do something at 54 Below, you guys have sung there many times". I said, "That's a great idea, we could do a fundraiser". We decided to do it in September, which is ovarian cancer awareness month, and I said, "Well why don't I do a week of shows, a solo cabaret". So I'm doing a brand new cabaret I put together called A Heart to Heart, "And let's end the week with a fundraiser - I'll bring a bunch of friends, we'll remember Marin", and it'll be like Tom Jones has his show and then he brings on Burt Bacharach and whoever else, to share in the evening.
There are so many cancer organizations out there... How did The Cancer Support Community stand out so much that they garnered such confidence from your family?
We work with another organization that is very specific about its' cancer advocacy, it's called Tina's Wish. Its target is finding an early detection test for ovarian cancer. That is something that I started after Marin passed away, it is something that we felt it was very important to do because there is no early detection test for ovarian cancer, so if you are diagnosed, you are more than likely in the late stage of ovarian cancer, which the survival rate at this point is not so great. We needed something specific like that but we hadn't found it, and after Marin had passed I did find it. While we were going through Marin's cancer we also were in need of guidance, and Cancer Support Community was there to say "Hey have you thought about this, what does your oncologist think about that, do you need any financial assistance". They were like a one-stop shopping - if you have cancer we will help you find the resources. We thought that would be helping more than just people diagnosed with ovarian cancer; because Marin's father died of colon cancer, he had prostate cancer as well. Her mother had cancer, my mother had breast cancer. We're all affected by cancer. They don't just help those who are diagnosed with cancer, but the families as well. They have a lot of resources for the families and the caregivers. I was always in touch with them -- I just had a meeting with the CEO, we just had coffee, and I reminded her that it was a year ago this weekend that Marin and I went to the hospital for the last time; and Labor Day Weekend the nurses are there, the doctors are there, but a lot of the people that we needed to talk to about home hospice care were not. We reached out to CSC and Linda, the president, called me right back on my cellphone. "Ok Jason I'm calling so and so at Memorial Sloan Kettering and they're going to help you out", as well as The Actor's Fund - you know the way that The Actor's Fund helps everyone in the entertainment industry, not cancer-specific, but in so many health issues, they touch the issues with cancer specifically. And The Actor's Fund will now be working with CSC, they will be a part of their services, they will help people who come to the actor's fund with specific cancer issues, they can guide them to that. It's a very complicated world, cancer, so they're able to help you in almost any way.
How do people living with cancer refer to having cancer? As a condition, an illness, a disease?
It all depends on the person. For every person, there's a different reaction. Marin's power of positive thinking Sunflower Power isn't for everyone. There are a lot of people who are bitterly angry and that's just the way that they deal with life, and hearing someone say "try to be positive" is just going to shut them down. Everyone has their own way of referring to it. Disease is right up there.
What is the advice you would give to people whose lives are being affected by cancer?
It would be hard to sum up but ... having gone through the different... our parents having cancer before Marin was diagnosed and then going through it with Marin, and trying to ... It's going to swamp you, it's going to submerge you, it's going to drown you in that kind of "I don't know, there's so much to deal with, how can I deal"? It's not to say to compartmentalize, but to take everything as it comes. And try not to be overwhelmed by the big picture, just living in the moment of what you're dealing with at that time. Take off small bites as it comes. If you try to tackle it all at one time, it's just overwhelming. So we took it one day at a time - if Marin was having a good day, it was a great day! We'd take a walk in the park, we'd do whatever we could do to have a normal happy day. If we were at a hospital in Paris, the next to last day of our glorious vacation, ok, we had a great seven, eight days and now we're back in hospital, we know how to deal with this. It's an experience, so let's try to get past it, and we did. So living in the moment and trying not to be overwhelmed is the only universal tip that I can give anyone.
Social media was very good, for everyone to see how much she loved living - so many wonderful photos and, still, you share photos on your social media that show Marin's unquenchable thirst for life. She looked like she had such a good time living.
Absolutely. What she did call her power of positive thinking - and I'm using that term loosely, it wasn't something that she said, it's just how I can easily sum it up... her desire to make treatments something that... You know, Chemo has... Just the word chemo or chemotherapy has its own baggage that travels with it. It causes side effects. Very few treatments can cure you or treat the disease and not have side effects, which are sometimes even worse than the cancer effects. But ultimately that chemotherapy is helping you to live longer or to be cured. So whenever Marin would go to chemotherapy, she would call it healing therapy. She wanted to change the vocabulary to something that was a little more positive, in order to help get through that. She chose that moniker of healing therapy and she applied it to performing. Going back to be on Broadway at Lincoln Center in The King and I was healing therapy for her because she was doing what she loved to do: she was singing, she was acting, she was telling a story that she felt was very important about that woman, Anna Leonowens. When we were at 54 Below in 2017, the last time we performed in the city together, she called it her healing therapy - any time we performed, not only for her but for the audience to see how she was handling it. She wasn't trying to live by example and maybe you learn something. It was just "I'm living". And people, from the photographs of her living, were affected. That last week of performances at 54 Below, that last week of May, ending on June 1st, we taped all those performances and have put together an album that will be released at the beginning of October, with a companion DVD of that last performance. It's through Broadway Records, and the proceeds will be split among CSC, Tina's Wish and The Actor's Fund. It's called Broadway and Beyond, which was the title of the show.
Marin and you were very open with the public when it came to her cancer. Was it a difficult decision, giving up your privacy about something that personal?
Initially, we wanted to not talk about it. We kind of hoped, I think secretly, that she would have treatment, surgery and then treatment again, and that she would be cured of her cancer and we could just go on with our life and not have to deal with it again. But James Lapine was being honored, and the next weekend Bernadette Peters was being honored, and they both wanted Marin to be a part of the performance that was honoring them. And she wanted to do it because she loves James and admires Bernadette. We knew she was going to be out there with the bald head, and she didn't want to put wigs on, she didn't want to hide it. We thought it was important to not give a general interview here and there, and all the facts get screwed up. So I took it upon myself to write the words and set out our vocabulary, and the way we were moving forward, and not doing any interviews so that it was very clear: "these are the words we've chosen, please use them" and then we know that we have a little bit of control over how it was parsed out. It was important to get it right so that... We knew that there would be love and compassion, and everyone feels differently. Like "Oh it's so horrible! I'm can't believe that you're going through this horrible thing!" That's really hard for a cancer patient to hear. You might intend it to be compassionate but it is shit hard. It's hard enough to be in that place, but then someone dragging you down with their over-concern... She wanted just positive love to come her way. We tried to address that, and people react in their own way. At least we were able to put it out there. I think it was important to set the tone
What waits in store for the people who have been lucky enough to score tickets to the Marin Mazzie's Sunflower Power Hour?
David Hyde Pierce, Karen Ziemba, Debra Monk - my co-stars from Curtains, who are dear friends who were constantly in touch with Marin during her journey, who are going to be there, singing some songs, sharing some stories and remembrances. Howard McGillin, the longest-running Phantom in Broadway history, who is a dear friend. Liz Callaway. Every one of those people will be singing. We'll be hearing from Victor Garber, Susan Stroman... It's not a memorial. But it is a remembrance and a celebration of her indomitable spirit, as a friend, and as an advocate with cancer. And I'll be singing of course.
Marin is considered one of the most beloved stars of all time. What would you like to say to her fans who want to honor her memory?
Wow. I mean, I know this isn't going to be etched in stone or anything. It's not something that I've ever really thought about... but to remember her with the joy of living, and the joy for storytelling in the art form that we chose - music theater. To try and live a positive life for yourself. Don't live your life for someone else. Unless you have someone like, she lived an incredible life for me, and I for her. We were soulmates, that's what makes it extraordinarily difficult to move forward without her. But to live in the moment, with positivity and love so that you can live your best life. I think that's what she would say
If people are reading this story in another state, or if they are not able to attend Marin Mazzie's Sunflower Power Hour, how can they help the Cancer Support Community?
If you go onto the website at 54 Below or on my social media there's a link to the page where you can buy tickets. There's also a donation button. No donation is too small. If you donate $25 or more we have these little rubber wristbands - I ran the New York City half marathon in March -- Brian d'Arcy James and I ran for Marin for CSC and we had teal bracelets for ovarian cancer awareness. These bracelets say Marin's Sunflower Power and they will be mailed to you for your donation. It's a lovely bright reminder of how you've contributed to an organization that will be helping people globally who are dealing with their cancer, and their family, their caregivers.
Jason, what was your favorite thing to hear Marin sing around the house?
She didn't sing around the house (laughing). Neither of us did. There's just too many... After Marin passed, she communicates to me through song. Without going into all the scientific ideas about the universe and vibration, I feel that the highest form of vibration in the universe is music and I believe 100% that she is sending these songs out to me. I was recently listening to George shearing and he was playing the song Tenderly and I thought "Oh geeze, Marin sang that on her 54 Below album" so I put that on and listened to it and the lyrics were exactly what I was experiencing at that moment, about the breeze through the leaves. Right now it's Tenderly. She was a great lover of the American songbook and jazz and Broadway music. So right now it's Tenderly
What do you want everybody to know about Marin Mazzie Danieley?
There are so many things that I think people would find interesting that they don't know. A lot of people think that they know her because of her performances... You can get a glimpse, but she was so much more than that. That... exactly the way that you described seeing her in those photographs...that she loved life. I think that. I would like for everyone to really know: that she did love life and that it wasn't hard for her to go. I mean it was, it was very hard for her to leave life. But she wasn't in a place where she was angry about it. She had come to a peace with her situation. But she was only able to come to that peace because of her great mental attitude and the spiritual journey that she was on. There's' so much. It's hard to... That she loved life, that she loved what she did, she loved singing and telling stories through song.
Jason Danieley A Heart to Heart plays Feinstein's 54 Below September 18 through 21
To learn more about Cancer Support Community visit their Website
To learn more about Tina's Wish visit their Website
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