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Interview: Chicago's Own Karen Mason

From the time she was auditioning for singing-waiter gigs in Chicago in the mid-'70s, Karen Mason has been known for her voice. Her big, beautiful voice. It got her to Broadway as a by-all-accounts extremely worthy standby for Glenn Close as Sunset Boulevard's Norma Desmond. By all accounts it also redeemed Mason's last Broadway outing, the 2011 flop Wonderland.

At two different times in the past 30 years, however, Mason was in danger of losing that voice. She opened up to BroadwayWorld about those troubles and their happy resolution in an interview a couple of days before she performed at the Voice Foundation's annual gala in Philadelphia late last month. The Voice Foundation is a 45-year-old national organization of voice-care professionals--doctors, researchers, speech pathologists, teachers and others--with which Mason became acquainted as she fought to restore her voice.

Shortly after the gala, Mason departed on a weeklong Bermuda cruise aboard the Celebrity Summit, performing on behalf of 54 Below, which books talent for the onboard cabaret. Mason, whose Broadway credits also include Mamma Mia! and Hairspray, is now in Chicago to perform at Davenport's Piano Bar through June 30. She's doing her show Secrets of the Ancient Divas--an homage to her idols such as Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand, Eydie Gorme and Peggy Lee--at Davenport's, where she was the first to perform when its cabaret opened in the late '90s.

Mason singing at the Voice Foundation's Voices of
Summer Gala on May 30.
[HughE Dillon]

Everybody knows about Karen Mason's marvelous voice. How shocking to learn you almost lost it. What happened?
In 1984 I had a paralyzed vocal cord. I was visiting my grandfather down in Florida, and my voice got high and thin. I just thought: It's another cold, it'll go away. It did not go away, so I went to see a doctor, and he said, "Your left cord is not moving. It's either caused by a virus or a tumor." It turns out it was a virus. I was told it [her voice] may or may not come back, and if it did come back, there would be some atrophy. There was a possibility of that. Dr. Wilbur Gould, he was the big guy in New York--he's now passed--he told me it'll probably come back. He'd seen it before; it's just a singer, or somebody who uses their voice [for their job], is so much more aware of it--and dependent upon it. Five and a half months later, it came back. You know how your voice is thicker in the morning. Every morning I would wake up and my voice would be a little lower, and I would think, "Oh my god, this is the day it comes back!" But within an hour, an hour and a half, my voice was back up high, as I woke up and my muscles started working. After five months, it actually came back. So I started studying with a voice teacher in New York and did a big "voice returns" concert. I was really fine, I was doing okay. Your voice always acclimates to the music you're singing, so if you're using a certain part of your voice more [for a particular show], it gets a little bit tired, and I just always assumed it was just being tired--although in the back of my mind was always something a doctor had said to me: There's always the possibility that the virus would spread to the other cord. So every time I'd get a cold, I freaked out.

The virus didn't return, but you had further problems, right?
Ten years later, I started having some mechanical problems that were from a teacher I just didn't work well with. When I was doing Sunset Boulevard, I was studying with a woman who's considered one of the best in New York. I started having vocal problems that were dismissed--she just told me that I was doing everything wrong. Because she kept telling me how wrong I was doing things, always pressuring me--it was such a hard-ass way of teaching. If someone tells you, "Loosen your tongue!" and they're strong with you, I--triple-A personality that I am--tried to loosen my tongue as best I could.
What happened was, I started losing pitch and my vibrato kind of went crazy. When I would sing, either I didn't have any vibrato or it was a very, very hyper-fast vibrato. These things were happening to my voice that I couldn't control, and I was freaking out all over the place. [I was] still singing--doing Rainbow & Stars, doing Company in Boston--and not able to enjoy singing at all because all I heard was the pitch, the vibrato going, all these massive changes in my voice. Also freaking out because I'm thinking: Oh my god, it's happening again. It's so hard when you can't see it, it's impossible to fix by yourself. It does play around with your brain, your mind and your emotions.

Peggy Baroody and Karen Mason at the Voices gala.
[HughE Dillon]

What got you on the road to recovery?
Teri Bibb, who I did Company with in Boston, told me about this vocal rehabilitation person she had worked with in Philadelphia whose name was Peggy Baroody. Peggy worked with a doctor in Philadelphia, Dr. Robert Sataloff--these are all Voice Foundation people, though I didn't know it at the time. When I called Peggy, I must have dialed six or seven times, 'cause it's scary to find out what's going on. I finally let the call go through and made an appointment with her. She said basically what happened was my tongue was spasming. I had set up this whole dysfunction on the mechanics of singing. I was trying to control my tongue so strongly--it's such a mechanical thing--that basically what I did was I wound it up like a rubberband that you keep twisting and twisting and twisting. So all it could do was go [makes deflating sound]. She started getting my breathing back together and gently--and beautifully--guiding me back to my natural voice and singing.

How long did it take?
I would say it was maybe a year. It took me, I think, a total of three and a half years to get my voice back to the place that I felt was singing well. But a year with Peggy was just fantastic. I got to the point where I couldn't afford it anymore. I was going to Peggy once or twice a week, from New York to Philly.

Mason as the Queen of Hearts in Wonderland on
[Michal Daniel]

Were you continuing to perform during all this?
Yeah. And always with listening to myself and not enjoying it. I had to work. I had no one giving me money unless I was singing. But I was hearing what I didn't like. I've had people tell me they didn't hear a big difference; in my head, it was vast. Producing sound was much harder during that period.
So Peggy Baroody to me was a godsend. She saved my life and saved my voice. I've always felt like I owed her a huge debt. She's a brilliant woman, kind and compassionate, and really knows her stuff. She asked me a few years ago if I was able to sing at the Voice Foundation gala, and I couldn't. This time the date was open, and I really wanted to do this. For a couple of reasons: I wanted to show off for Peggy, and I wanted to pay her back in the little way that I could. My voice has always been such an important and integral part of who I am. To lose a form of expression, a freedom of expression, for myself was really hard.

Did your colleagues in theater and cabaret know about these problems while you had them?
Yeah. When I had my paralyzed vocal cord, it was kind of obvious, and people really came to my aid. It was an interesting journey, because people within the cabaret community were all very generous and helped me out. I suddenly couldn't work. You're dependent on the little money that you get from cabaret, and people were incredibly generous with me.

But was there any connection between that paralyzed vocal cord and the situation a decade later?
They were not related. The paralysis was a virus, and the other thing was just a mechanical difficulty. Just one of those life things! Thank god they weren't related.

Mason at the Voice Foundation gala. [HughE Dillon]

Do you now take extra precautions with your voice?
We're all a little crazy with our voices. I make sure I eat four or five hours before I'm performing. I don't drink, really, if I'm working. When I was younger I used to go out all the time. I don't do that anymore. I get to a voice lesson as often as I can. I study with Bill Schuman, who's another one who saved my voice. He's a genius when it comes to the voice. He works with opera people, Broadway people, recording people. He calmly helps me to understand my voice, and because of that, my voice is in better shape.
As we get older, the voice changes--everything changes. I've been very lucky, I'm knocking on wood, that I've these people in my life who could guide me through the crazy terrain of getting older. Peggy was one who helped me to understand my breathing and the mechanism a lot more. And then to work with Bill in New York, he really helps me with making it an everyday occurrence. I try to vocalize every day. When you sing, it's like running a marathon: You need to keep those muscles in shape. You can't run a marathon after sitting on your butt for weeks. You have to be adamant about taking care of your instrument. I don't smoke, I only drink when I'm not working, I really make sure that I honor the little instrument that I can't see and try to take care of it and be in tune with it as much as I can.

The most famous case of a singer losing her voice is probably Julie Andrews. Did you follow that story with special interest?
Honestly, no, because I think it was different. It was the surgery that caused her problems, right? I was very lucky in that I never had a polyp or any of that. Boy, surgery would scare the living daylights out of me. I did have steroid shots for a while, because they thought that it was the vagus nerve that goes into your cords. It didn't really do anything so I stopped it, 'cause steroids scare me. But somebody told me that they do now shoot silicone into vocal cords if one of them has atrophied and it's bowed. It's a very frightening thing anytime you have a serious illness or injury.

Were you aware of the Voice Foundation before all this?
I was not until I saw that Peggy was a part of it. That was after the fact. During all of that [treatment] I was just trying to put one foot in front of the other so I could find something that would help me. I think it's great that people are exploring it, because it's a huge thing when it happens to you. You think you're going to have your voice and that's not going to be the problem; the problem is going to be getting jobs. But then suddenly something can happen in a nanosecond, so it's great there's a foundation [for] support. There's also a lot of places that are looking into the singer's mechanism. The way that we think about our voices is very different from somebody that doesn't use their voice. When I catch a cold, I'm going to lose work possibly. When I get laryngitis, it's a very different mindset for me than somebody who is not using their voice all the time.

Where do you go after Davenport's?
I have a couple of concerts in Virginia, at the NextStop Theatre [July 11-12]. The thrust of my energy right now is a project I wrote about a gentleman I worked with who died in 1992. His name was Brian Lasser. I wrote a one-person theater piece called Unfinished Business. I did it as part of CAP21's new-writers program a few years ago, and now I'm trying to get it produced. He was a songwriter, and one of my CDs, Better Days, is all of Brian's music. In '98 he was awarded a posthumous Daytime Emmy for the song "Hold Me," which is on the CD. He meant a lot to me, he changed my life, so I wanted to do something to honor him. I've been told that the story of our relationship was kind of fun, and to have all this music that he wrote for me, I wanted to do something else to get his music out there. He was a brilliant writer and arranger, and my life is better for his being in it.

You were going to be Mrs. Danvers in the Rebecca musical! Will we ever see it?
Aah! [laughs heartily] All I can tell you is that I'm available when they get all their money. I would be part of it in a second. It's a great piece, I loved everybody involved with it. From what I hear, they are closer to getting their money. Now there's more money that's needed because of what went on. It [the scandal that derailed the production] was one of the most dramatic stories ever--it should be a musical in itself! We would always be kidding, like, "I want Meryl Streep to play me when they do the movie about the making of Rebecca here in the United States."
Ben Sprecher has been nothing gracious and forthcoming with all of the company members and creative staff. I don't think I've ever seen anything like it at that first--well, it should have been our first rehearsal but ended up being our one and only time together as a company--I've never seen such support of a project and by a producer. I try to keep in touch with Ben, because I would like to do it. I'm crossing everything I've got... Hopefully it will be in the next couple of years before I'm too old.

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