BWW Interview: Karen Mason of KANDER AND EBB AND ALL THAT JAZZ at Birdland
Karen Mason. The name inspires in people an awe-struck gasp, perhaps a change in their facial expression. The name inspires admiration and love. It isn't just that Karen Mason is one of the most respected singers in the business, earning her a kind of legendary status among people still incredulous that someone could sing this way, decades after she first staked her claim in the New York City show business community -- it's that people have had to put away their starstruck feelings for Karen Mason because her attitude and demeanor demand that she be treated like one of the gang. Because that's what Karen Mason is: one of the gang. And it can be surprising when an artist of this stature, of the caliber of talent Ms. Mason has, of the degree of art that she has created, just wants to be one of the kids, hanging out at the diner in blue jeans and sneakers. But that's who Karen Mason is: a genius who is one of the gang.
The constantly working Mason has been away from the gang and from New York City, touring the country with the first production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom sequel, Love Never Dies. Following that, Ms. Mason had a stint in the Judy Garland musical CHASING RAINBOWS at Papermill Playhouse. Stateside once more, Karen wanted to reintroduce herself to the city, to her fans, and to her friends, all of whom spent a year pining for her and watching her exploits on Instagram. What better way to say "I'm Back!" than a new show?
And anyone who has watched the Youtube video of her singing All That Jazz would agree that the new show should be a little Kander & Ebb.
Hence, the upcoming KANDER AND EBB AND ALL THAT JAZZ, opening at Birdland on November 25th.
Before the final push toward opening night and days on vocal rest, I got Ms. Mason on the phone for a little chat.
This interview has been edited for space and content.
Karen Mason! Welcome back from Oz!
KM: (Laughing) Thank you!
How did you enjoy your journey to Judy-Land?
KM: Oh, I loved it. Listen, I've been making journeys to Judy-land for many years. I've loved... I'm like a fan-girl of Judy Garland. And the music, her interpretation, the way she delivered a song... just even her range of a voice, that's the kind of music I love to sing. So it was a lovely piece to be part of. I really enjoyed it. I loved everybody in it. And it's such a smart, beautiful show. It was just joyful to do every night. It really was.
KM: I was so fortunate! I sang that great music that she was privileged to get to sing, but also did it such beautiful justice. To be able to sing those orchestrations that I grew up listening to, you know, there was nothing better. It was such a high and the orchestra was fantastic. To sing. Come Rain or Come Shine with bongos! I mean this is a dream come true! And those orchestrations are so magical! To be able to recreate them and to try to do your own spin on those arrangements was a lot of fun. And I just recently did it out in Asbury Park, New Jersey. They did, with their orchestra, they recreated the Carnegie Hall, a show, and Lorna Luft was part of it and a lot of great singers. It's such a high! It's so fantastic to sing that stuff.
And you just recently nabbed the Eleven O'Clock spot at the Judy Garland night at The Cabaret Convention
KM: (Laughing) Yeah, I guess I did.
Did you have a good time?
KM: You know what? Those are always fun. It's definitely a lot of people and the audiences are fantastic. I have to say going on toward the end of a long show, sometimes it's tiring to have to... I don't know if people quite understand that you basically sit and watch... and you're gearing yourself up to do this thing. You're gearing yourself up, and sometimes it turns into like two, two and a half hours of gearing yourself up to sing. The good part of it is that you get to hear everybody. And there were some fantastic performers that night and all over the place, every age, and every style of singing. The Cabaret Convention is such a smart thing to do. It really does give us all a place to share with each other what we do. It's nice.
You have a new show opening at Birdland on November 25th - an all Kander, all Ebb, all Mason show.
KM: (Laughing Big) I wish I would've thought of that title. I like that. That's a good one! Yeah! Finally, I just got the nerve to do it. It's something I've wanted to do for a long time because I have always loved John Kander and Fred Ebb. You know, for somebody who has a big voice, somebody who's considered a belter... they wrote such great songs for belters, for Liza and for Chita, you know, all these great singers. It's nice to be able to... not nice, that's not even the right word. It's an honor to be able to sing these songs and kind of do a Karen Mason spin on it.
Now, I seem to have missed a memo. Are you a belter?
KM: (Laughing) I AM! Well, you know, listen, they have categories for you. And so anybody with a big voice kind of falls into that belter category. I'd say I'm kind of a belter mezzo
And you have a more than passing association with Kander and Ebb, don't you?
KM: I do. One of the first shows I did when I got to New York, not the first, but it was pretty close. I'd say it was probably the fourth show I did when I got to New York... It was And The World Goes 'Round and they were at rehearsals, and they would come and listen to us and give us direction and give us little hints on how the songs were written and what's the best way to play it. I remember, Brenda Pressley and I were doing The Grass is Always Greener and, in rehearsal, the way the number is done is very slow. Oooooooh the graaaass is always greeeneeer. It's just slow. And when you're in rehearsal and you have nobody laughing, it is such torture to do. (Laughing) And Brenda and I were saying, "Fred, can we please just pick up the tempo? We're going to die out there and we want to do your song justice". And Fred Ebb said "No, no. No, no. The slower you do it, the funnier it is." And doggone if he wasn't right. So we get in front of an audience on opening night and people are laughing hysterically at it and that was one time where I thought "Thank god we had the master to give us some direction on it." You know, he really understood the comedy of the song, and the meter of the song, the poetry of the song, and how to make it land. We were very lucky. I mean, it's that kind of stuff that you go, "I can't believe... I have to pinch myself because you know, Fred Ebb is giving me a helpful hint on how to make it all work." It's pretty special. It was pretty great.
What makes K&E such rich material for a musical storyteller?
KM: I think it's exactly that. I think they're storytellers. They understand the three acts, the three-act play, the drama of a song, the arc. How you tell a story is you is inherent in how they write. They don't leave you hanging. They don't give you just one emotion or one instance, they definitely carry it through to the end. So there is a sense of no completion because you never want a song to be totally over, totally complete. It leads you into a place that says something has finally happened, that allows you to have the song be over for right now. The thought to have the person who's singing the song come to a realization or have something happen that says I will continue. That was the great thing about the music - they really do understand, they're survivors. They are optimists and yet cynics. I mean, Fred Ebb writes with such complexity about love and friendship and very human things. But you always get the sense that you've been on a little bit of a journey with every song. And that's pretty remarkable. For somebody who is a storyteller that's the beauty of theatrical music. Chris tells this story all the time and I'm trying to think who said, Oh shoot, what is that quote? It's something like "when words no longer can describe what's going on, when there are no more words to say, music takes over." And that is exactly what a great theatrical song does - it takes over when the emotion is too big for the moment, that's when a song happens. And John Kander and Fred Ebb truly understand that
You're an accomplished actress, have you acted in any K&E plays?
KM: You know, funny thing, I have not. (Laughing)
Well, let's get it out there. As an actor is there a Kander & Ebb play that you'd like to be in, a role that you'd like to play?
KM: Oh, listen, I would love to do anything that Chita Rivera has done... without the dancing. I won't be able to do Chicago. Unless I did Mama Morton. I would love to do the rink sometime and play the mother. I would like to, unfortunately, I'm not a dancer... they wrote very great music for dancing. And so, unfortunately, that does leave me out, but I'm happy to discuss anything with anyone. I have not... you know, it's funny, I always thought that after And The World Goes 'Round, I could be their next Liza Minnelli. Yeah, that's how naive I was. Of course, I'm going to be... "they're gonna love me because I can sing like Liza. I can act, I can sing, I have a big voice..." and you know, they had so many other people that I'm sure were feeling the same way. They were always very gracious to me, which I really appreciated,
it's interesting that you mentioned Liza because they had a very muse/mentor relationship with Liza, which is the kind of relationship that you had with Brian Lasser.
KM: Right, yeah.
So that's a relationship that you really are able to tap into
KM: You know what? Listen, I don't think you get too many of those in a lifetime, and I had mine. I had my sixteen years with Brian... somebody who wrote for me. The bad part was that Brian got sick and died in '92. He was 40 when he died... he probably could've written all kinds of amazing things. But I got my sixteen years with him, I have nothing to complain about. I was very, very lucky to have somebody as talented as Brian to help me to find who I am as a performer, as an actress.
And that's a gift that, that continues today because you get to continue to put his music out there and continue the legacy, don't you?
KM: Absolutely. I, you know, Steven Holden who wrote for the New York Times, would always, in every review he did of me, almost complain about the fact that I did a song of Brian's. I never would not include one of Brian's songs if I could. They express who I am, and I think express it beautifully. If it weren't great music, I would not do it. But I think it's my responsibility to keep Brian's message, his music, his artistry alive. And I'm proud to do it every chance I get.
I should tell you, I frequently hear Brian Lasser songs in some of the shows that I review.
KM: Oh, I'm happy to hear that. I am really happy to hear that! His music is... you know, here's what I think about John Kander and Fred Ebb and the similarities with Brian. I think they all write, which is why it appeals so much to me, they all write in a way that makes it sound like I could almost be making it up on the spot... if I was incredibly literate and really poetic and really knew how to do this. It sounds like a natural way of speaking and yet it's so elevated, but so beautifully put together that nobody feels... it just feels like speech. It feels like someone is expressing what's in their heart. That is what totally appeals to me about that type of writing. It doesn't feel so elevated but it doesn't make you aware of how elevated it is. It really feels like... it speaks to me as a person.
I'm not lying one of the bit when I tell you that just last night I saw Deborah Stone and she sings Just To Look At Him.
KM: No kidding! Wow.
Thought you'd like knowing that.
KM: I DO! I really do. I really do.
So if your life were turned into a memoir, a musical or a movie, what K&E song would be the title?
KM: (HUGE laugh) Well, okay, right off the bat, I would say it's probably "Maybe This Time." (Laughing hard).
No, we're not talking about Rebecca The Musical.
KM: (Laughing) You know, until I got married, I was like.... life to me is a series of, opportunities and then lost opportunities, opportunities and then lost opportunities. It's that kind of amalgam of all of that. And yet still to be optimistic. And I think to me Maybe This Time is one of the most optimistic eleven o'clock numbers ever written.
You spent some time out on the road with Love Never Dies. Do you miss Madame Giry?
KM: (Laughing) She's a dark little character. That one. Uuuummm... I don't miss Madame Giry, no. You know she... that's a very dark piece to do. I loved being on the road, which... this was the first time I'd ever been on the road. It's pretty crazy. I called it my Medicare Tour and I loved doing it and I loved being part of an Andrew Lloyd Webber show. It was beautiful. It's beautiful music. What I loved about it, too, was that I got a chance to play a very dark character and try to make her make sense to me, and make sense to the audience. I really enjoyed that. You know, she's a woman with a lot of dark mystery and a lot of striving and a lot of, in her own kind of dark way, she was very optimistic about the world, and she would do anything for her daughter and for the Phantom and for herself. With every role I play, I kind of walk away. I walk away with maybe a little bit of each character, hopefully, the good parts. And with Giry I walked away with maybe just a little bit more confidence and assurance in myself than I had before.
How did you like being on the road for the first time?
KM: I loved it. I Loved it. I, I'm very lucky. I loved the cast. I loved the people I was traveling with and that... you know if there's any kind of animosity in the company... you're so together so much time that it would have been impossible. But I made some great friends and these were all people I admired and loved being with and learned a lot from... made some really great friends that I still keep in touch with.
Did you get, did you get to go out and see the cities or was it just work all night and sleep all day?
KM: For me? Not really too much seeing the city... the travel we had - we did eight shows a week. We had one day off and that day was spent traveling. So you spend a lot of time nesting and then de-nesting on your weekend. When you're doing a five-show weekend, you're also getting ready to pack and get out of that city and move on. So the only days you really have time are usually the Thursday or Friday. And I buy a lot of times I was catching up on sleep.
Everyone who saw you at The Cabaret Convention, in that red dress, is dying to know one thing.
KM: (Laughing) Yes?
How do you stay so doggone fit?
KM: Well, I work very hard at it, and thank you. In my head, I'm still a fat girl, so you know, I will never probably ever lose that. I think that body image stuff stays with you your whole life. I work very hard at it. I try to go to the gym as much as I can and I try to eat so I can feel comfortable in my body.
Who's directing the Birdland Kander & Ebb show?
KM: My director of 25 years, Mr. Barry Kleinbort!
That's what I thought. How is it coming back to New York after being on tour and jumping back in with your usual guys, Barry and Chris Denny?
KM: I really like being able to do all this kind of stuff. I like going back and forth. Sometimes it can be a little jarring, but it keeps me interested. And getting to work with Chris Denny and Barry and we're also going to have a Rit Henn playing bass. I've always enjoyed having a lot of different things to keep me fascinated and I feel really lucky. You know, I get to record, I get to do cabaret, I get to do theater. Thank goodness people like me in all of these and want to work with me, so I still get the chance to do it. Working with Barry and Chris is so, so much FUN and we have, after all these years, we have a really great working relationship. It's definitely a beautiful collaboration between the three of us. My husband says that when we get together for rehearsal, we spend 40 minutes blabbing and 20 minutes actually working. And it probably is that because we are such good friends. But even in that conversation, we come up with some really great ideas. Barry Kleinbort is so brilliant, and with this show, his knowledge of music is so extensive that he came up with some ideas that... these are songs people who've never heard Kander & Ebb. I didn't know them and I knew an awful lot of Kander and Ebb songs. But there is a couple from, there's one from Flora the Red Menace. We're doing a song from the Scottsboro Boys. We're doing something from The Visit and we're also doing... Barry knew this song from a show that Kander and Ebb wrote as an audition, to be the writers of a new musical, and that was called Golden Gate. And so we're doing one of the songs from that musical that they wrote as an audition. I mean where does he find this? I have no idea. That's why for me to have Barry Kleinbort and Christopher Denny in my corner, it just makes the process of putting together a new show this crazy adventure.
Just a few minutes ago you mentioned your husband Paul Rollnick, who is a beautiful songwriter; and together you guys released the gorgeous song "It's About Time." And I'm wondering if there're any future Mason Rollnick collaboration coming for us.
KM: Oh sure! Funny you should ask. We are in the process of putting together a new CD and Paul wrote a new song called Jerusalem, which, just one day he was walking and pondering the craziness of the world today and felt that the word Jerusalem evoked to him a sense of something to strive for. So he wrote this song and it's absolutely magnificent. As a matter of fact, we'll probably be doing my version of it this weekend. It's really beautiful. So, we're, he's constantly writing, you know writers always have these ideas going through their head and you know, he's...
He's quite prolific.
KM: Yeah, he is. And he's really good and he's got a big heart. When we first got together, I would find these little pieces of paper around the house and mercifully I never threw them away! Cause, you know, he gets an idea and he'll write it down on a piece of paper, and suddenly, you know, his wife who was trying to straighten up, puts them into a little pile and it's not quite exactly the way HE would like to keep his ideas out there. But you know, he's a great songwriter and he writes from the heart and he writes certainly more pop-oriented. He's got a big heart and that really appeals to me as a writer and he's smart.
So it is coming up on your favorite time of year...
I know all your fans want to know when they're going to get a new Christmas concert.
KM: So here's the thing... this is between you and me...
(The recorder is turned off...)
So it's coming up on your favorite time of year...
What kind of holiday plans do you have?
KM: (Laughing) I'm actually doing a reading of a new musical called Rattlesnake Cave and it's a workshop of a new piece. I'm singing in a couple of people's shows, doing a Broadway Cares Equity Fights AIDS benefit, and also I'll probably be going to visit my family since I wasn't able to go home for last Christmas. I had to cancel because of some things going on. I'll probably be going home and see my family. My mom just turned 95 and I haven't seen her in a couple of months, so I need to get home and see everybody.
That'd be a nice way to spend Christmas.
KM: Yeah. I need to see my mom.
Everybody needs to see their mom.
KM: Oh, your mom! Absolutely! You know what I used to do... During the 80s when people... I mean we all lost so many friends during the eighties and nineties, and I just couldn't... I couldn't go to any more memorial services. It was like I had reached my cap, and so what I would do to honor the person who had died... I would make the effort to call somebody I hadn't spoken to in a long time. It's really important to keep that connection. I'm not particularly great at it, but it's really important to always to keep that communication going, to make that connection. So call your mom, everyone!
Words of advice from Karen Mason.
KM: (Laughing loudly) Call your mom!