Interview: 'We Are Living Through a Contemporary Pansy Craze': Cabaret Star Mason Alexander Park on Their New London Show

The Cabaret and The Sandman star comes to Underbelly Soho this week.

By: Mar. 28, 2024
Interview: 'We Are Living Through a Contemporary Pansy Craze': Cabaret Star Mason Alexander Park on Their New London Show
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Interview: 'We Are Living Through a Contemporary Pansy Craze': Cabaret Star Mason Alexander Park on Their New London Show

The Pansy Craze is a theatrical concert series starring Mason Alexander Park chronicling multiple periods in history where queerness was celebrated, commodified, consumed, and then criminalised.

Part concert and part queer history lesson, The Pansy Craze revives legendary queer icons through songs of the 1920s, the glam rock movement of the 1970s, and contemporary queer anthems.

We caught up with Mason to quiz them on their latest show as well as their appearances on the London stage in Cabaret and on Netflix shows The Sandman and Cowboy Bebop.

What was the spark that lit the desire for this show? Did you approach Hunter Bird or vice versa?

The main spark behind writing this show has been my own fascination with queer history,
and the realisation that we are currently living through what I would consider a
contemporary Pansy Craze. The original Pansy Craze of the 1920s and 30s was a period of time in which queerness was celebrated, commodified, consumed, and then criminalised.

Some of the highest paid performers in New York City at the time were drag performers,
pansies, and gender non conformists, mainly performing to diverse crowds of people
squished in the many speakeasies in the city at the height of prohibition. But once
prohibition was over, tolerance for queer entertainment quickly waned and a moral
crackdown that targeted queer people, and especially gender non conforming people swept the nation, effectively putting an end to The Pansy Craze.  

I can’t help but feel an eerie parallel to what we are experiencing today in a post-LGBTQ+ representation boom with such a harsh anti-trans rhetoric becoming mainstream in politics here in the UK and in the US in an attempt to stir up moral panic around trans people. I went to my friend Hunter Bird about this show many years ago after working with him on other projects, and we just slowly have been developing it in conversation with the world around us. We want to be in dialog with a period of history that many people don’t know about especially in such a dangerously parallel time. 

How did you go about picking the songs for The Pansy Craze

The set list changes every time we mount the show, eventually we will probably break it up into themes or decades because we have dozens of unused songs that we can never fit into the one night version. But I began chronologically, searching for material from various pansies and drag artists in the 20s and 30s and worked my way up through mainstream music that has heavy themes of gender play in it lyrically.

Eventually it just became about picking the songs that spoke most to me and building the show around that. Artists who inspired me when I was younger like David Bowie, or who kickstarted my career as an openly trans lead in theatre like Stephen Trask’s music for Hedwig and the Angry Inch. It allows the show to be both personal and a time capsule simultaneously.

Was it always a joint decision between you and Hunter or was one person more responsible for that part of the show? 

I think it’s always been a very collaborative effort on both Hunter and I’s part. Hunter is
such a wonderful director and really great at seeing when we need to adapt the book or the staging to make moments more successful, and I find myself much more often in music land. We have a lot of trust in each other’s vision, so it helps us feel like we can go off and accomplish tasks and then bring some work back into the room.

Were there any numbers which you wish could have been included but were cut for any reason?

There are countless songs I wish we could do. It gets to a point where I end up looking at a set list of 20 songs in one evening and think “how on earth did I get here?” There is an
amazing queer country album from 1973 called Lavender Country that has many songs I
wish we could’ve used. I still want to put Billy Strayhorn’s "Lush Life" in the show, or Jayne County’s "Man Enough To Be A Woman".

You recently starred in London as the EmCee in Cabaret.  How aware were you of the show growing up?

Cabaret has been my favourite musical for almost two decades now. I discovered the film at a very young age, and then discovered the Alan Cumming led Roundabout Theatre Company version of it when I was in high school, which just blew my mind.

It’s one of the best books in the musical theatre canon, and all the Kander and Ebb songs are remarkable, it’s been a dream of mine to get to play in that sandbox for quite some time. 

How did you get inside the character’s mind? 

I think what is so beautiful about Cabaret, and about the Emcee in particular, is that it
only allows for multiple kinds of interpretations. It thrives on reinvention and
individuality. There is very little on the written page about the Emcee, which I think is such a gift to any actor who has played them because you get to build it from the ground up. The character is both real, and intangible, so depending on the production and the director you really get to make a lot of decisions on how and when the Emcee has a point of view that is either personal, or representational.

I started with who the real Emcee was. I built out a character based on the gender bending pansy performer archetype that was super popular at the time, added a dash of Marlene Dietrich, and allowed them to be a vibrant, messy, queer ringmaster at the club. Then I approached the individual numbers from the show from a more abstract and representational sense, and looked at what the commentary of each number was and how best to serve that as a ghoulish physical manifestation of the fall of the Weimar Republic. So that sort of unlocked the main two sides of what the character would be for me, the real and the abstract, and the challenge from there was to decide when and why I would become either one. It was almost a battle between the two until they either win or are destroyed in the process.

Did you review online footage of previous performances? 

I feel like I am a mini Cabaret encyclopedia having been a huge fan of the show for so long, I’ve just collected stories and books and watched everything I can get my hands on. The current West End revival is unlike any version of the show I’ve seen before, so that provided me with a completely new show to fall in love with an obsess over. I was lucky to have seen it before they asked if I would be interested in doing the show, and once we decided to go for it I just pored over some of my favorite old videos of Joel and Alan.

And what are your thoughts looking back on your run?

I’ve seen it a few times since, and just am in constant awe that I was lucky enough to be a
part of the show’s history. The legacy of Cabaret is so eclectic and exciting, and to be a small part of the fabric of the show is one of the greatest honors of my life. I had the time of my life at The Kit Kat Club, it holds the top spot for me as the most fun job I’ve had to date.

It’s a piece of theatre that is so present and important, and is so unfortunately relevant in a time where anti-semitism and transphobia are on such a rise amongst so much political division and distraction. There is nothing more powerful than feeling like the art you make matters to someone, and this show matters for so many reasons. It has this amazing ability to shock and hopefully mobilize audiences into being less willfully ignorant to the world around them.

You’ve been in two major Netflix productions. Cowboy Bebop didn’t have the smoothest production but what were your experiences on set?

Cowboy Bebop was an absolute blast. The cast itself was such a treat that I couldn’t wait to dive in. I’ve always wanted to do a project like it, and was lucky enough to get to do it
somewhere as gorgeous as New Zealand during the early days of the pandemic. To be able to work at all during that time was such a rare thing, but especially on something as large scale as that show was.

The anime is so wonderful and beloved by so many people, and our adaptation came at a time where people were incredibly resistant to anime being adapted to live action at all, so it’s sad to think that the show might have had a longer life had it come out now.

The bigger picture discussions around where it was headed was so exciting, so I think we were all disappointed that we didn’t get a chance to flesh it out more. The amount of people that come up to me to talk about their love of the show, and how fun and unique it was as its own thing makes me so happy… we all loved making it, and I’m proud to have been a part of it.

 The Sandman was a hit – will you be back in Season 2? 

The next part of The Sandman has been a remarkable experience so far. We have
something really special with this group, and I am so excited to finally be able to share it
with the world and talk more about it. Desire is so much fun to play, so every time I get to
come back to London for Sandman is a dream come true.

The Pansy Craze will be at Underbelly Soho on 29-31 March.