Karen Mason manages to straddle theater and cabaret as if she cut her teeth on both. The actress can inhabit a stage role while equally at home offering herself to an intimate audience. Theater roles include, in part, Tanya in Abba’s Mama Mia!, Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, The Queen of Hearts in Wonderland, and most recently Madame Giry in the North American premiere of Love Never Dies. Mason is a 13-time MAC Award winner and recipient of the 2019 MAC Lifetime Achievement Award. She’s won the 2006 Nightlife Award for Major Female Vocalist and has three Bistro wins. The artist is a candid, articulate, and entertaining subject.
Host/Interviewer Michael Kirk Lane won the 2020 MAC Award for Male Musical Comedy Performer and has been nominated for three previous MAC and Broadway World Cabaret Awards, winning the latter in 2018 for Best Show. Experience managing two of the city’s most renowned cabaret venues (The Laurie Beechman Theatre, Don’t Tell Mama) offers him a unique vantage point and perspective on the art form. For 20 years, Lane has also been a teaching artist. “Art, Theatre, and Music are ways for us to connect with our most authentic self, and to explore the world around us.” An infectious fan (not cloying), he’s an astute and genial interviewer.
MKL: “You’ve had great success in mainstream theater, but keep coming back to cabaret, why? KM: I love the medium. There’s something about seeing the audience in a small room, it becomes a conversation. I had a manager who said, you set the mood. I like to enjoy myself. It’s a party for all of us.
MKL: “I’ve heard (performer/director) Lina Katrakus say, ‘the audience is almost your scene partner.’
MKL: When you’re seeing cabaret or working with someone new what excites you?
KM: The honesty of conviction. A lot of people only make a beautiful sound… Mason tells us about an experience she had performing in hospitals/retirement homes with the now defunct Hearts and Voices. Austin Pendleton, who has “a very quirky, not a beautiful voice” sang a version of “Somewhere” that stunned both her and his audience. “He was so committed…” Both Lane and Mason agree that Sidney Myer is a prime example of skillful communication and empathy.
Mason started her career in Chicago at Lawrence of Oregano Italian restaurant where she met musician/songwriter Brian Lasser. Lasser would get private party gigs and take Mason along, splitting the fee. Next the collaborators played the back room at Le Pub (a pick-up bar was up front), rising to 3 shows five nights a week. “We learned what was really good for us and what stank.” MKL: “There’s joy getting paid to make music with your best friend.” KM: “I figured the money would come- and it came-ish.” Mason and Lasser arrived in New York together. They played The Ballroom in ’78, then the brand new Duplex. “I think the cover was “five dollars.” She and Nancy La Mott were the first to perform at Don’t Tell Mama. (October 15 & 17 Karen will be performing live/streaming from Don’t Tell Mama.) “We were building an audience, something difficult to do these days.”
MKL: Who were the vocalists that inspired you then? KM: “Judy Garland who was all heart and Barbra Streisand who was perhaps once removed- this is what I’m feeling and I’m singing about it. I just loved what they gave to their music and learned some fantastic lessons- how to style, how to phrase…I grew up listening to Frank Sinatra…”
MLK: “Who said he learned everything from Mabel Mercer.
KM: “I didn’t get into Mabel until not so long ago. We try to have fancy clothes and props, but she just sat there…”
MKL: “Julie Wilson had that stillness and simplicity as well.”
Performance video clip # 1 is a rendition of “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” (Christopher Deny on piano) Mason had long hair. Every word is credible. The belt is clarion but not without specific feeling.
MKL: “Tell us about your team.”
KM: “Christopher Deny has been my MD/pianist since ’92, Barry Kleinbort, my director since ’97. I trust them. They know my skills and utilize them in a way that shows me off. And they get me to try things. Trust and loyalty are important to me. We’ve developed a kind of shorthand. Let’s face it, we’re not gonna make a bazillion dollars. I want to enjoy the process.”
The next video clip is from the 1987 MAC Awards. Karen had punk hair and wore balloon pants “What was I thinking?!” Lasser’s arrangement is a rueful anthem. Though she questions it now, Mason dove in. Her face, bearing, and phrasing reflect new intentions.
The two then discuss changes in Cabaret from popular club/nightclub/variety show days to a waning in the ‘70s when the genre lost coverage and respect.
KM: “It’s been dying since I started, but somehow people still want to communicate with artists and vice versa.
MKL: “Right. It’s not just showing up.”
KM: “I remember in the ‘80s clubs were charging a fee. If you hit that in sales, you’d go on and get paid, if not you’d get cancelled. That complicated things. Now all you need to do in a lot of clubs is to fill it once…Anyone can do one great show, it’s the next when you get past initial excitement on which you have to work differently and a little harder.”
MKL: “Can it be taught?”
KM: “I think it comes from experience. I can teach song performance, but not that.”Lane asks about honing the art form.
KM: “There are a lot of people who can work with you on an act. I wouldn’t have a clue without my collaborators, a director and a musical director. My instincts are pretty good, but…”
MKL: “You can’t see how it’s playing.” Mason notes that for Deny, watching her regular Thursday night concerts (from home) is a revelation because he’s never “seen” her perform.
Lane thinks there are distinctive changes and an upswing in cabaret interest partly due to the participation of Broadway artists and gay performers who offer new angles, partly to the interest of young people. “I think when we open again people will be hungry for it, there’ll be a great resurgence of cabaret.” He asks Mason about working with legendary songwriters. “What’s it like to be so close to that type of artistry?”
His subject reflects on Kander and Ebb for whom she did And the World Goes Round and demos for The Visit: “Sometimes the most brilliant artists in the room are the most humble;” on Frank Wildhorn (Wonderland): “He made me laugh. He’s a big old flirt, so I had a great time;” on Billy Goldenberg (Ballroom): “I’m just such a frickin’ fan more than anything. That kind of talent is awesome to behold…I’m like everyone else, there are times I question why I do this or why someone else got a role, but I’m so lucky. I mean, they call me ‘Karen!’ Marilyn and Alan Bergman, Sheldon Harnick, Amanda McBroom…
MKL: “I always end my session with the question ‘What is Cabaret?’ in a few sentences.”
KM: “Cabaret is the communication between artist and audience, a conversation.”
Tonight’s last song is live. Mason sings Brian Lasser’s beautiful, apt “Better Days.” (Sean Harkness on recorded guitar.) Accompaniment is low. You can hear just how good she is. And how moving.
Michael Kirk Lane’s photo by Stephen Mosher
Karen Mason’s photo by Bill Westmoreland
COMING UP through the 92Y: Michael Kirk Lane’s Cabaret Conversations October 5, 2020: Natalie Douglas
November 16, 2020: Chita Rivera
December 7, 2020: Sidney Myer
Information about Mason’s Thursday Live Shows and the upcoming stream of her 2015 show can be found at: http://www.karenmason.com/events/