An InterView with Karen Mason
By Aron Bederson
I recently attended Karen Mason’s long running holiday show Christmas! Christmas! Christmas!, Mason’s long-running audience favorite, which she has performed, in various incarnations, since 1984. I caught up with her in a phone conversation where she shared a lot about her upcoming show at Birdland on March 28th, her recent CD Let The Music Play and a range of topics related to her approach to work and her evolution as an artist.
Throughout our conversation, Mason was generous and warm. We dove into the topic of teaching and performing. In her down to earth manner, she confided:
“I didn’t think at first that I was suited for teaching. I felt that there were people who could articulate to others the process of how to get better as a singer.” At first she taught with Christopher Denny and Barry Kleinbort at Perry Mansfield Cabaret Classes in Steamboat Springs. She was later encouraged to teach again by her peers, Lennie Watts in NY and Tim Schall in St. Louis. “Lennie brought me in when he was doing master classes and that was a good way to dip my toes in the water of it. I do love it” Mason continued “I have been lucky to have worked with brilliant people who have taken the time to show me and give me things to think about. I am not going to reinvent the wheel. You cannot give someone a thirst for knowledge or talent. Music is a way of expressing your deepest feelings in a very public way. When you share something – you don’t feel so alone. When I was growing up, I felt alone and backwards and like a nerd. Music was a great way to express these feelings and find that I am not alone and get rid of the agita of it all. When we start out, we mimic the people who speak to our souls. It is fine to do that in rehearsal but you need to understand why. You can help people without tearing people down. Being destructive in no way works for me. The desire to share is too fragile. I love to approach things as “that was great, now how else can we look at that? There is rehearsal and then there’s being in class. Just try everything you can so you can figure out who you are. Once I started teaching, it was interesting to verbalize what I thought about singing and acting and music.”
“After many years of performing” Mason said, “your performing muscles become habits. That’s the beauty of what we do. It is never too late to rediscover. I love seeing people in master classes who are younger and older and who want to sing. It is never too late”.
Mason mentioned the CBS show on Tony Bennet who has been living with Alzheimer’s and her Mom who had it as well. Mason said of her upbringing,
“I grew up with music, “Beethoven, Frank Sinatra, Operettas, it was always playing and always there for us.” She expressed both wonder and joy “To see Tony Bennet get up, with no short term memory, and sing those songs like he was 25! Music is in our soul and taps into a deep part of ourselves. It is attached to generosity and compassion and anger, all the big emotions. Music is a gift to not take for granted.”
Mason suffered a paralyzed vocal chord, a form of Bell’s palsy, in 1985. To not be able to sing or talk very well was understandably difficult for Mason but even so she thought “I will still be connected to the music business, it is too important.” When her voice came back, Mason started studying again and relearning how to sing. “I love going to voice lessons and keeping my instrument in control as much as we can control anything.”
I asked Mason “what drew you to cabaret?” She answered “a guy!” Mason grew up in Arlington Heights, a suburb of Chicago but was too afraid to go into the city. Mason spent a lot of her life as a “big chicken.” It is hard to know that! I said- Mason answered
“Well, it took me a long time to overcome that. I never felt I was worthy. I didn’t feel attractive. I second guessed my ability. I was doing a lot of community theatre and one of the women said “you should get out now. Don’t wait. Life will pass you by.” I auditioned at a restaurant in Chicago, Lawrence of Oregano. Brian Lasser was the pianist/music director. The first time we sang together it was Don’t Rain On My Parade. You know when you are making music with someone, and it feels more special than with others. It feels stronger, fuller, more connected. You feel like one unit. We loved rehearsing together. It was so much FUN.”
He brought Mason to gigs where Mason sat on the piano bench with Lasser “it cleared the room by the way. People wanted to talk.”
She got her first job at The Other Side on New Year’s Eve. “We just wanted to make music together. I wanted to be making music with Brian.”
I mentioned in her recent shows how clearly connected Mason was with her team and how they all seemed to enjoy working together. Mason said:
“Very few people are going to make large amounts of money in show business, very few people. So, it better feel right and fun. Fun can be diminished and sound unnecessary and frivolous. The best music comes out of that sense of fun. What can we discover? Being with Barry and Chris (Barry Kleinbort-director/ Christopher Denny-pianist) we are always looking for something new. I love rehearsal. I am a rehearsal junky. It is fun- trying something new- seeing what works and doesn’t. Chris and Barry work on making an arrangement make dramaturgical sense. How do we make this work? I am very blessed. I have chosen to work with people who make me happy. It is an investment. You better like the people you are working with. I love the process of it! It was a transition going back to theatre from cabaret. The process of cabaret is all about Me. This will sound so conceited – but cabaret is about how can we make the music be the best music you can for the individual performer? When you are in theatre you are part of an ensemble and a machine and someone else’s perception. It took me a while to feel all my ideas are valid in the theatre but that is not always appreciated in the theatre. It took me a while to be as free in a theatrical situation as I wanted to be.”
Bringing the conversation to cabaret and her recent show Christmas, Christmas, Christmas, Mason mentioned that they first did the show in 1984 at Don’t Tell Mama (Mason actually opened DTM with Rick Jensen and Nancy Lamott in 1983) and she has been offering the Christmas show with new interpretations since 1984. There are certain standards that they do each year, Silent Night, Christmas Waltz and Christmas Song. Other songs, such as Not This Christmas, were updated for the pandemic (see review). There is also set patter in the show, year to year. Mason shares a story about being a young performer and not being able to afford to go home one Christmas. This led right into Silent Night. “The arrangement of the story and music, how one emotion leads to the next made such dramaturgical sense” Mason said, that all she had to do as a performer was “not get in the way.”
Mason, and musicians Christopher Denny on piano and Tom Hubbard on the bass, performed a beautiful arrangement of Joni Mitchell’s River paired with Joy To The World which was one of the highlights of the show, in my view. Mason added that the emotions of River never get old and as her husband, record producer Paul Rolnick, said are “heartfelt.” Mason continued
“Everyone can relate to losing either a girlfriend or a boyfriend – all I have to do is just show up, my work is done. Pairing the song with Joy To The World was just brilliant. The holidays can be great some years and other just suck!” People stay away from Christmas shows, they think it will be all sugar plum fairies and too happy for words. And that’s not the holidays for most people. Some holidays are good other stink. I don’t get tired of the Christmas show and the good thing is it happens just once a year!”
Mason also talked about the process of making her latest CD, Let The Music Play. The recording has been in the works for sometime but was really born of the pandemic. Mason said she was “bouncing off the walls” during quarantine. She and her husband, Paul Rolnick decided to make an album. They had a rather “disparate” song list ranging from The Beatles, Irving Berlin, Stephen Schwartz and other theatre writers to more contemporary writers: Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil and David Friedman. Mason and her husband were trying to find a connection between this great variety of music with titles like Is Anybody Out There (Rolnick/Kochan), Time (Kleinbort/Thalken) and We Can Be Kind (Friedman) which all in fact expressed some emotion about the pandemic. David Friedman and Paul Rolnick had been working on a song together over the internet which came to be Let The Music Play. They realized that they had the title and theme of their album. It was about getting back to the work that we know and love. The CD is a collection of “interesting, wonderful music” Mason said. Going back to the studio was as Mason described a “religious experience.”
Mason also talked about her upcoming concert on March 28th at 7 PM upstairs at Birdland (two days before her birthday.) She had been planning a Kander and Ebb show to bring to Birdland but then Covid hit. As someone who has been classified as a belter, Kander and Ebb is the perfect fit she said. “I love to belt… but I am a ballad girl. If I could do an entire hour of ballads, I would be wildly happy although we would have a depressed audience!” She will sing a number of Kander and Ebb songs that many may not have heard such as Go Back Home from Scottsboro Boys and Love and Love Alone from The Visit which she sang a demo of but never in public. Mason is also singing Ring Them Bells from And The World Goes Round which wasn’t on the cast album! “The show is so much fun and has brand new things that I don’t think most people have heard.”
Mason’s energy and enthusiasm for her work were evident throughout our conversation. Her deep love of music and the craft of telling stories through song has sustained her long and prolific career. Her upcoming show at the legendary Birdland (March 28th at 7pm upstairs) is a great opportunity to witness Mason and her musical team in action. Don’t miss it!
Photo: Gene Reed