It is often said that growth comes from challenge. “Life’s challenges are not supposed to paralyze you,” said the artist and scholar Bernice Johnson Reagon. “They’re supposed to help you discover who you are.”
Karen Mason, a prolific Broadway and concert performer never let the shutdown get in the way of her passion for performing. “I am someone who doesn’t like to stay inactive for too long. And when we went into lockdown in New York City, I lost a lot of work. A lot of work,” shares the beloved Broadway performer. Mason is known for standout roles from creating the part of Tanya in Mamma Mia! to playing Norma Desmond in the original run of Sunset Boulevard to starring as Velma von Tussel in the final Broadway company of Hairspray.
After watching endless old movies and streaming shows she realized she better keep herself in shape, emotionally and artistically. “So, I took a few zoom classes about self-taping, watched a lot of YouTube videos and just jumped in to try this new world for me,” she says. Singing her repertoire from her CDs on Facebook and YouTube ultimately led to 18 months of a half hour weekly show called Mason’s Makin’ Music.
The result has been a landmark year. In addition to touring the country in the North American premiere of Love Never Dies, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s sequel to The Phantom of the Opera, Mason flexed her performing chops onscreen too. Mason was seen around the world in the Netflix series Halston opposite Ewan McGregor. She played Estelle Marsh, the woman who provided the seed money for what became his fashion empire.
If that’s not enough, Mason also has a new album, “Let the Music Play.” A mix of musical theater chestnuts, standards and some potent new compositions, the record’s title song in an anthem for our current moment, welcoming back live performance. “The song, “Let The Music Play,” is relevant for anyone in the arts and, for me, about my personal journey of discovery through lockdown and this very strange and difficult time,” says Mason.
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“Let The Music Play” features the Barry Kleinbort and Joseph Thalken song “Time,” from the new musical Was. Mason also sings “Mr. Monotony,” a song which she performed on Broadway in the musical Jerome Robbins Broadway.
In addition to “Let The Music Play,” Mason is featured on the first volume on the newly-released recording project “Sondheim Unplugged,” dedicated to the late musical theater maestro Stephen Sondheim. “My personal connection to Mr. Sondheim’s work is to the show Gypsy,” shares Mason who has played Mama Rose. “I believe everyone in the world of musical theater was impacted by his work. His music is for actors who sing. A world without Sondheim is strange. We have his music to keep him close.”
While Mason has headlined at large venues like Carnegie Hall, Kennedy Center, and Lincoln Center, she is bringing her holiday concert evening Christmas! Christmas! Christmas! to the intimate Laurie Beechman Theater in New York from December 17 through Sunday, December 19 at 7:00 PM.
The concert will feature Mason’s singular interpretations of old and new holiday classics with musical director Christopher Denny on piano and Tom Hubbard on bass. at www.westbankcafe.com Mason will also sing songs from “Let The Music Play.”
Reflecting on the last 18 months and what it taught her Mason shares what she learned about herself. “I am resilient, a survivor and pretty darn good at technology. And I learned, re-learned that my husband, [producer and composer Paul Rolnick], and I are good together.” So many life lessons continue to stay with her. “Life is very precious and very unpredictable,” she says. “I must not let fear keep me from what I want. There is no time.”
Jeryl Brunner: What was one of the first times you performed on stage?
Karen Mason: In high school I needed a date for prom. I went to an all-girls high school, so I had to find my own date. And I really didn’t know any boys, so I thought I would audition for the musical at the boys’ school. I got cast as a townsperson in Annie Get Your Gun. I didn’t get a date, but I did find what I love.
Brunner: “Let the Music Play,” which was written for you, is starting to be performed by choruses around the country. What is like to have a song written for you go on to have a life of its own?
Mason: It makes me so very proud that my husband, Paul Rolnick, and his co-writer David Friedman, could musicalize so beautifully what we are all feeling. In fact, the song will be performed by The New York Pops in their first concert at Carnegie Hall in two years. It will be sung by the brilliant Laura Benanti.
Brunner: How did the song come about?
Mason: It all happened because of Zoom! At the beginning of lockdown, David and his partner Shawn, and Paul and I started meeting weekly on zoom. Just to have a connection. I have known David and Shawn for many years, and never had the luxury of long conversations. Over the 18 months our friendship really blossomed. And yes, we are still doing our weekly Zooms, and are performing in London in the Spring together. One time, Paul asked David if he wanted to try and write a song together. Within a few days, the song “Let the Music Play” was born. I knew the second I heard it that I wanted to sing it and make it the title track of my album.
Brunner: It was great to see you onscreen in Halston on Netflix playing Estelle Marsh. What was it like working with Ewan McGregor and what qualities did Estelle Marsh have that you adore?
Mason: Well, Ewan McGregor was very handsome and so lovely to work with. He treated me as an equal, which energized me to give my best. I think I have a little crush on him. Mrs. Marsh was a no-nonsense lady. She was a Texan who didn’t take guff from anyone. I love that. I wish I had more of that ability to recognize BS a lot faster. And she was a bit of a wheeler-dealer.
Brunner: When did you know you had to be an artist? And is possible to describe how singing makes you feel?
Mason: Singing is breathing. It is my safe place to be. It is how I relate who I am and what I feel. It is also a gift I do not take for granted. I had a period of six months in 1984 with a paralyzed vocal cord, which devastated me. So, when my voice came back, and they were not sure it would come back, I knew I could never take it for granted again. Each note, each second I can sing, is a gift. In a second it could be gone.
I think I always knew in some part of me that I had to be an artist, but, well, it was a process. As a teenager, I knew I was at home on stage and that people responded to my voice. I wanted to do show after show but didn’t have the courage to pursue it professionally. Until I met a man named Brian Lasser at a restaurant in Chicago that was hiring singing waiters and waitresses. Brian and I worked together for 16 years. Working with him was pure joy! From rehearsal to performance, I just knew I wanted to be making music with Brian. That was when my destiny was clear to me.