Karen Mason, the beloved Broadway and concert performing, is having landmark year. Known for her standout roles from the original New York cast of the ABBA blockbuster musical Mamma Mia!, as Norma Desmond in the original run of Sunset Boulevard and Velma von Tussel in Hairspray, she also had an opportunity to shine on the screen as well. This spring she was seen around the world in the popular Netflix series Halston opposite Ewan McGregor. Mason played Estelle Marsh, the woman who provided the seed money for what became his fashion empire.
Also, Mason recently debuted her powerful new album "Let the Music Play." The record is a mix of musical theater chestnuts, standards, and an introduction to some potent new compositions. The title song in an anthem for our current moment, welcoming back live performance to theaters concert halls, and beyond.
Mason never let the arts shutdown get in the way of her passion for performing. Even when venues were closed, she would connect with friends and fans through weekly Zoom concerts. “After watching endless old movies and streaming shows, I realized that I better keep myself in shape, emotionally and artistically," she shares. "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 began singing to tracks from her previous CDs on Facebook and YouTube. And that led to 18 months of half hour shows on Thursdays.
In addition to her new solo album, Mason is featured on the first volume on the newly-released recording project Sondheim Unplugged, dedicated to the late musical theater master Stephen Sondheim. “My personal connection to Mr. Sondheim’s work is to the show Gypsy," she shares.“I have always loved that show, and have had the honor to play Rose a few times. I feel everyone in the world of musical theatre 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.”
Congratulations on releasing "Let the Music Play." You have said the title song is about the return of live performance after the pandemic. How did you stay creatively nourished during the pandemic?
The title song is relevant for anyone in the arts and also, for me, about my personal journey of discovery through lockdown and this very strange and difficult time. I am someone who doesn’t like to stay inactive for too long! And when we went into lockdown here in New York City, I lost a lot of work. A lot of work. After watching endless old movies and streaming shows, I realized that I better keep myself in shape, emotionally and artistically.
I decided to try to learn a new skill: self-taping! This was to be the direction of our artistic lives, for auditions and just staying in touch. 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! I started doing some singing to tracks from my previous CDs, on Facebook and YouTube, which led to a year of half hour shows on Thursday at 5:00 PM, “Mason’s Makin’ Music.” My Music Director, Chris Denny, and my director Barry Kleinbort, and I started working on this app called Jamkazam to do new arrangements. Voila! New tracks to sing to in my living room! I got pretty good at singing to a little hole in my computer, and feeling a connection to the outside world.
What did you learn about yourself during this time?
I am resilient, a survivor, and pretty darn good at technology. And I learned, re-learned that my husband and I are good together. What stays with me? That life is very precious and very unpredictable. I must not let fear keep me from what I want. No time! And I need to be a better friend to my family and friends. Make the time!
“Let the Music Play” is starting to be performed by choruses around the country. How did that song come to be? What is like to have a song written for you go on to have a life of its own?
This song should be heard and sung by many, many people!! By everyone! People who love music understand the power of this message. And that my husband, Paul Rolnick, and his co-writer David Friedman, could musicalize so beautifully what we are all feeling, makes me so very proud of them.
In fact, the song “Let the Music Play” 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 Kelli O'Hara. This is just thrilling.
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 (yes, we are still doing our weekly Zooms, and are performing in London in the Spring together), our friendship really blossomed. One time, Paul asked David if he wanted to try and write a song together. David said yes. They collaborated and 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 also make it the title track of my album. It just spoke to me.
When did you know you had to be artist? And is possible to describe how singing makes you feel?
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 chord, 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.
Your husband produces your album and writes many songs for you. How do you deal with the work/life balance for your relationship?
Two artists in one house is not easy, but it is so very worth it. The trust we feel that the other will be honest is imperative. Our work complements each other so beautifully: actress/singer and singer/songwriter/producer! We work constantly to not let the work be the only constant in our relationship. It is not an easy balance. But what marriage is easy? You just keep trying and talking and laughing and loving each other and hope for the best!
Your album features the Barry Kleinbort and Joseph Thalken song “Time,” from the new musical Was. When you get approached about new musicals, what qualities do you look for in the pieces?
I wish I had been in Was! It is a beautiful musical. When I get approached about a new musical, I look for my connection. How do I feel about the music, the character? I feel lucky I have worked on a few new musicals and I do love being the first to flesh out a character, and sing her songs! I want the character to be challenging and fun to play, and also feel that I can bring something to the music. I want to feel a personal investment.
he album also features you singing “Mr. Monotony,” a song which you actually performed on Broadway in the musical Jerome Robbins Broadway. Did you work directly with Mr. Robbins?
I was a replacement, so I did not work with Mr. Robbins. I worked with the dance captains. However, he did show up one night to check up on his show…and I would like to think he came to see how I was doing. I had told everyone I did NOT want to know when he was in the audience. But backstage it is very hard to keep a secret, and one night, I found out Mr. Robbins was in the audience. Actually I could see him in his house seats, and just hoped he like me in his show.
It was a show I loved being in, and so loved watching his gorgeous choreography every show every night! The cast was called on stage after the curtain came down to see Mr. Robbins, and he just said to me “Nice to meet you.” As disappointed as I was that he didn’t kvell over me, I was told that he just paid me a compliment! That I would have known if he didn’t like me. Whew!! A man of few words, I guess.
You recently toured the country in the North American premiere of Love Never Dies, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s sequel to The Phantom of the Opera. What was the joy of being in Love Never Dies?
I loved touring. This was my first long-term tour. I was very lucky that this was a great group to travel with…. everyone got along so well! We were a family! Such a diverse and fascinating group of people. I made some beautiful friendships…that will stay with me forever. And I loved playing a rather dark character, Madame Giry. She was fun!
In addition to your new solo album you're also featured on the new album Sondheim Unplugged. What is your personal connection to Sondheim's work? How did he impact your life?
I did not know Mr. Sondheim and only sang for him twice that I know of. And I was thrilled and very nervous each time! I wish I had worked with him on a show. And gotten the privilege to collaborate with him. My personal connection to Mr. Sondheim’s work is to the show Gypsy. I have always loved that show, and have had the honor to play Rose a few times. And it was always an honor! I feel everyone in the world of musical theatre 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.
You were in Halston on Netflix playing Estelle Marsh. What was it like working with Ewan McGregor? What qualities did Estelle Marsh have that you adore?
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! 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.
Did you ever wear an original Halston before?
I never wore an original Halston, but for my first concert in 1977, my parents bought a beautiful Halston evening pajama. I loved this outfit and especially since it was a good luck gift from my folks. And it did bring me good luck!
What was one of the first times you performed on stage, even if it was in elementary school.
The first time I sang on a real stage was 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.