Best known to theater audiences for her performance as the grandly manic-depressive Norma Desmond in Andrew Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard -- a role which, as a stand-by, she played more than 150 times in Los Angeles and on Broadway -- Karen Mason is now starring in a rather more lighthearted piece of musical theater: the St. Louis MUNY Opera's White Christmas. In this world premiere stage adaptation of the classic Bing Crosby-Danny Kaye-Rosemary Clooney-Vera-Ellen film with a score by Irving Berlin, Mason has the coveted Clooney role. Her co-stars are Lara Teeter, Lee Roy Reams, and Lauren Kennedy... not to mention Howard Keel, the king of M-G-M musical hits (Show Boat, Kiss Me, Kate, Annie Get Your Gun), and Karen Morrow, the queen of Broadway musical flops (I Had a Ball, Whoop-Up).
It sounds like a lot of fun for Mason, whose New York stage credits range from And the World Goes Round to Jerome Robbins' Broadway to Torch Song Trilogy, and who has sparked regional productions of Heartbeats, Man of La Mancha, Oliver!, Funny Girl, Gypsy (as Mama Rose, at the Sundance Institute in Utah) and Company (as Joanne, at the Huntington Theatre in Boston). Equally lauded as a cabaret diva, a concert headliner, and a recording artist, the lady is no stranger to the Berlin repertoire.
For our TheaterMania interview, I phoned Mason long-distance, about a week before opening night of White Christmas.
TM: So, Karen... it's Christmas in July in St. Louis.
MASON: Exactly! Everybody's reaction to the idea for the show has been so positive. It seems like it could be a great vehicle and a wonderful moneymaker.
TM: Can you tell me a little bit about the adaptation?
MASON: The gentleman who wrote it, Paul Blake, is with the MUNY. Apparently, a lot of other people have had the idea to adapt White Christmas for the stage and have presented it to the Berlin estate, but no one could get permission to do it. Paul said, "Just let me talk to them." Everybody told him it wasn't going to happen; but he's a charming man, so he was able to convince them to give him a shot at it. He used most of the music that was in the film, and he's added a couple of other songs, because some of the roles have been punched up -- the general, the housekeeper. But, for the most part, the numbers we all know and love are still there, like "Sisters" and "Snow" and, of course, "White Christmas."
TM: I'm embarrassed to admit it, but I've never actually seen the movie. As a big fan of Rosemary Clooney, I have no excuse for that.
MASON: She's so wonderful in it. It's a really warm, fun picture. Hopefully, we'll be able to get that same kind of energy on stage.
TM: Clooney, of course, is still very active on the nightclub circuit. Have you met her?
MASON: Yes. In fact, she was at Rainbow & Stars while I was in Sunset Boulevard and she couldn't make one of her performances, so they asked me if I would like to do it. They called at 5pm, and I did a show there at 8:00 that night with Alex Rybeck... much to the surprise of the audience, who thought they were going to be seeing Rosemary Clooney! We kind of explained our way through it, and it was okay. Whenever I've met Rosemary, she's always been very lovely, generous, and down-to-earth.
TM: You have Howard Keel in your White Christmas. That's pretty amazing. I guess I thought he was retired.
MASON: Well, they're bringin' him back! [She laughs] He certainly couldn't give up the chance to perform outdoors in hot, humid St. Louis and wear big outfits.
TM: Have you worked at the MUNY before?
MASON: Last year, I did something called The Muny Goes British. I had never been on a stage that huge. The place seats 9,000 people.
TM: How do you pitch your performance for a venue like that?
MASON: A little larger than usual! It's on the other extreme from TV and film. I was talking about this with Lauren Kennedy, who's playing my sister in White Christmas... and who was my roommate in Los Angeles when we were doing Sunset together. We were saying that, at the MUNY, your gestures have to be big, and you have to start your entrances and exits sooner than you normally would. It's like walking the length of a football field just to get off the stage.
TM: It must be hard to wait for laughs in a gigantic theater like that, since they come in waves.
MASON: It will be interesting, because I haven't done a book show there. In The MUNY Goes British, I did a musical hall number that was supposed to be funny... but you really can't hear any audience reaction when you're on stage, because they're so far away. Even the people up front. I mean, you can sort of see them, but the energy gets dissipated up into the atmosphere.
TM: So only God hears the applause!
MASON: It's really such an experience. But they get great people to perform there. When I was a kid, we lived in St. Louis for a while, and my parents used to take us to the MUNY all the time. I got to see Around the World in 80 Days with Cyril Ritchard, and Peter Pan, and The Student Prince. We sat in the cheap seats, but it didn't matter. It was magical.
TM: Aside from Howard Keel, you have Lara Teeter and Karen Morrow in your White Christmas. I guess they're perfect examples of people who work regularly outside of New York, but those of us who live here in the city assume they're not active anymore because we don't hear about them.
MASON: I think Lara and his wife moved to Chicago; he's been running a light opera company in Evanston. He was in The MUNY Goes British with me. Karen Morrow has been out in Los Angeles, and I think she does a lot of regional shows, too. She also teaches. Karen and Lara and Lee Roy [Reams] are all MUNY favorites; they work there a lot. You know, there's that whole world of regional theaters that are right below the New York radar, but a lot of actors are able to make a good living there.
TM: Well, it sounds like a great cast.
MASON: I know. I love doing this kind of stuff, because you get to work with some of the best people in the business. Lauren and I are hoping they'll give us those big, big feather fans that Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen used in the movie, in the "Sisters" number.
TM: Even though I haven't seen the film, I know there are some great songs in it. Like "Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep."
MASON: Yes. That's Lara's song, but I get to sing the last part of it with him. One of my big numbers is "Love, You Didn't Do Right By Me." You know, they've brought in some heavy hitters to work on the show: Charlie Repole is directing and Thommie Walsh is doing the choreography. If they can make this work, it will be a lovely production to play everywhere at Christmastime, because it's such a sweet, happy show. It's also sentimental, but that's all right. Who doesn't cry every time they hear "White Christmas?"