Karen Mason of Mamma Mia! on auditioning, making it in showbiz, and Broadway vs. cabaret.
It's been 37 years since Streisand sang the music that made us dance on the stage of the Winter Garden Theatre. But, any minute now, those same boards will be trod by yet another cabaret success story--and a damned funny girl to boot. When Karen Mason stars as Tanya in Mamma Mia!, she'll be swinging a lifetime of nightclub and theatrical experience in her disco purse.
Broadway and Los Angeles audiences last saw Karen--make that, maybe saw Karen--as the stand-by for every single Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd. This fall brings Mason a new musical, a new CD from Jerome Records, and a new life as a certified Broadway star...with a stand-by to call her own!
JIM CARUSO: How did Mamma Mia! happen for you?
KAREN MASON: I had my first audition in December; I sang "Downtown" and "I Know A Place." The rumor was that the producers were very interested in me, but then I heard that they were seeing other people in January. Not one to let the ball drop, I called my agent--probably way too many times--saying, "So?" It sounded like they were just seeing a bunch of new people; I was told not to worry and to go on with my life. Then I went to Florida to do Side by Side by Sondheim. The Mamma Mia! people called and asked me to fly up for a callback on a Monday; that's right when the Sondheim show closed unexpectedly because of that little cease-and-desist order. [The show was shuttered because the creative team made unauthorized changes in its content.] Suddenly, I was terribly free. I flew back home and went to the callback with my hair up, a gold outfit, and a padded bra. I looked like I was workin' the hallway! The other girls auditioning looked so adorable, and I looked like I was there to "do" the production staff. But I went in and had a ball. They had me sing "Does Your Mother Know" from the show. Of course, just as I did with my Sunset Blvd. audition, I forgot the lyrics.
JC: Maybe that's a good omen.
KAREN: It might be, but I'd really rather not get into the practice! It's relatively humiliating. They were so attentive, though, and made me so comfortable.
JC: Do you think you're more comfortable in an audition situation because of your cabaret background?
KAREN: Absolutely--although it can work against you. It depends on the artistic staff. You need to show that you have the personality to work with a director. It's a tough call, but you can't ever know what they're gonna like or dislike. A strong personality can turn some people off. I go into an audition being very perky, because that's who I am. I try to hide it sometimes, but it always comes out! I can't be anything that I'm not. I'd like to think I'm not bombastic, though. I don't do cartwheels or bring cakes.
JC: Do you like to audition?
KAREN: I do. I consider it a mini-show in the afternoon. That's where the cabaret background helps. You have to learn how to define yourself in a very short period of time.
JC: How did you find out that you got the Mamma Mia! role?
KAREN: I was sitting in a coffee shop and my agent called. He said, "Where are you?" I said, "I didn't get it, did I?" He said again, "Where are you?" I told him and he said, "Okay, hold on a second." I was so disappointed! Then I heard this tiny little sound coming through my cell phone. It was "Dancing Queen." They were playing it in the office to let me know that I had gotten the part! I jammed all my stuff into my bag, ran outside and started jumping up and down and screaming. I could not contain myself. Then I called my husband and my parents and screamed some more.
JC: How did you celebrate?
KAREN: We all drank champagne!
JC: What do you say to young performers starting out in the business?
KAREN: It's not gonna be easy. People will be telling you why you're not good enough and what you should change about yourself. You should learn who to listen to and who not to listen to! It's good to hear the criticism, but don't necessarily take it all to heart. People have such varied agendas; those critiques are not always for your own good. I was so lucky to have Brian Lasser [Karen's longtime musical collaborator, who passed away several years ago] working with me. He allowed me to make mistakes and allowed me to have successes. Through those experiences, I learned where I was comfortable and where I could be challenged.
JC: What do you like best about performing?
KAREN: I love communicating with the audience. I was once complaining about those people who endlessly preach in the streets of New York City with a Mr. Microphone--how they can just talk forever. Brian said, "What do you mean? Not only do you expect people to listen to you, but you expect them to pay!" My husband says I like to blab a lot. To me, interesting performers have the ability to let their guard down and let me see something that I can relate to.
JC: What song do you sing that means the most to you?
KAREN: It changes all the time but, right now, it would have to be the song my husband [Paul Rolnick] wrote: "We Never Ran Out of Love, We Just Ran Out of Time," which will be on my new CD. The other one that gets me every time is "It Had To Be You." I did it in my last show even though I was afraid it was a bit overdone. I guess those cliché songs are clichés because they're truths. When a song is so simple, it becomes quite profound.
JC: Do you ever have trouble keeping it together emotionally when singing a song like that? Or are you good about staying out of your own way?
KAREN: You mean staying rational? I'm pretty good at that--although I used to sing "The Nearness of You" in front of the mirror along with a John Gary record and cry! Those were my teenage years; I was kind of unpopular and his voice just did it for me.
JC: Really? John Gary?
KAREN: Yes! I'll give you an example of my sisters' and my taste in music. When we turned 16, my parents took us each to see whomever we wanted to see in concert. I chose John Gary, and Kathy chose Nelson Eddy!
JC: I think we just came to the root of why you were unpopular! Who was your idol back then?
KAREN: Streisand was the most influential. When Funny Girl came out, I was in heaven.
JC: Have you done the role of Fanny Brice?
KAREN: Yes--in Wichita, Kansas. It was a huge theater, and they didn't know that I wasn't Jewish.
JC: Did you have a ball singing that music?
KAREN: Oh god, yes! For a female performer, the role has everything you ever wanted to do on stage. What an incredible compliment to Streisand, that she left such an indelible mark on a musical score. Everyone is so afraid of being compared to her. Lord knows, I've stolen from her! We have a plaque in our apartment that says, "Originality is the ability to conceal one's source." Obviously, Funny Girl sounds different on me. I'd kill to sing the role again--maybe in a concert version.
JC: How do you think Mamma Mia! will change your life?
KAREN: Well, not only am I excited to be in a big hit show, but I'm so ready to be home for a while. The traveling gets a little draining. I can't wait to see if my husband Paul and I can get along for a whole year!