by Gregg Shapiro
Broadway actress and award-winning cabaret goddess Karen Mason is one of the hardest working women in show business.
Perhaps you’ve caught her on Broadway as Tanya in Mamma Mia!, as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard (when she was Glenn Close’s standby), as Velma Van Tussle in Hairspray or as the Queen of Hearts in Wonderland. A regular on the cabaret circuit, you might have heard her when she performed at The Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, or in New York at Lincoln Center, Feinstein’s at The Regency, Rainbow & Stars and the Algonquin, or in Los Angeles at The Cinegrill, or at The Plush Room in San Francisco or Davenport’s in Chicago. Could be that you purchased, or received as a gift, one of her CDs.
Maybe you’ve seen her on TV in an episode of Law & Order. Whether you’ve had the pleasure of attending any of her various performances or you’ve never had the opportunity, the good news is that she is playing the role of the long-suffering Madame Giry in the national tour of Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Love Never Dies, a sequel to The Phantom of the Opera. I spoke with Karen about the show and her career in late 2017.
Gregg Shapiro: What was it about Madame Giry in Love Never Dies that made you want to portray her on stage?
Karen Mason: Madame Giry is a survivor! She has been given a certain set of options in life, and perhaps she did not make the most ethical choices, but she survived. She did what she had to do to put food on the table for her daughter and her. (She’s) a very direct, and directed, woman.
GS: Love Never Dies is set on Coney Island. As a New Yorker for many years, how often do you go to Coney Island?
KM: I hate to admit this, but I have only been once [laughs]! Now, perhaps, I will get back there to really look around. I am fascinated by the history of this place now.
GS: Not only do you have the distinction of closing act one of Love Never Dies with the number “Ten Long Years,” but you also make your entrance from a mirrored obelisk.
KM: An entrance every actress prays for [laughs] I love the visual of this number in the show. Very dark and mysterious, with these theatrical mirrored obelisks. I do deal with motion sickness, so I have to prepare to be in there because it gets moved around a lot.
GS: As a singing actress, what is most appealing to about being in a Webber show such as Love Never Dies or Sunset Boulevard?
KM: The drama of the music! I do love this score and never tire of hearing it during the show. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music is very driven by story. As an actress, I love telling stories. Also, the challenge of the music. There are wonderful challenges for me throughout my show. How to really tell the story honestly. And not just rely on the inherent drama of the music.
GS: You’ve gotten to wear some fantastic costumes in Love Never Dies, Sunset Boulevard, Mamma Mia!, Wonderland and Hairspray. Do you have an all-time favorite wardrobe from a show?
KM: I have to say that Wonderland had the most amazing costumes. My Queen of Hearts costumes by Susan Hilferty made me cry because they were so beautiful and absolutely right for my character. They were also the most difficult to wear because of the weight. Each one weighed about twenty-five pounds, with hair and crown thrown in! Sometimes it made singing a little difficult because it threw my body out of alignment, but I loved every second in those costumes. You learn to accommodate to your costume.
GS: What are the pros and cons of being in a touring company such as the one for Love Never Dies?
KM: This is my first long-term tour. At my age, it is a very different experience than for someone much younger, which describes the rest of the cast [laughs]. What is great is sharing this experience with this company. We are lucky that this is a very special group of personalities. All just great people; and we like being with each other. For this large of a group, it is a very rare experience, I tell you. The cons are just changing climates so many times. (It) can be fun, but for a singer, this is a big challenge. I travel with all kinds of equipment: air purifiers and humidifiers and anything that will give me a little consistency. So far, so good.
GS: Speaking of touring companies, you played Miss Shields in the touring company of A Christmas Story, which was co-written by future Tony and Oscar winners Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. What do you remember about working with them?
KM: (They are) lovely gentlemen and brilliant talents. Smart, generous, and passionate.
GS: When I saw Love Never Dies in Fort Lauderdale, you gave the Broadway Cares speech after the show. Please say something about your history with the organization.
KM: It was around 25 years ago when BC/EFA came into being, a time when the AIDS crisis had really hit the New York community. I watched as friend after friend died. We were all trying to find ways to feel less helpless and less hopeless. And this organization came into being to help our fellow actors and has blossomed into a beautiful avenue of help for so many people. I have friend after friend who were helped financially during a time when they were so sick they couldn’t make money. It is an honor to do the speech, and try to help. As I say at the end of my speech, “as long as we take care of each other, love never dies.” I believe that!
GS: Finally, in 2017 you released a new album It’s About Time. The title track, which was co-written by your husband Paul Rolnick, is a marriage equality anthem. Please say something about the song and the LGBTQ folks in your life.
KM: I love this song so much. I am very proud of my husband and his co-writer Shelly Markham. I started out performing in gay clubs in the ‘70s, working with my longtime music director, Brian Lasser. Brian was gay and had known it since he was seven. He was proud, sincere, and very comfortable with the man he was. That was my first experience with the LGBT community of which I was really aware. Since then, I am lucky to have beautiful friends in my life, gay and straight, bi and transgender. Honestly, it is the character of the person that matters to me. I was so happy when marriage equality passed In New York state, where I live. Finally, it felt like we were moving forward. I got hired to sing at the wedding of friends, two great guys. I suggested to Paul that he should write them a song, and he did! It is an absolutely beautiful statement of love, which is what marriage should be, right?