From a Wardrobe Snafu to Her Evita Audition, Karen Mason’s Most Memorable Nights Onstage

Diva Talk   From a Wardrobe Snafu to Her Evita Audition, Karen Mason’s Most Memorable Nights Onstage
 
The witty diva, who created the role of Tanya in Broadway’s Mamma Mia!, reflects on the craziest and most moving moments of her career.
Karen Mason
Karen Mason

Karen Mason, the Drama Desk-nominated actor with a big laugh and an even bigger voice, will release her latest CD, It’s About Time, March 3. The title track off the new recording, which will be available on her official website as well as on CDBaby and Amazon, was written by Mason’s husband (Paul Rolnick) and Shelly Markham for Marriage Equality. Other songs on the new disc include “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?,” “A House Is Not a Home,” “Over the Rainbow,” “The Man That Got Away,” and more.

Mason, whose numerous Broadway credits include the original cast of the international hit musical Mamma Mia! as well as Hairspray, Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, Sunset Boulevard, and more, will celebrate It’s About Time with an evening at the famed jazz club Birdland March 6 at 7 PM. She will be joined at the Manhattan nightspot by Tedd Firth at the piano, Bob Renino on bass, and Rex Benincasa on drums.

Mason will also bring her MAC Award-winning cabaret act to Playbill Travel’s star-studded Broadway on the High Seas 8 Caribbean cruise in February. (Click here for more information.)

I recently asked Mason to pen a list of her most memorable nights onstage; her responses follow:

At a small club in Chicago, Byfield’s, in 1983

Well, this was a beautiful cabaret in an elegant hotel in Chicago, so I was very, very excited to be working there. Bought a new outfit (as one does!), which included (remember it was the ‘80s!) a stretch, sequin tube top! I did a song where I jumped off the piano…and, yes, my tube top kind of scrolled down! I was humiliated…but hell, I had my big note coming, so I did what any self-respecting diva would do: I turned my back just long enough to pull that top back up with my left hand, while still holding the mic with my right! And, still finished the song with a big belt note! Oh…and, yes, I did the compulsory arm gesture at the end of the song! Needless to say, I never wore that top again! Too risky—even for the ’80s!

My curtain call as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard

It was in Los Angeles at The Shubert at Century City about six months after we had opened! I had gotten word on a Friday that Glenn Close was going to be missing one of the Sunday shows—so I would go on! I spent that time on Friday and Saturday doing the costume changes with wardrobe, walking with the costumes up and down the stairs and hallways in the building, and just preparing! There were mishaps throughout the show…but dammit, I made it through to the end without hurting anyone or screwing up lines! And, I took 20 minutes off the show (because I didn’t breathe for two hours!!!)! I was so proud of myself! And so in love with everyone on that stage—they all made me feel so protected! I have a picture of my curtain call…and I have this huge Midwestern smile on my face! They didn’t call me Perky Norma for nothin’!

My first and last night in Mamma Mia! on Broadway

Karen Mason, Louise Pitre, and Judy Kaye in Mamma Mia!
Karen Mason, Louise Pitre, and Judy Kaye in Mamma Mia! Joan Marcus

It was right after 9/11, and it was a very strange, horrible, and wonderful time in New York. On our opening night, the sound of that roar from the audience when Louise [Pitre], Judy [Kaye], and I came up on the elevator in our Dynamo outfits… I will never forget that. Ever. It was the sound of release from the craziness outside the walls of the theatre. We all needed that release. I could feel the sound through my bones! A roar of life!

Singing “Becoming My Mother” with my mom in the audience

Karen Mason and her mom, Marion.
Karen Mason and her mom, Marion.

I was in Chicago at a club called George's…and was going to sing this song called “Becoming My Mother,” which Brian Lasser wrote about that moment when you realize you are your parents. I knew my parents were coming to the opening night! So I called my mom to sing her the lyric…because I knew we would both have trouble! Just a very personal song. Well, opening night—all going really well with the show—and it comes time for this song, which has a very sweet, funny, real lyric. I sang the song, never heard any crying, until the last line of the song, which is “And the more that I grow like my mother, the more that I grow to like”…there is a pause…and I hear the biggest inhale for a whimper coming from my mom… “me”! We almost made it through. It was a sweet and memorable night!

Opening and closing night of Play Me a Country Song
Same night! My first Broadway show. It was a huge mess, and the opening-night party was on The Circle Line, so no one could read the reviews! An entire ship of drunk actors, tech people, and producers circling Manhattan! We got the closing notice as we got off the boat! Ah, showbiz!

Seeing Elaine Stritch doing her one-woman show, At Liberty

Elaine Stritch in <i>At Liberty </i>
Elaine Stritch in At Liberty

Seeing this remarkable presence onstage by herself, telling stories, singing songs, totally captivating the audience. It was magic! No backup singers or dancers or fireworks or big beaded outfits—just her! I was in love with the magic of Elaine Stritch! Still am…

My audition for the original Broadway production of Evita… Eek!

It was at a time when the auditions were on the Broadway stages! So I was on a friggin’ Broadway stage (first time!) vying to take over for Eva Peron. I sang the songs really well by the piano (funny how that happens!), but when I walked out on that stage, said my name, heard the vamp, and then began to sing, I just started shaking from my toes to my hair follicles! And, as it was described to me, it sounded like a very huge velvet curtain was lowered in front of me when I went for the high notes! So “I want to be rainbow high” was heard like this: “I WANT TO BE rainbow high.”

Senior editor Andrew Gans also pens the weekly Their Favorite Things.

Mason will perform aboard Playbill Travel's Broadway on the High Seas 8 cruise in February. The luxury cruise—complete with performances by top Broadway talent like Mason—tours the stunning islands of St. Maarten, St. Kitts, Antigua, and more. For more information about Playbill Travel and to book your next Broadway getaway click here.

LOVE THEATRE? CHECK OUT PLAYBILL STORE FOR MERCHANDISE!

RELATED: