Karen Mason, Broadway Singer and Actress-Episode #173

Aug 10, 2021 | 0 comments

The powerhouse singer and actress, Karen Mason, has starred on Broadway, Off-Broadway, on screen, and in recordings. Karen is a 13-time MAC Award winner, has won the MAC Award for Major Female Vocalist of the Year six consecutive years. She was the recipient of the 2019 MAC Lifetime Achievement Award. Karen also won the 2006 Nightlife Award for Major Female Vocalist and has three Bistro Awards.

On stage, Karen played Madame Giry in the North American Premier of Love Never Dies, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s sequel to The Phantom of the Opera. Karen’s Broadway roles include The Queen of Hearts in Wonderland; Tanya in Mamma Mia! for which she received a Drama Desk nomination for Best Actress; Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard; Velma von Tussel in Hairspray; Monotony singer, Mazeppa in Jerome Robbins’s Broadway; Rosalie in Carnival, and featured roles in Torch Song Trilogy and Play Me a Country Song.

Karen won the Outer Critics Circle Award for her performance in And the World Goes & Round, and starred Off-Broadway in her own show Karen Mason Sings Broadway, Beatles, and Brian.

Karen starred in the first National Tour of A Christmas Story as Miss Shields, and regionally she’s been seen in White Christmas, Side by Side by Sondheim, Gypsy, and Company among others. Karen also starred in the one-woman musical about Dorothy Parker, You Might as Well Live.

Karen has given concerts all around the world, and has headlined at Carnegie Hall, The Kennedy Center, Lincoln Center, Feinstein’s at The Regency, Rainbow & Stars, the Algonquin, and numerous others. She has shared stages with Michael Feinstein, Jerry Herman, Chita Rivera, Luciano Pavarotti, Rosemary Clooney, Liza Minnelli, and John Kander & Fred Ebb, and many more.

Her highly acclaimed recordings include her newest single, “It’s About Time,” her MAC Award-winning “Right Here/Right Now,” and the MAC Award-winning “When The Sun Comes Out.” Karen has also been featured on various cast and soundtrack recordings.

On TV, Karen’s been shows like Law & Order: SVU, and on film in Sleeping Dogs Lie and A Chorus Line.




Read the Podcast Transcript

Steve Cuden: On today’s StoryBeat…

Karen Mason: To sing the way you know you can, or that makes you feel good about it. You try to just keep yourself as prepared as possible for the opportunity that will come along.

Narrator: This is StoryBeat with Steve Cuden, a podcast for the creative mind. StoryBeat explores how masters of creativity develop and produce brilliant works that people everywhere love and admire. So join us as we discover how talented creators find success in the worlds of imagination and entertainment. Here now is your host, Steve Cuden.

Steve Cuden: Thanks for joining us on StoryBeat. We’re coming to you from the Steel City, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. My guest today, the powerhouse, singer, and actress Karen Mason, has starred on Broadway, off Broadway, on screen, and in recordings. Karen is a 13-time MAC Award winner, has won the MAC Award for major female vocalist of the year, six consecutive years. She was the recipient of the 2019 MAC Lifetime Achievement Award, and she also won the 2006 Nightlife Award for major female vocalist and has three Bistro awards.

On stage, Karen played Madam Giry in the North American Premier of Love Never Dies, Andrew Lloyd Weber’s sequel to The Phantom of the Opera. Karen’s Broadway roles include The Queen of Hearts in Wonderland, Tanya in Mamma Mia, for which she received a Drama Desk nomination for best actress, Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, Velma Von Tussle in Hairspray, monotony Singer Zeppa in Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, Rosalie in Carnival, and featured roles in Torch Song Trilogy and Play Me a Country Song. Karen won the Outer Critic Circle award for her performance in And the World Goes Round and starred Off Broadway in her own show, Karen Mason Sings Broadway, Beatles, and Brian. Karen starred in the first national tour of a Christmas Story as Ms. Shields and regionally, she’s been seen in White Christmas, Side by Side by Sondheim, Gypsy and Company, among others. Karen also starred in the one woman musical about Dorothy Parker, You Might as Well Live. Karen has given concerts all around the world and has headlined at Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center, Lincoln Center, Feinstein’s at the Regency, Rainbow and Stars, the Algonquin, and numerous others. She’s shared stages with Michael Feinstein, Jerry Herman, Chitah Rivera, Luciano Pavarotti, Rosemary Clooney, Liza Minnelli, and John Candor and Fred Ebb among many others. Her highly acclaimed recordings include her newest single, It’s About Time, her MAC Award-winning Right Here/Right Now, and the MAC Award-winning When the Sun Comes Out. Karen has also been featured on various cast and soundtrack recordings. On TV, Karen’s been in shows like Law and Order SVU and on film in Sleeping Dogs Lie and A Chorus Line. For more, please visit karenmason.com. We have a special treat today at the end of the show. Please stick around to hear Karen sing the title song from her CD, It’s About Time. So for all those reasons and many more, it’s a deep honor and a real privilege for me to welcome the exceptionally talented Karen Mason to StoryBeat today. Karen, welcome to the show.

Karen Mason: Thanks, Steve. Boy, after hearing all of that, I’m a little tired.

Steve Cuden: You think you’re tired? You should try it from my side. So, let’s go back in time. Let’s go back into your history. Obviously, you’ve been at this thing on stage for quite some time. When did the stage bug first hit you? At what age were you? Were you a little girl?

Karen Mason: I have a sister who’s four years older than I. When we were younger, she wanted to do plays and musicals for our family. She created it. She was the director, and may I say she was the star. I was the townsperson who did everything else, but I knew that I really loved it. I wouldn’t have put up with being a townsperson for so many years. We always had music around the house. My mom, when she was younger, was being trained as a concert pianist, and so she loved having music on. The second she woke up, there was music in the house, whether she was playing it or on the HiFi.

Steve Cuden: You were surrounded by music at all times.

Karen Mason: Surrounded by music. One of my mother’s favorites was Frank Sinatra. I had great vocalists to listen to. Even if I wasn’t totally paying attention, it seeped in. Between that and just being a middle child who needed all that attention, show business seemed like a perfect fit. I did a lot of shows. Not so much. I did a couple of shows in high school. It really kicked in for me in college.

Steve Cuden: Were you extroverted as a kid? Were you a performer? I mean, did you want to be performing for people?

Karen Mason: I wanted attention. Sure. I was a fat kid. When my younger sister came along I… Listen, being a fat kid is no novelty. But mine was because I was eating out of frustration. Man, this is like years of therapy. Eating out of frustration because my little sister came along, and I was the middle child. I wanted to be the baby again. So I started eating, eating, eating, eating, eating. It was my way of controlling things. I was a little fat kid who was always dealing with her weight. So I think when singing, I started to get attention for singing.

Steve Cuden: At what age?

Karen Mason: Well, being the townsperson in Kathy’s shows, which by the way, were called 4th of July specials.

Steve Cuden: Oh, the specials.

Karen Mason: I know. They were specials. They came with treats, by the way. Yeah, I know. The 4th of July cake. But I loved that. My sister and I were always singing in the back of the car whenever we were going somewhere. Just always singing around. It was part of who I was, but I don’t think it was really until high school when it started to feel like… I can tell you the exact moment. I went to an all-girls Catholic high school, so you have to find your own date for prom. For a kid who was kind of a nerd, a dork, backward, I didn’t quite know how to do this. I had heard that the boys’ school was auditioning for their musical. So I went over and auditioned and thought this would be a great way to meet a boy to take to prom. I got cast as a townsperson. You see that consistency in my life? I got cast as a townsperson in Annie Get Your Gun. I had one line. I can tell you that line right now. It’s a matter of fact. What was it? I had lunch with him yesterday. How did you know?—is my line. Thank you very much. Thank you. But the second I was on that stage I had never experienced that kind of—peace isn’t the right word. It was a combination of peace and excitement and being. It was right.

Steve Cuden: It felt like home to you.

Karen Mason: Yeah. It felt like home. It was the correct place to be and I was not scared of it. I was not overwhelmed except for the overwhelming feeling of, wow, this is where I should be. I think at that moment is when I thought, yeah, this feels like the correct place to move forward in my life.

Steve Cuden: From that day on, this was something that you had in your blood system, and I assume to this day you’ve not been able to get out.

Karen Mason: No, listen, they can’t get rid of me. They keep trying.

Steve Cuden: I’m glad they failed.

Karen Mason: Well, thank you. I love the performing part of it. I love the rehearsal. I love creating. It’s just the business part of it that is the toughest part, I think, for anybody in the business.

Steve Cuden: You clearly have the chops. I mean, you’ve got a really big voice, and you clearly have great acting talent as well.

Karen Mason: Well, thank you.

Steve Cuden: It’s not just one thing or another. It’s a complete package. Who did you look up to in those days? Who did you look to and say, that career is something I like, I want to have a career like so-and-so?

Karen Mason: Well, it’s funny, I never thought in terms of… the word career to me feels like a retrospect. That you look back on someone’s career from beginning to end. Who I really admired for what they were doing was Judy Garland and Barbara Streisand. These are the singers that I listened to that somehow spoke to my heart. The other one was John Gary, who is not necessarily a name that most people know, but I just loved listening to him and how he phrased a song. Those are the ones who spoke to my heart. So that’s what I wanted more of. I wanted more of that. To listen to them and be able to do what they did. To speak through music.

Steve Cuden: Early on, you were already thinking about phraseology and interpretation of words within the context of a song. That’s what it sounds like.

Karen Mason: Yeah. Without really saying what that was. Yeah. That was important to me. The storytelling aspect of it was really important to me. I’ve thought about this a lot because when I first started, I loved ballads a lot. It was kind of my way of feeling less alone about those feelings of being alone. Does that make sense?

Steve Cuden: A little bit. Was it sort of like solace or company to you?

Karen Mason: It was company. Yeah. To feel like other people were… that I wasn’t the only one going through the heartache of breaking up with somebody, or not finding somebody or whatever it was. It was that feeling of, I’m able to open up through music to tell you something that’s in my heart, and you are not judging me or telling me I shouldn’t have those feelings. In a way you’re saying, yeah, I felt that too.

Steve Cuden: Well, that’s what’s the power of songs, isn’t it? It can draw you right in, and it’s all emotion and not necessarily intellect at all. It really touches you in your heart and your soul. When you were in college, did you train? Were you in the theater?

Karen Mason: Well, kind of. My parents were convinced, my mother more so than my father, that I should have something to fall back on. Which to anybody who’s ever been told that, that sounds like you’re going to be a failure and we just want to prepare you for it.

Steve Cuden: Well, do you know what the truth is? Most people that go down the road you went down don’t succeed.

Karen Mason: Right.

Steve Cuden: The overwhelming majority don’t. So it takes a certain something special.

Karen Mason: Yeah. But how do you know that until the very end?

Steve Cuden: You don’t. If you’re passionate about it and it’s in your blood, you have to do it.

Karen Mason: Right. There were no other choices for me. There’s nothing else that seemed really interesting. I mean, even though I started out in college, I started out in biology. I thought, okay, well that’s interesting. I really like that. I started, then I switched to math. I mean, I was like this revolving door of majors in college. Always, I would hit a wall of, eh, this just doesn’t interest me. I don’t care about Calc 3.

Steve Cuden: I know almost no one who does.

Karen Mason: Except for those people who love Calc 3.

Steve Cuden: Thank God for them.

Karen Mason: I was always doing community theater. That was where my joy was. I was in college, and I was screwing it up royally, but boy was I great in community theater and couldn’t wait to be doing it. I should have listened a little bit more. I should have listened more strongly to my heart, and instead, I tried to give my parents what they wanted, but it just wasn’t right for me. So basically, I kind of screwed up college. I went for four and a half years and never graduated. But I have to tell you, I did graduate, and my parents were able to come in 1999. I was not going to be that family member.

Steve Cuden: You got your degree finally.

Karen Mason: I did in 1999. I was the oldest person walking in that line to get my degree.

Steve Cuden: Probably the proudest.

Karen Mason: I was definitely the proudest.

Steve Cuden: Good for you for doing that. I think that’s a wonderful goal to have achieved is to get your degree like that. So all right. Let’s talk about the work that you do. You clearly specialize in musicals and singing in general. What is it about musicals that has always attracted you? What is it about the musical theater that speaks to you?

Karen Mason: Well, I guess it’s the storytelling aspect of it. Again, that to me was always the foundation, the core of music for me. It was telling a story and having this fantastic soundtrack behind it, which was the music part of it. With musicals, I get to be somebody else and explore somebody else. I am sure this isn’t new information for anyone about why people are attracted to musicals. But it is that you get to tell stories that are different from you and explore other personalities.

Steve Cuden: I think it’s important for the listeners to understand from guest, after guest, after guest why it is that you and others go into this thing called theater in the first place, and musicals. You clearly have a voice. You could have been a recording artist and nothing else and had a nice career and so on. We’re back to that word, career.

Karen Mason: Right.

Steve Cuden: But you could have just been a singer if you chose to, but you chose to go into musical theater, which is a specific discipline. So I think it’s important for people to understand why you do that as opposed to this other thing that you could have done, or you could have just gone into acting period.

Karen Mason: Right. Well, there is also a communal thing. A community with a musical that I really love. I love the joint effort of telling a story. I love sharing that time on stage with other people. There’s such a great feeling of we are in this together, even if it’s for just those two and a half hours, and you hardly ever speak to any of the other cast members beyond those two and a half hours. There is that sense of we are sharing something special right now that these people in the audience are going to be able to react to whether they like it or not. Listen, if you’re sitting in an audience, you’re there because you want to experience. You want to try to experience something.

Steve Cuden: In a communal way, like you say.

Karen Mason: Right. Sometimes you hit it right on the nose and other times the audience is staring at you wondering why they’ve wasted this time and money to come see you. But it really is that feeling of we can share this together and try to tell this story.

Steve Cuden: The other part of it, which I’m sure you’ll agree with, is that it is the special part about musicals are the songs which can go internal into a character’s thoughts. Where you usually can’t do that with just pure dialogue unless someone expresses it. That you get that gut punch from that music, which if done well, the music really carries you to another place.

Karen Mason: There’s an interesting quote. Well, it’s not a quote. It’s just what I remember of what they said. I think it was John Kander who said it, but I’m giving him credit. Perhaps it was not John Kander. But someone who was a great songwriter said, the song is because at this moment, all the words have been said, and now it’s just emotion. To me, that’s perfect. Words alone, cannot express what a song can.

Steve Cuden: No question. The music is something that is not really quantifiable intellectually. It’s pure emotion.

Karen Mason: Right. Yeah.

Steve Cuden: I think that’s what you’re talking about. The audience gets that from that pure emotion, and it lifts them in a different way than just having dialogue.

Karen Mason: Right. What a special thing that is.

Steve Cuden: It truly is.

Karen Mason: How crazy is that, that something that is little notes on a piece of paper can have that kind of effect on a large group of people.

Steve Cuden: Imagine the amalgam of different elements that go into that moment from the musicians to the performers, to the lights and costumes to all of it. This thing that comes together to make one very compelling emotional moment, which is really magic.

Karen Mason: The time that really hit that home to me was doing Mamma Mia. We started rehearsal when 9/11 happened.

Steve Cuden: Oh, wow.

Karen Mason: You think, oh my God, this piece of fluff. It’s a well-constructed piece of fluff. But it’s a piece of fluff. This piece of fluff we’re going to open after 9/11? Oh my God. It just felt so wrong at the beginning.

Steve Cuden: Were you going into rehearsal literally as 9/11 was happening?

Karen Mason: We actually had had maybe about five days of rehearsal.

Steve Cuden: Oh my goodness.

Karen Mason: I was on my way to rehearsal. We lived, at that time, on 14th Street which faced the World Trade Center. I was coming out of the subway. I mean, it was a particular New York morning for me. Because I had just come from therapy and was on my way to the gym before I went to rehearsal. Could I be more self-involved? I came out of the subway and all these people were just standing immobilized. Being a New Yorker I am, I thought, why are you people in my way? Get out of the way. I have things to do. Then I turned and faced south and saw—

Steve Cuden: Where were you? Were you uptown at that point?

Karen Mason: I was at Union Square.

Steve Cuden: Okay.

Karen Mason: So I was 14th and fifth.

Steve Cuden: Got it.

Karen Mason: I was coming out of the subway right there about ready to go to the gym, which was a block away and then head on up to rehearsal, which was at 19th and Broadway. So I was at 14th. Everything was going to happen in that area. I looked south and saw all of the burning of the building,

Steve Cuden: The smoke.

Karen Mason: The smoke. You’re just stationary watching it. Your feet are not moving. You’re not sure what to do. You’re part of this group now that is just immobilized. I tried calling my husband and he was on the phone. Okay. This is really amazing. But he was on the phone with a florist upstate New York, because it was his mom’s birthday. Hadn’t looked out the window. This woman says to Paul, you live in Manhattan. He goes, yeah. She said, oh my God, the World Trade Center, we’ve just been attacked. He turned to look out the window and again saw that smoke and the burning. I stood there and watched for a few minutes until that first building went down. Then I went home. Of course, rehearsal was canceled. We started rehearsals. We got into it. You become a part of that group. That was so important for so many of us in that, that we had that group to hold onto during the time that New York was just hurt, suffering, vulnerable. Stronger than it had ever been, and kinder than it had ever been to each other. When they decided to open, I will never forget Steve, that first performance, because we all thought we’re not sure how this is going to be. But okay, we’re going to throw that spaghetti against the wall and see what happens.

Steve Cuden: Sure.

Karen Mason: The energy in that room was so overwhelming. I get chills thinking about it because we were just doing our jobs. We were just trying to tell this frivolous story and sing our music and be involved in it. We all loved each other and wanted to do this. What came back at us at the end of the show was this amazing amount of energy. It was like this whoosh of energy from the audience because they just wanted a moment where they were not thinking about what was going on outside of the theater. That’s when I thought, whatever I think about certain shows, whatever I think about what I do, that’s the reason for it. That we could all just forget for a short period of time what was going on outside in the world.

Steve Cuden: Theater in particular, but the arts in general bring people to perspectives that are useful in times of when we’re hurting.

Karen Mason: Yeah. I think there was a community feeling in that audience of no matter who was sitting next to you or whoever the people were, the strangers that were in the theater with you somehow, like you say, we were all one at that moment.

Steve Cuden: Sure. Absolutely. That is an awesome story. But you lived down there. Were you able to go home at that time?

Karen Mason: Well, right below 14th Street is where they blocked everything off.

Steve Cuden: Wow.

Karen Mason: Yeah. I mean, we were pretty lucky. But it was a hard time, but like I said, it brought New Yorkers together in a way that unfortunately, we forget between those times that we’re all in this together.

Steve Cuden: You had one other huge advantage doing Mamma Mia, and that was that you had very popular songs that people already knew prior to them coming into the theater.

Karen Mason: Absolutely.

Steve Cuden: Big advantage

Karen Mason: Yeah. I mean, they didn’t have to really think too hard about these songs. Mamma Mia is not a taxing or political statement.

Steve Cuden: It’s an entertainment.

Karen Mason: That’s right. You see the good for that, that it had its purpose right at that moment.

Steve Cuden: I think entertainment always has a purpose.

Karen Mason: Yeah, I think so.

Steve Cuden: That’s how I look at it. Alright, so let’s talk about the process that you go through when you begin to work on a role. You’ve been cast in something, and you begin to work on a role. Aside from the obvious, which is to read the script. You need to know what’s there. What is your approach? What’s the first thing that you do to develop a character? What do you start looking at?

Karen Mason: Usually I’ll go with first instincts on who I think this person is and usually try to whittle away at that. My first instincts sometimes are the good ones, but there’s always a lot more that’s deeper and looking at their relationships with each other. I think that’s how you get to know who the person is, is you see the relationships with the other characters.

Steve Cuden: Do you start to see that prior to your getting into a rehearsal room with people? Is that something you work on prior to, or do you need to wait until you have those other humans?

Karen Mason: No. Everybody’s got their own way of working on this, and some people really rely upon those relationships that they form. That’s what I mean. For me, it’s chipping away at my first instincts because before I even get into a rehearsal, I’ve already created… I do an awful lot of the creating in my mind before I get into a rehearsal room and then let everybody else bring in stuff. I have to think through all of that. I’m not somebody who is an instinctual actor but an instinctive actor. There are a lot of people who wait till they’re in a rehearsal room, like you say, and then create. I’m better if I create first, so that I feel like I have something to bring to the party initially.

Steve Cuden: So you present something to the party as you say and then the party starts to work with you to mold you.

Karen Mason: Right. That way I feel it becomes, for me, I’m comfortable with the entire process as opposed to feeling like I’m being controlled by what’s going on around me. At least I’m bringing something to the game before I begin it.

Steve Cuden: I have a sneaky hunch that the other people involved, the director, the other actors appreciate that.

Karen Mason: Sometimes. Sometimes they do. Sometimes they don’t. But this is how you learn who are the directors that are people you want to continue working with?

Steve Cuden: Of course. That’s very useful. Are you a researcher? Do you do a lot of research on character prior to standing them up?

Karen Mason: I would like to tell you that I am but I’m not necessarily. It depends. The musicals that I’ve done haven’t necessarily required huge amounts of character, like of historical background. But say when I did Gypsy, yes. I tried to read all of Gypsy Rosalie’s books and also look at the historical background around that time and for women. What the expectations of women in particular were at that time. That helps to create a role to create that character. Then it has to be laid on who I am as a woman and as a person and however old I am, and as a singer. Acting always used to seem to me that it was something outside of who I am. After reading a couple of books about acting, I feel it’s really important to always learn to try to keep learning and keeping your eyes open.

After reading a couple of books about acting, because I did not study in college to a huge extent, it kind of scared me because it seemed like everybody else was really great at it, except for me. It seemed so intellectual. It was very cerebral and intellectual, and that was not how I was approaching things. I was approaching from a very emotional standpoint, from a gut feeling. So when I started to feel more confident about what I was doing, I read a couple of books and learning that, basically it’s finding those emotions in you that can relate to the character, help you get a hook on it. That was really very freeing for me because I thought, hey, okay, I can understand that it’s not outside of me. It’s finding that combination in me that becomes this other person.

Steve Cuden: Interesting. What do you think is the most challenging aspect of developing a character for you? Is it in the rehearsal process? Or is it prior to it? What’s the most difficult thing or something perhaps, that you always go through every time you go, I’ve got to get past this thing. Whatever this thing is.

Karen Mason: It’s that questioning of, can I do it? That pulling between Karen, the actor, and this character is that I’m always trying to find that confidence to be that person.

Steve Cuden: I see.

Karen Mason: Have I done enough to honor this character. All her flaws and in all of her beauty of a character, including the good, the bad, the ugly. Have I done enough? There’s always that moment. I’m not good. I haven’t reached it. I don’t understand her. Then all of a sudden there’s that one moment that’s a hook that I go, I feel like I can honor this character.

Steve Cuden: You always have reached that. Every single time you get to that point at some juncture.

Karen Mason: Where I’m going. Oh, yeah. I’ll never reach it. Then something will happen that releases me to feel comfortable to honor that character.

Steve Cuden: I have a feeling that’s fairly common for most folks.

Karen Mason: I think it is. Yeah. I just don’t think people talk about it enough that you think yours is… You still feel yours is the—I’m the only one who goes through this because everybody else looks so confident.

Steve Cuden: Well, that’s the insecurity about talking about insecurity. Right? I mean, that’s what it is. I’m not going to tell people I don’t know what I’m doing if I can’t figure it out. You’re going to just say, hey, everything’s fine.

Karen Mason: Everything’s fine. Yeah. I got it. What do you mean?

Steve Cuden: Well, they don’t come to you, certainly not after you’ve been doing it for a while. They don’t come to you because they don’t think you can do it. They come to you because they expect you to do it.

Karen Mason: Right.

Steve Cuden: So that by itself may be enough to drive some people crazy. Because if you’re sitting there thinking, I can’t do this, but they think I can.

Karen Mason: Right. Yeah. It’s funny. It never gets easier or goes away. That questioning. I guess that’s a good thing because then you work harder. Then you’re always seeking.

Steve Cuden: I think it’s not only a good thing. I think it’s requisite. I think if you go into it thinking, I’ve got this licked and solved and you don’t listen to anybody else, you have a problem.

Karen Mason: Yeah.

Steve Cuden: So you must be a very good memorizer. Is that true?

Karen Mason: Now why would you say that? I’m curious.

Steve Cuden: Well because I ask every actor what they do to memorize lines.

Karen Mason: Oh, yeah. Here’s what I do. I repeat it and repeat it and repeat it and repeat it. Then I write it down because if I have it in my hand it gets to my brain better.

Steve Cuden: That’s so good. I’ve been teaching people for a very long time that the typewriter, or the computer or the keyboard does not help you remember things. But if you write it down, there’s some weird connection between your hand and your brain.

Karen Mason: Yeah. Isn’t that wild? Because if I write it down and then if I see it, that helps me. I can tell you where the lyric is. If I’m learning a song or learning something, I can tell you where the lyric is on the page because I memorize… it’s like a photo. I wish I had a photographic memory, but I don’t.

Steve Cuden: It’s a visual thing for you. You actually memorize it by where it is in space.

Karen Mason: Yeah.

Steve Cuden: That’s kind of interesting. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anybody say that before.

Karen Mason: Oh, really?

Steve Cuden: Well, there’s all kinds of different methods and techniques to memorize things. I think it’s important for the listeners to know that there is no one best way. There’s what’s best for you and that’s the way it should be. All right. So once you’ve opened a show and you’re into a run for a while, because you’ve done long runs.

Karen Mason: Yes.

Steve Cuden: You’ve done standing runs. What’s the longest you’ve ever gone more than a year?

Karen Mason: Well, I did Sunset for three years, but I was not on stage all the time. So the longest run was actually, Love Never Dies. I did a year and a half of that on tour.

Steve Cuden: Alright. So once you’ve opened a show, are you looking to make the character grow in some way or are you hoping to maintain? What is it that you’re looking for during a long run? I know it’s challenging.

Karen Mason: Yeah, it is. I’d say probably both. All of the above. That you’re trying to make sure that you don’t forget what you’ve learned along the way. But also you deepen things every performance because you relax with it. Although I did have a director once say that after… Gee, who was it who said this? I don’t remember. But when we were doing, And the World Goes Round, and somebody said to the director after six months is when you go back and remove all of the improvements that the actors have made. Sometimes that’s true. You’re trying so hard to improve it and learn new things that you kind of forget that original story that you were all trying to tell.

Steve Cuden: I think they were being very kind in saying that there. You correct me if you think I’m wrong, I think what happens is people get complacent a little bit because they’re repeating so frequently. They may not even know they’re being complacent, and things get a little less tight. I think that’s what happens.

Karen Mason: Absolutely. Going from there, I think because you’ve been saying it over and over and over again, you get confidence in the things that you’re saying and your mind starts to wander into, oh, let me invent this. Wait, I didn’t recognize that she had said that. Oh my God, that’s an integral part of my character. I didn’t even know it for all this time. So I’m going to switch this up and make this more interesting. I have to say though, the good thing about touring is that there’s always new things coming your way.

Steve Cuden: What do you mean?

Karen Mason: Well, because you’re in a different city. We were doing weeks of touring. So we do a week in a city and then leave.

Steve Cuden: So suddenly you’re going off stage, you’re in a different place, and you’re always trying to find your way and that kind of thing.

Karen Mason: Right. The thing that is the stability is that being on stage with each other. That doesn’t change necessarily. It’s everything around it. It does in many ways become, again, that home for you. That two and a half hours where you get back to telling that original story that you were working on with each other. So many things happen and go wrong. There were times where the set didn’t arrive.

Steve Cuden: Oh, wow.

Karen Mason: Or pieces of the set didn’t arrive, and suddenly you’re having to shift how you make your entrance. So that keeps you on your toes. You’re never really allowed to get too complacent with things because who knows when that set might break.

Steve Cuden: Do you like that?

Karen Mason: I do actually.

Steve Cuden: You like it because it keeps you alive, doesn’t it?

Karen Mason: That’s right. It does. I love question marks. I love that. Not knowing what may or may not happen. Having that base of stability, but always just those little things that are going to, like you say, keep you alive.

Steve Cuden: That’s terrific. I think that’s what keeps it fresh.

Karen Mason: Right.

Steve Cuden: Do you have any special performance preparations that you go through every performance? Is there something that you do? Is there a way that you warm up your voice in a particular way? Or do you have any habits that you always explore or exploit? However it is?

Karen Mason: Yeah. There are a couple. I learned to take a nap in the afternoon. My show day is pretty much time, I wake up, have a big breakfast, I work out, I do something for a couple of hours. Very low key. Not a lot of talking. I’m not known for being on the phone a great deal because I’m always concerned I’m not going to have a voice. That’s my main focus is, that show. That’s what I’m pushing toward, the showtime. I take a nap. I eat. Then I take a nap around four o’clock, me and the old people. The early bird special.

Steve Cuden: The blue plate special.

Karen Mason: I saved a lot of money on the road. So then I take my nap, I wake up, I take a shower, I start vocalizing in the shower. I get to the theater. I like to get to the theater early. I’m usually two hours before showtime. A lot of people show up for half an hour. I’m a two-hour girl. I like to get there, get in my dressing room, relax, say hello to everybody, feel like I’m part of the company. Say hello and how was your day?

Steve Cuden: That’s ritualistic for you too.

Karen Mason: Yes, it is. Yeah. I like that part of it. I go in and say hello to the company manager and see what they’re up to. Then at the hour I start putting on my makeup. Once I start putting on that makeup and getting my wig on, all of that leads me to the person I’m about ready to expose to the world.

Steve Cuden: Portray.

Karen Mason: Right.

Steve Cuden: My assumption is that ritual of yours has not never failed you.

Karen Mason: Yes. When I do it. Sometimes things don’t allow you to do your ritual. I have learned that makes it more complicated for me. I like to lay out my day. Listen, I’m being paid and that’s my job. So my job then is to have my day lead to that time when I’m performing.

Steve Cuden: It would not be good if you were out of sorts or exhausted or something like that.

Karen Mason: Right. That just sets me back and I spend the entire show beating myself up and why did I do that? Why did I do that? It just becomes a wasted amount of time.

Steve Cuden: Yeah. That makes sense. Alright. I want to talk about directors for a moment, because it’s an important part of your existence where you’re always dealing with somebody who’s giving you direction. I know you’ve worked with more than one. You’ve worked with any number of directors over time. What would you say are the most important lessons you’ve taken away from working with your favorite directors?

Karen Mason: My favorite. Thank you for that. As opposed to the ones who are the bad ones.

Steve Cuden: Well, you will have taken lessons away from them too.

Karen Mason: Yes. Yeah. What I’ve learned from the best director… I have to say, the great directors are kind of hard to find. I hate to say that. For me, it is a personal thing. It is really a personal thing of how I like to work. The ones that I feel work with me the best, that get the best out of me are the ones who communicate with me and talk with me.

Steve Cuden: What does that mean?

Karen Mason: It means that you tell me what you’re thinking about what I’m doing. Don’t let it be a big fricking surprise to me when I find out you don’t like what I’m doing. Talk to me. Trust me. Trust me as a collaborator. Don’t make it that you are the director and I am… So it becomes that we’re not doing the same thing. That we have our job titles and they’re not somehow connected. The director who treats me as a collaborator is the one who’s going to get the best job out of me the best.

Steve Cuden: Usually the ones that treat the company as collaborators, everybody loves them.

Karen Mason: Right. Because you are a collaborator. I understand the director is the one coming in with the big overall picture. But I’m the one who’s going to deliver part of that picture. Not the whole thing. Part of that picture. When I’m treated as an intelligent collaborator, that’s when I respond the best. I feel the most confident in what I’m doing with them.

Steve Cuden: Without naming names, you’ve clearly had some experiences with directors that weren’t giving you what you needed or wanted. How did you handle that? What’s the way that you handle poor direction? Again, no names.

Karen Mason: Oh, doggone. I can’t give you names. I’m kidding.

Steve Cuden: Well, if you want to, you can.

Karen Mason: No, I’m not. I still have a little bit more of a career left. I’d like to not alienate anybody. It took me a very long time to speak up for myself.

Steve Cuden: You would swallow it.

Karen Mason: I would swallow it and beat myself up over it because I’d think I’m not good enough. I don’t have enough to offer. I’m just not doing a good enough job. It was always my fault. During Wonderland, as a matter of fact. Wow. I learned to stand up for myself and just go, I don’t know why this is happening. I listen. I mean, all you have to do is look it up. It was Greg Boyd. Greg Boyd had a big thing on it. He had a big job on his plate. Sure. So I get that it was overwhelming and he’s trying to figure out the pieces of the puzzle. I went to a rehearsal and suddenly my big song was being cut and I did not know why. I went up to him and said after much crying, by the way, in my dressing room and my hotel room. My husband said to me, get up and fight. Get up and talk.

Steve Cuden: Was this out of town or in New York?

Karen Mason: It was in Tampa. So I went to him, and I said, I don’t know why this is happening. Can I help?

Steve Cuden: That’s a great line. That’s a great way to ask that question.

Karen Mason: It was. It was Paul who gave it to me. My husband.

Steve Cuden: But that’s a great approach. It’s sort of on you and them at the same time.

Karen Mason: Right. It says, I’m not here to be angry. Let’s solve this. Like you say, it’s both of us together.

Steve Cuden: As collaborators.

Karen Mason: The answer was, we don’t know how to start it. I thought, okay. I said, let me think about this.

Steve Cuden: Are we talking about the gazetas? The line couldn’t get you into the song?

Karen Mason: No. They weren’t sure how the song fit in. How to start the song. They were going to cut part of the song and then they were going to cut… I said, I would prefer the song not be cut since it was my big number. I would prefer it not go away because I love it and I worked hard with the music director to make it something special. So it was about where it fit in the show and how to make it. It was kind of a they just didn’t know how to fit it in the show. So I went away, and I came back with this idea. I said, okay, how about we do this? Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Greg, to his credit, listened and then went, okay, let’s give it a shot.

Steve Cuden: Wow. Great.

Karen Mason: It worked.

Steve Cuden: Instead of them giving up on the song, and then you also giving up on the song, you fought for it.

Karen Mason: Right. I fought for it. That was a big lesson for me not to let my ego get in the way of fighting for something that I believed would work.

Steve Cuden: That’s phenomenal. That’s now an intrinsic part of the show.

Karen Mason: Yeah. Right.

Steve Cuden: I want to talk about in between in your work life, you clearly have had moments in your working years in which you weren’t employed, where you were between gigs. Every performer, with I would think extremely rare exceptions, goes through that. What is it that you do when you’re in between? How do you handle the I’m not employed. I need to find a job. What do you do with your life? Is it physical? Is it going to the gym? What do you do? How do you work on your own stuff?

Karen Mason: Well, the in-between time I think I would bet the hugest percentage of people in show business have dealt with in between times. You do beat yourself up and you do, if only I were better, I’d have work all the time. You just try to spend most of your time looking for work. I mean, to be honest if you’re lucky, you’re always looking for work. If you settle in a show and you’re in that show, even when you’re doing a show that show’s not going to be forever. You’re always looking for that next.

Steve Cuden: Your eyes and ears are always out even when you’re employed.

Karen Mason: Right. Always looking for that next thing. I am lucky that I have a lot of different distractions, that I have a cabaret career, I have recordings. I’ve done a wide variety of things that doing demos for people, I always feel like if there’s an in-between time, I try to fill it with something that will keep me occupied.

Steve Cuden: Do you like the cabaret work? Is that fun?

Karen Mason: I love it. I feel like I get the best of all worlds. I get to be the center of attention when I do cabaret and have people pay attention to me for an hour. Then I also get to be part of a big communal thing when I do shows. I love newness. I really do love it. It shows up in my life in so many crazy ways. I love shopping. I love the newness. I’m not good at going to a resale store. I want new. So it shows up in my creative world. I like the rehearsal part of it. I like working on new arrangements. I love doing demos for people because it’s new music and it’s just brand new. Doing a show that somebody’s got a new slant on, that’s all very exciting. The in-between time, you just try to not put on too much weight so you can fit in your pants to go to the next audition.

Steve Cuden: It’s all about the pants.

Karen Mason: It’s all about the pants. Covid was not good for that.

Steve Cuden: Oh, believe me, I understand. I’m doing my best to get rid of Covid stuff now.

Karen Mason: Yikes. Yeah.

Steve Cuden: In other words, if I’m interpreting you correctly, it’s all about staying busy and finding focus on things, both for lack of a word, Broadway style work and also in the cabaret world at the same time.

Karen Mason: Yeah. It’s keeping your eye on what you like to do and getting the chance to do it. Making sure you’re ready when that chance comes along. Listen, I still study voice. I’ve been singing all these years and stuff happens that makes it difficult to sing the way you really want to sing. Whether it’s getting older or something that happens. A cold. Then suddenly you’re not able to sing the way you know you can, or that makes you feel good about it. You try to just keep yourself as prepared as possible for the opportunity that will come along. That next opportunity.

Steve Cuden: It’s a devotion to keeping your instrument, for lack of a better word, in shape.

Karen Mason: Right. It’s always about, yes, keeping yourself in shape is right.

Steve Cuden: Well, that’s amazing. Well, I’ve been speaking to the divine Karen Mason for almost an hour now, and we’re going to head towards the out cycle here. So I’m wondering. You’ve clearly worked with lots of people for quite some time and I’m sure you have been in some weird situations. Can you relate to us or share with us a story that’s weird, quirky, oddball or just plain funny?

Karen Mason: Well, the pressure’s always on when you say funny.

Steve Cuden: It can be weird. It doesn’t have to be funny.

Karen Mason: Listen, weird stuff always happens. I mean, ridiculous stuff. That’s the great thing about live performances. You never know what is going to happen. My first concert I ever did, it was my first solo concert in Chicago. I had worked in nightclubs, in cabarets, in Chicago for maybe, well, I guess about a year. This was my first big concert at a place called the Park West. We didn’t know how many people were going to show up. We thought maybe 30, if we were lucky. We were sold out with people around the block. I went to do my encore. We had gotten through the show. I hadn’t screwed up anything. We were having a great time. I remembered all the lyrics and I was heading into the encore. Things had gone great. I had a wireless mic. This is why I don’t use wireless mics. I had a wireless mic, and I’m going into my encore, which was Make Someone Happy.

Steve Cuden: Okay.

Karen Mason: So it’s like Brian Lasser, who was at the piano. My music director at the time started playing the vamp into the intro. People were quiet. There was such a feeling of joy in the room. All of a sudden, it’s like, make someone happy ruk-ruk-ruk-ruk. Make just one someone happy. I hear ruk-ruk-ruk-ruk. We were picking up radio signals on the mic, on the frequency of the microphone.

Steve Cuden: Oh dear.

Karen Mason: I mean, if I wanted to call a cab at that very moment, I could have. You just go, this is the best moment of my life, and this is what happens?

Steve Cuden: It’s been slightly wrecked.

Karen Mason: By a cab or a police car or something, driving by and picking up on the radio mic.

Steve Cuden: What’d you do? Did you just keep going?

Karen Mason: Oh, sure. Actually, what I said was, I had made a comment earlier about one of the nuns at my school. Because I tried to wrap it all up, I think I made some comment about that this was Mother Colomba. She didn’t like something I had done earlier in the show. She was the principal of the school I went to.

Steve Cuden: You were saying it was divine intervention.

Karen Mason: Or damning me to hell. I wasn’t sure which one it was. But that kind of stuff, you just have to go with it. You have no other choice but to go with it.

Steve Cuden: The show must go on.

Karen Mason: That’s right.

Steve Cuden: There’s the mantra of all mantras, isn’t it? You have to keep going at it. Well, that’s very funny. You survived.

Karen Mason: I survived. Right.

Steve Cuden: I’m sure the audience loved you anyway.

Karen Mason: Well, actually, what I’ve learned over the years is that those are the usually the moments that the audience is with you more than any other time during the show. Because they get to see something that no other audience has seen or will hopefully see.

Steve Cuden: Which member of the audience has not had something screw up in their life.

Karen Mason: Exactly. You become so human at that moment.

Steve Cuden: So they empathize with you totally.

Karen Mason: Right. It’s humiliating for you but humanizing for everybody else.

Steve Cuden: Exactly. All right, last question today, Karen. You’ve already given us lots of wonderful advice, but do you have a solid piece of advice or a tip for those who are either starting out and trying to break in, or maybe they’re in a little bit, but trying to get to that next level?

Karen Mason: When I was thinking about this, listen, every old person has loads of advice. But the thing that strikes me the most about people that I admire and what I have learned throughout my career is to keep learning. Keep learning about yourself, keep learning about the business, but keep learning about yourself. Keep your eye open to how you respond to what’s going on around you, and how you can make yourself more open to what’s going on around you. Keep learning, learning, learning, because in that, you’ll become more yourself and stronger. I think that’s the greatest gift you can give yourself is to keep learning about yourself.

Steve Cuden: I think that’s extremely valuable advice, because if you don’t, you suddenly go to sleep, and you don’t grow.

Karen Mason: Right. You want to always feel like every time you sing a song, that it’s the first time you’re singing it, and that you’re open to what it’s saying to you at that moment. Unless you’re really keenly aware of where you are in that moment in your life. Some beautiful moments will slip by you. I think that that would be a waste. Those are the most valuable learning moments, is when you’re so aware of what’s going on.

Steve Cuden: Well, Karen Mason, this has been just a tremendously fun hour on StoryBeat today, and I cannot thank you enough for joining me on the show.

Karen Mason: Well, Steve, it’s been a pleasure. Are you kidding? An actor loves to talk about herself.

Steve Cuden: Don’t we all? Thank you again for coming and joining me today.

Karen Mason: My pleasure.

Steve Cuden: As promised, we have a special treat today. So please sit back and enjoy the title track from Karen CD. It’s About Time.

Karen Mason: I have had a sacred dream about us. You and I have waited for so long. Walking down the aisle with each other, showing everyone where we belong. And isn’t it amazing how it finally came to be? Standing at the altar for all the world to see. It’s about love that is meant to last forever. It’s about a life that leaves nothing left behind. It’s about all the time we have left together. It’s about love, it’s about life, and it’s about time. Feels like we have waited 20 lifetimes wishing for this moment to be real. And now we’re stepping into the sunlight to celebrate the way we truly feel. The second that I saw you my heart first skipped a beat. With your hand in mine, my life now feels complete. It’s about a love that is meant to last forever. It’s about a life that leaves nothing left behind. It’s about all the time we have left together. It’s about love, it’s about life, and it’s about time. And now that we’re here, we know that it’s right. Our own piece of heaven, our own paradise. It’s about a love that is meant to last forever. It’s about a life that leaves nothing left behind. It’s about all the time we have left together. It’s about love, it’s about life, and it’s about time.

Steve Cuden: So we’ve come to the end of today’s StoryBeat. If you liked this episode, won’t you please take a moment to give us a comment, rating, or review on whatever app or platform you are listening to. Your support helps us bring more great StoryBeat episodes to you. StoryBeat is available on all major podcast apps and platforms, including Apple Podcasts, YouTube, Spotify, iHeartRadio, Stitcher, Tune In, and many others. Until next time, I’m Steve Cuden. May all your stories be unforgettable.

Executive Producer: Steve Cuden, Producer: Casey Georgi, Announcer: Javier Grajeda
Social Media: Mina Hoffman, Design & Marketing: Holly Reed, Reed Creative Group


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