'Sweetest of Nights'
Need a clue as to what to expect from the local debut of musical sensation Karen Mason via Austin Cabaret Theatre? Try the title of her new CD: Sweetest of Nights. Its eclectic batch of ballads covers the cabaret spectrum from Berlin ("Let's Face the Music and Dance") to Aladdin (Menken and Rice's "A Whole New World") to ABBA ("The Winner Takes It All," a song Mason didn't get to sing during her Drama Desk-nominated turn as Tanya in Mamma Mia! on Broadway and makes up for here); it's also the kind of superlative that critics like to accord her work, whether she's wowing theatregoers as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard in NYC or L.A., or wooing the cabaret crowd at Rainbow and Stars, the Algonquin, Feinstein's at the Regency, or the Russian Tea Room. Her voice is so rich and mighty that at one gig last fall it moved the legendary Julie Wilson to exclaim from the house, "You've got some set of pipes!" Combined with a personality like sunshine on a stage and those powerful acting chops, it's no mystery why Mason's mantle is laden with honors from the Manhattan Association of Cabarets & Clubs (seven, including one in 2004 for Major Vocalist). Now, we get to be Manhattan for a night (or two) and have Mason all to ourselves in the cozy Mansion at Judges' Hill. By phone, she shared some insights into her work.
Austin Chronicle: How do you go about choosing songs to add to your act or record?
Karen Mason: It's kind of mutated over the years. When I started out, you got kind of tired of singing certain songs and you just wanted to change certain parts of your repertoire. Now, we seem to be doing more show-driven sets, so when we're putting together an order of songs, usually I'll say, "I really want to do this one. What things are going to go around it that are going to create a theme, a show?" We've done a standards show, we did a movie-themed show. This new show that we're bringing to Austin we're calling "The Boxed Set" because it's from all five CDs we've done.
I like doing a little of everything. That really appeals to me as a performer. I always fought just landing in a couple of decades and staying there. It's not what I do well. I don't want to be a historian about it. To me, it's always about how the lyric speaks to me, Karen, and how I feel I can bring something about me and my life and who I am to the songs. How do I bring who I am into it? What part of the truth of that song and I'm sorry if this sounds pretentious, but what part of the truth of that song speaks to me? And by the very fact that it's coming through my experiences and what I want to say with that song, it becomes necessarily mine. And it changes because it does. I have this little plaque, and it says, "Originality is the ability to conceal one's source." And I think it's really true. It's original because it's coming out of me and because I am an amalgam of all the different performers that I've seen and worked with and all the things that I've experienced. And my experiences are different than anybody else's.
AC: You have such a great background in theatre. Does that inform your singing and cabaret performance?
KM: It's all just different parts of expressing myself. Cabaret gets to be a personal expression. I am in control of that I mean, as much as one is in control of anything in life. When I'm doing a show like Sunset Boulevard, it's a personal expression but with much bigger costumes and through a whole other personality. I think no matter what you're doing it's a personal expression, but certainly cabaret gets to be more of me because I get to do all the songs, and I like seeing people close up. The fourth wall is gone, so I get to look at people and communicate on a much more direct level. And it becomes more of a party atmosphere. When you go to see a musical, there's that separation, you're watching something happening over there. Whereas in a cabaret, I really feel like we're all in it together, and I might be the one with the microphone telling the stories, but it's really everybody participating in it. I like that.
Karen Mason will perform Thursday and Friday, Jan. 26 and 27, 8:30pm, at the Mansion at Judges' Hill, 1900 Rio Grande. For more information, call 453-2287 or visit www.austincabaret.org.