Actress and singer Karen Mason returned to Broadway in April 2011 as the Queen of Hearts in Gregory Boyd, Jack Murphy, and Frank Wildhorn’s Wonderland. She has starred on Broadway (Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, Sunset Boulevard, Mamma Mia!, Hairspray), Off-Broadway (And the World Goes ’Round, Carnival), in regional theatre (Sundance, Coconut Grove, St. Louis, Tampa), on television (Law & Order, Law & Order: SVU), on film (Sleeping Dogs Lie, A Chorus Line), and as a recording artist. She is particularly popular in the world of cabaret, with ten MAC (Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs) Awards including the MAC Award for Major Female Vocalist of the Year for six years running; she has three Bistro Awards and the 2006 Nightlife Award for Major Female Vocalist as well.
Karen Mason’s first performance as a solo cabaret singer was in 1976 on New Year’s Eve. A club in Chicago had hired Brian Lasser, the pianist and composer who was to be Mason’s musical director and arranger until his death from AIDS in 1992, to play the piano for the occasion. “Would you mind if I brought a singer?” he asked. “Just as long as we don’t have to pay her,” they answered. Thus the singer’s long and varied career began.
She had her Broadway debut in June 1982 in a one-night-only disaster called Play Me a Country Song. Better fortune came her way when she stepped in to replace Debbie Shapiro in Jerome Robbins’ Broadway in February 1989, singing “Mr. Monotony.”
At the off-Broadway Westside Theatre in March 1991 she began a year-long run in the original cast of the Kander & Ebb revue, And the World Goes ’Round. The show won the Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Musical and the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Musical Revue; Karen Mason won an Outer Critics Circle Award for her performance. The original cast recording is available on RCA Victor.
In the Spring of 1993, the York Theatre Company revived the musical Carnival off-Broadway. Karen Mason’s performance as Rosalie earned her a nomination for the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Featured Actress in a Musical.
She then embarked upon the longest-running engagement of her career so far, as a standby for the lead character, Norma Desmond, in the Andrew Lloyd Webber / Don Black / Christopher Hampton version of Sunset Boulevard. Starting with the tryouts in Los Angeles, and the opening on Broadway in November 1994, when Glenn Close was in the starring role, Mason stood by for over a thousand performances and two more stars (Betty Buckley and Elaine Paige) until March 1997. She was encouraged – and inclined – from the beginning, however, not to try to imitate the interpretations of Close, Buckley, or Paige, but to develop her own characterization of Norma Desmond. She stepped into the role at least 200 times; a portion of her extraordinary performance can be viewed at her website: www.karenmason.com/media-mainmenu-39/video-mainmenu-80.html
In 2001 Mason originated the role of Tanya in ABBA’s Mamma Mia! on Broadway, receiving a nomination for a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Featured Actress in a Musical. She and two of her co-stars, Louise Pitre and Judy Kaye appeared on Rosie O’Donnell’s TV show to perform their boisterous version of “Dancing Queen.” Leaving the show in October 2002, she starred in Norman Mathews’s one-woman cabaret musical about Dorothy Parker, You Might As Well Live, in Chicago and New York. In April 2008 Mason was a replacement in the role of Velma Von Tussle in Hairspray, playing onstage keyboards in addition.
Hairspray closed at the beginning of 2009, whereupon Karen Mason joined the workshop cast of Wonderland at The David A. Straz Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa. After tryouts there and at the Alley Theatre in Houston, and another run in Tampa, Wonderland arrives in New York at the Marquis Theatre with Karen Mason as the Queen of Hearts.
Besides Wonderland, Karen Mason’s regional credits include the premiere of White Christmas at the St. Louis MUNY, Side by Side by Sondheim at the Coconut Grove Playhouse, Gypsy at the Sundance Theatre in California, the world premiere of One Tough Cookie at the Apple Tree Theatre in Chicago, Heartbeats presented by the Goodspeed in NY, and Company at the Huntington Theatre in Boston.
Mason has six solo albums to her credit, all on Zevely Records: Not So Simply Broadway (1995), Better Days (1996, featuring the song “Hold Me,” winner of a posthumous Emmy Award for Brian Lasser in 1998), Christmas! Christmas! Christmas! (1999), When the Sun Comes Out (2002, winner of the MAC Award for Major Female Recording of the Year), Sweetest of Nights (2005), and Right Here, Right Now (2008, winner of the 2009 MAC Award for Album of the Year). She is also featured on the soundtrack of Jeffrey (Varese Sarabande), a studio recording of Wonderful Town (Jay Records), The Child In Me, Vol. 1 (Harbinger Records), and Lost in Boston II (Varese Sarabande).
She has sung at Carnegie Hall, The Kennedy Center, and Lincoln Center, toured to the United Kingdom, Sweden, Brazil, Scotland, and Japan, and shared the stage with the likes of Luciano Pavarotti, Rosemary Clooney, Liza Minnelli, Michael Feinstein, Jerry Herman, and John Kander & Fred Ebb. In New York she has headlined at Feinstein’s at The Regency, the Rainbow & Stars, the Algonquin, Arci’s Place, The Supper Club, and The Ballroom and had her own show Off-Broadway: “Karen Mason Sings Broadway, Beatles and Brian [Lasser].” In Los Angeles she has appeared at The Cinegrill and in the UCLA/ASCAP Concert Series; in San Francisco at The Plush Room; and in Chicago at Davenport’s Piano Bar & Cabaret.
What does the future hold for Karen Mason? “I just want to keep enjoying what I have and using my voice to make music – and hopefully making some money at it so that I can continue doing that traveling that I like to do.”
– Lucy E. Cross