Interview with Luba Mason

Luba Mason: Actress, Singer, Songwriter and Dancer

A native New Yorker born in Astoria, Queens and first generation American of Slovak descent, Luba studied classical piano for twelve years starting at the age of five and then voice with teachers from The Juilliard School and Manhattan School of Music. Having sights on broadway, Luba was later accepted to Circle in the Square Theatre School and NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts where she earned her BFA in DRAMA. Nine broadway shows ensued including Tommy Tune’s Tony Award-winning THE WILL ROGERS FOLLIES, Trevor Nunn’s, SUNSET BLVD. Des McAnuff’s first broadway revival of HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS… as Hedy LaRue opposite Matthew Broderick, Paul Simon’s THE CAPEMAN, opposite the legendary comedian Sid Caesar in SID CAESAR & CO, a star turn as Lucy Harris in JEKYLL & HYDE and then, as Velma Kelly opposite Brooke Shields Roxie Hart in the smash musical CHICAGO. 2020 brought the critically-acclaimed Bob Dylan/Conor McPherson musical GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY where Luba plays the jaded Mrs. Burke and doubles as the drummer for the onstage band. The latter is her debut having learned playing the drums for the show! (Courtesy of Luba Mason’s website)

You can find out more about Luba Mason and her work at: https://www.lubamason.com

TSM: It’s so lovely to talk with you, and thank you so much for doing an interview for the magazine.

LM: Thank you.

TSM: What made you want to become a singer and to act on broadway?

LM: I started out as a classical pianist when I was five, and played for thirteen years. I was very serious about it, and did lots of competitions, etc. The singing came out of that. I started listening to pop radio in the days of having clock radios. I don’t even know if you know about that time, but I started hearing songs on the radio that I really wanted to sing, and both my parents had lovely voices. I never studied seriously, but I started buying sheet music and playing these pop songs that I loved on the piano, and was just starting to sing and belt away. I got reaction out of that; I was already a start pupil as a pianist and was getting a lot of attention from that. I liked that, and so when I started singing and playing, I was at home. My parents were kind of taken aback because I had this big, belty voice like a kid. My older sister started studying opera in classical music in high school. So, I started studying with some of her teachers when I was in grade school, she’s older than me. So, that’s how the singing started off, and people were telling me I had a really good voice.

Broadway came in when I saw my first broadway show in fifth grade. My godmother had taken me to that show. I think like a lot of young kids, whether they pursue the arts or not, whenever you see your first broadway show, it’s quite mesmerizing. It’s quite amazing to see these live performers on stage, it’s moving and makes quite the impression. Having had this now musical background, the singing and the piano playing, I was involved in church choirs and in every high school choir and musicals. That’s where it really kind of started to develop. The acting came in, and I was like this is something I really want to do. I knew from a young age that I wanted to perform and I love the singing. So, that’s how all of that started going.

High school is really where it just kind of really developed and I knew I wanted to be on broadway. So, that was my goal. I studied acting at NYU and got a BFA in acting in drama. I was trying to get all rounded there. Then the dancing came along as well, that was my last year in college. There was a program affiliated with NYU called The American Dance Machine, and just took eight credits of that. The director of the company, who taught the classes, just saw a lot of talent in me and took me under her wing. She took me into the company for the next five to six years. That is like the big picture how broadway and theatre all happened.

TSM: What is the inspiration behind the title of your latest album Triangle? Tell us about your process in creating the album.

LM: I call it Triangle because this album has a very unusual line-up. The line-up is voice (me), a viber phone and bass. It’s a real minimalistic approach to music, not that far from a voice and a piano really. So, that’s why I called it Triangle. I came about the idea because my previous album called Mixtura involved a six-piece band, and it was very difficult getting gigs, making money, paying all these musicians and quite challenging. So, when I spoke with my co-producer of Triangle, who’s Renato Neto (keyboardist for Prince and collaborated with him on my second album Crazy Love, which was a Brazilian jazz album). He was the one who suggested downsizing my band. He said, “why don’t you downsize to a trio?” I said, “everybody does piano, bass and drums, that’s been done before.” I told him I had a viber phone in my last band and would like to use it again. He said, “well, why don’t you try viber phone and bass?” Then there was silence and kinda went hmmm. I don’t think I’ve ever heard that combination before, and of course, first thing I did was Google it. I didn’t see any recordings of it, and hadn’t seen any other attempts to do this. That appealed to me tremendously.

I love to really take risks and do things that hopefully have never been done before, or just to challenge myself. My Crazy Love album I wrote Brazilian jazz music for the very first time. I wrote music for the first time. Coming from a theatre background, it was very unusual and I wrote quite a beautiful album. I got some great reviews from that album. Mixtura was a genre I created, that was my last album. I trademarked it, and it means a blend of different musical currents. My background in music is so eclectic and I really wanted to create an album that incorporated all these different musical influences of show music, jazz, folk music, latin and pop. I wanted to put that all on one album. There was really no music category for it, so I created it and called it mixtura.

I carried over this concept and genre into Triangle. The repertoire is eclectic as I’ve got a couple of pop songs, one by The Beatles, one by Paul Simon, and a Spanish bolero. I have a Slovak folk tune because I’m first generation Slovak-American. It was my first language. I also have a couple of show tune, one of from The Band’s Visit. All of these songs have jazz arrangements, so all under the umbrella of like jazz/jazz pop. I find that it’s a very unique album, very simple, and I tried the concept and this line-up out. I performed it for about a year and people really responded to it. They really loved it, and so I decided to do an album of it. I got James Genus on bass; he’s played with Herbie Hancock, an SNL bass player. Then I got Joe Locke, who’s one of the top viber phonists in the country, and internationally known. I really feel it’s a special album.

TSM: One of the songs on Triangle is a Slovak folk song. What is the meaning of that song? I know that you’re of Slovak descent, and so do you have a personal connection to this song?

LM: Actually, every song on the album I chose because I had a personal connection to them. The Slovak folk song is called “Ceresne” in Slovak which means cherries in English. It’s a real, coming of age song basically. It’s about a young girl who’s kind of like a tom boy and plays with the boys in her neighbourhood. It’s typical childhood playing, and as the song progresses, she grows up. The dynamics between her and the boys is different, and they’re not only out to be her playmates, but they’re very interested in her being a girl. I thought it was really beautiful, and I also wanted to cover a Slovak song that was fairly well-known. This is a very popular song among the Slovak community. I’m very involved with the Slovak community here in New York, so they ask me every so often to perform at some functions. I always try to have a Slovak song in my back pocket.

TSM: Triangle is your fourth solo album. How would you say you’ve progressed as an artist from your first one until now?

LM: I would say by the fourth album. Each one of these albums, I had a record label supporting it, but not necessarily financing it. They’ve given me distribution, so by the time the fourth album came around, I kind of pretty much knew the ropes of the work that needs to be put into it. It’s a lot of work because basically I’m acting as the record label. I’m producing it, it’s not only my voice and my creative project, but I’m also in charge of marketing it and getting the graphic design, etc. It’s a lot of working very difficult. So, I’ve progressed in that sense. At least now I know what I’m up against and what I have to do. It’s not just sing my favorite songs and put it out there. I would say selling the album is the hardest part. The easy and fun part is creating the project and recording it.

I think the progression is about growth as an artist. I’m not just putting out albums with songs that I like and here they are. I want to always dig deeper than that as far as challenging myself as a musician and as an artist trying to find things that might be different. My relationships have grown as well amongst musicians, producers and all the people in the industry. I think that there has been a lot of growth in that. There’s a real, big pool of people that I’ve worked with, including some more famous ones. I’ve done a few duets with my husband, who’s a big salsa icon. When you work with famous people like this, hopefully you’re trying to match their level as well, and you grow as a performer and an artist. It’s very exciting to perform with people of that high caliber.

TSM: Can you tell us about your latest broadway show, Girl From the North Country?

LM: We were open for just one week, and then closed because of the pandemic. We opened on March 5th, and broadway was shut down March 12th. The opening happened, which was great because leading up to an opening of a broadway show is really relentless and a lot of work. You’re rehearsing during the day and doing previews at night. So, you’re working around the clock. We got some stellar reviews pretty much across the boards. Everybody really loved the show. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get it fully off the ground just yet, but we have been assured by our producer several times that we are definitely coming back because some shows are not. We’re definitely coming back next year in 2021.

Girl From the North Country is a beautiful musical (they call it that), but I feel it’s more of a play with music because it’s by a beautiful Irish playwright, Connor McPherson. He’s Irish, he wrote the play, and he was asked to put a Bob Dylan catalogue to this show. So, we were starting to get a lot of Bob Dylan fans coming to the show. It takes place during the depression in 1932, and it’s kind of a sad piece. It’s not your musical kind of a thing, but it’s a beautiful play about a cast of characters. It’s a big ensemble piece. All these characters are going through a flop house, which is like a boarding house like a hotel. Every group of these characters are either running from something during that time, or running to something, whether it’s from the law or to a new job. I play Laura Burke (she’s a very wealthy, southern woman) whose husband has lost all of their fortune and money in the depression. They have a challenged son, an autistic son, and they are carrying a secret in this play. My character is quite a beautiful arc in this show. Of course, with Bob Dylan music you can’t go wrong. It’s not the best hits of Bob Dylan in the show. There’s a few of his well-known songs in it, but the director really took advantage of finding some other gems of his that are not as well-known, and he put them in the show. They got some brand new arrangements to them by our musical arranger, Simon Hale. Some of them are almost unrecognizable with these great arrangements that he’s put to them.

TSM: I know that you learned how to play the drums for your role in the show. What process did you take in learning how to play the drums?

LM: It scared me to death. LOl I’ll tell you a funny story. I had two drum lessons before we started rehearsals off-broadway, where we had done this show first. The second day of rehearsal, the director at around 5:00 said, “I think I’m going to end rehearsal, we’ve had a good day. Everybody can leave, except Luba. We’re going to jam.” My heart just started beating. I’m like OMG, they want me to play the drums already after only two lessons. I was getting all paranoid thinking, they’re going to hear how horribly I play and they’re going to fire me, and the whole thing. So, everybody left and they’re like, “we’re going to jam.” Thank God, I wore a very loose cotton shirt that day because I was sweating profusely underneath this shirt. They just said, “what did you learn?” So, I started playing one little tempo thing. They had me play different things after that. We were going at it for about half an hour, and it went well. It was really scary, and I continued to take drum lessons for about another two weeks after that. I had two lessons a week, and then my teacher would come to rehearsal, and there are basically four songs that I play in the show. It’s not like there’s another drummer in the band, I was the drummer in the show, and actually the guy who plays my husband , he plays two songs as well. Basically, after having a few weeks of rehearsals of lessons, it was really now just focusing on the four songs that I really needed to learn, and you just drill them. Whenever I wasn’t rehearsing my scenes, they would take me into another room with a drum set, and I would just drill with the assistant musical director. That’s how that worked out. Now I haven’t played the drums in seven months . So, I’m going to need a few brush-up lessons before we start.

TSM: What do you love most about acting on stage? Is there one role in particular that stands out as a favorite for you? And what have been some of your most memorable moments on stage?

LM: That’s a lot right there. Lol What do I love about acting on stage? I think it’s really about having the live audience there. I also just recently did an independent movie, and I love that medium as well, but there is something about having the immediacy of an audience giving you that immediate reaction and hopefully some gratification.  It’s a real art form to perform on stage because you can rehearse and rehearse in a rehearsal room, but once you get in front of an audience, you get different responses. The audience is basically telling you what they like and what they don’t like, or what works, doesn’t work, or this is really funny, or this is really sad, whatever it is. Every audience is different. Another question I get a lot is how do you keep your performances fresh on broadway when running for six months, or a year? The audience really keeps things fresh for you, they really help out a lot. So, that’s what I love about acting on stage.

Each role that I’ve done on Broadway, like each album l do, there’s something that you learn more about. I loved being ‘Heddy’ in How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying. She was a really comedic character and you just have a lot of fun playing a character like that. Then I did Jekyll and Hyde, I took over for Linda Eder in the lead role, and that was a really demanding singing role. It was very challenging vocally to do that, and people were very surprised that I had a voice like that because I was basically working as a dancer or comedian on broadway before that. So, when people heard that I could sing, it was a nice compliment that they liked what I did. Then, of course, I did ‘Velma’ in Chicago with Brooke Shields, and that’s a real, heavy-duty dancing role. I hadn’t danced for like fifteen years before that, so I had to pull out the dancing shoes and get back into shape again. That was quite challenging for me, I have to say. With Girl from the North Country, it kind of combines a lot of everything I’ve done in the past. My role is a dramatic role, she’s also funny, I get the sing, I get to play the drums and be a musician, and I found even a place on the show where I get to dance. She kind of has her own little private moment on stage dancing.

So, what’s my favorite? It’s really hard to say. I love something about everything I’ve done. It’s hard to pick out any particular. There was a moment where I was doing How to Succeed…, and I was doing it with Matthew Broderick. This was the first revival, and our scene was coming up in the office room, his brand new office. The scenery jammed, it didn’t come on stage. So, he and I waited for what felt like ten minutes, it was really thirty seconds, which is an eternity. We decided to just enter the scene and improvise the scene without the furniture. It was really fun and funny playing opposite Matthew, who is just a treat. That’s a memorable moment. There was also another one in Jekyll and Hyde. They were known for wearing these really tight spandex, almost like black pants. His zipper broke on his pants, and of course, they’re so tight because he was also wearing a white shirt. The white shirt that is tucked in, you could see the white where the broken zipper is, and he proceeded to do like half of the first act with his broken zipper that he didn’t know was broken. He’s almost in every scene, so he didn’t have a chance to even go off stage to get it fixed or put on another pair of pants. Throughout the entire half of the first act, the audience is just hysterically laughing. He’s going through his big songs, some serious scenes, and people are laughing. He couldn’t understand. I had a scene with him where I meet him for the first time, and it was really hard for me to just keep myself from laughing. These things happen, and they’re kind of fun when they happen. Opening nights are also always exciting. 

TSM: Is there a role that you would love to play that you haven’t yet?

LM: You know what I recently had done, it was a couple years ago that I had done this concert version of Woman of the Year that Lauren Bacall had done, as well as Raquel Welch I think on broadway. It’s never been revived again, and it’s got some neat songs in there. I just thought that was a really interesting role, and it’s a show that could have tweaks made to it as well because it’s a little dated. That’s a role I would love to play. I also hear that they’re in the process of writing a musical version of The Devil Wears Prada. I would love to play that Villianous character that Meryl Streep played.

TSM: Who are some performing artists you admire and look up to?

LM: In terms of actors, I love Gena Rowlands, Patti LuPone, Christopher Walken and Michael Keaton. I adore Elaine Stritch, she’s no longer with us.

TSM: If you have the power to do something in the world today, what would it be and why?

LM: The political climate in this country. There’s just so much wrong, so many horrible things going on with climate change, as well as racism. As far as racism, wipe out racism if I had the power to do that. People from both sides understanding what it’s like to walk in the other person’s shoes. It’s just so unnecessary. We’re all one human race. 

TSM: What is one of your favorite quotes (or lines) that inspires you?

LM: Carpe Diem – Seize the day

TSM:  Anything else you’d like to share?

LM: I want to thank you for the interview, and these kinds of interviews, and the work that you do, and the work that I do. I think the arts is so, so, so important in our world. It brings beauty, introspection, and happiness. It moves people, helps people to feel emotion, maybe that they haven’t fell. Just spreading the arts. It’s so important to our culture, and to our lives. If you’re an artist, or a writer, I think spreading that and sharing that is really important.

TSM: Thank you again for taking the time to do the interview.

LM:  My pleasure, Jessica. Thank you very much. 

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