It’s a Play, It Ain’t Brain Surgery: An Interview with Marin Mazzie & Jason Danieley

Three-time Tony Award nominee Marin Mazzie and Emmy-nominated Jason Danieley reflect on romance, Czech isolationism, and their Great Midwestern Escape. Explore how this year’s Cabaret in the Music Room co-stars learned the art of zen in a hospital room, then hear this cool and collected husband-wife duo live at Caramoor.

While other Caramoor power couples make it work – Audra McDonald with husband Will Swenson, Rebecca Luker with husband Danny Burstein, Liz Callaway with husband Dan Foster, and Faith Prince with husband Larry Lunetta all come to mind – keeping a relationship intact when both partners are dedicated to show business must be difficult. How do you both find the energy to maintain love alongside a demanding career?

It isn’t particularly difficult. We love each other and make our business/career/show/concert decisions based on what is best for us as a couple. Sometimes it’s a pain to be away from each other for several months to go to Chicago, Seattle, San Diego, etc. to do a show but we only do those long out-of-towns when there is a potential bigger pay off, or if it’s a role that we absolutely have to do. Otherwise, life is too short to have work dictate what we do or to have it separate us for too long a time. We have a home in the Berkshires and that has provided a wonderful retreat from the craziness of the business. That’s a crucial element of keeping sane. And if I’m sane, we’re both sane.

Much has been written lately about Marin’s battle with ovarian cancer – a hearty congratulations on entering remission! – including through the very personal lens of Jason’s blog, The Danieley Digest. Jason, you wrote that the greatest lesson this health challenge has taught you was “being present,” “breathing,” “remaining calm,” and accepting that the situation was “all out of our hands” were all you could/should manage… Has this journey influenced the way either of you approach the stage?

Well, as far as concerts go, the journey of Marin’s cancer has informed and reshaped the songs we have sung before like nothing ever has. Lyrics that have meant one thing now all of a sudden take on a new meaning, have a deeper resonance given all that we’ve been through. Marin’s song from the musical Ragtime “Back to Before” is always changing because it’s an incredible lyric, by Lynn Ahrens, that seems to be pertinent in almost any time or situation. With our particular journey over the last year, for instance, the lyrics “There was a time our happiness seemed never-ending. I was so sure that where we were heading was right. Life was a road, so certain and straight and unbending. Our little road with never a cross road in sight.”  This, plus many other examples, really adds up to a considerable difference in our concerts as a whole.

As far as the musical theatre stage goes, it has leavened the importance, or maybe the lack thereof, of what we do. While Jason was rehearsing the role of Billy Flynn in Chicago on Broadway recently, certain things would roll off his back so much easier than they may have in the past because it’s a play, it ain’t brain surgery… though curing cancer might be the better metaphor in this case. We entertain, we hope to divert people’s attention from what is going on in the world for two hours, sometimes we hope we can make a difference in people’s lives; but when it comes down to it, it just isn’t worth fretting over. So patience, love, and a sense of humor – things we have always had as people and as actors – were nicely underlined as very important to remember, given our recent life situation.

“We entertain, we hope to divert people’s attention from what is going on in the world for two hours, sometimes we hope we can make a difference in people’s lives; but when it comes down to it, it just isn’t worth fretting over.”
Who has been your strongest non-Broadway, non-American Songbook influence in terms of performance style?

For Jason it is a combination of some disparate performers: Luciano Pavoratti, gospel singer Russ Taff, and Dean Martin. For Marin it would have to be Marcel Marceau, Jimmy Durante, and Florence Foster Jenkins.

Do performances outside of New York City feel different?

There are differences.  Mainly we see a difference in the audience’s participation and their reaction to material. This may sound like stereotyping but there is an overriding, definite truth that certain dry and urbane jokes from the pens of lyricists like Stephen Sondheim, Fred Ebb and Cole Porter are better received in the cities of New York, San Francisco, Boston, etc. while wholesome ideals from Rodgers and Hammerstein and Irving Berlin have a better chance in the Midwest.  We just returned from the Czech Republic where, under the rule of communism, they hadn’t been exposed to musicals for many years. Since the iron curtain has come down they have been exposed to only more current musicals or musicals made into movies.  So Andrew Lloyd Webber and ABBA are huge there with the one odd exception of Hello Dolly, which was Khruschev’s favorite musical and he allowed it to tour. The title song of that show was our encore and it was clapped and sung along with as if it were a Czech folksong.

What’s your preferred method of de-stressing pre- or post-performance?

Like any well respecting actor we’d probably say, “what-cha got?”  It used to be a glass of wine, a late supper, and on weekends a cocktail out with friends at Joe Allen’s, but those halcyon days have been put on hold for a while. A glass of wine or hot tea and a ridiculous amount of HGTV and Travel Channel shows slow us down after a performance.

If you hadn’t ended up performers, what would your “when I grow up” careers of choice have been?

For Jason an NFL player, a writer, or a UPS driver. Thank God he never had to figure that out! For Marin, a nun.

It seems that so many successes on Broadway – yourselves included – come from the Midwest. What’s up with that?

A great drive to escape the Midwest?

Jason, you launched your solo recording career with Jason Danieley & The Frontier Heroes. Can you speak to your decision to infuse the album with Americana music alongside American Songbook and Broadway repertoire?

Back in St. Louis, where I’m from, my family had a band. Grandma played piano, grandpa a washtub bass and harmonica, great uncle Herbie played banjo and guitar, my mom played the organ, my other grandpa played banjo, guitar, mandolin, and fiddle, and my dad played any and everything as the rhythm section (Tupperware, tabletop, the top of his bald head)… and I sang.  I learned a lot of American Popular music through our jam sessions on family get-togethers.  Actually, I heard my first show-tune when grandma played “Hello Dolly,” ironically enough, at a church potluck. I wanted to share that sound of American Rural Jazz as it’s so deeply embedded in me.

What’s next for the two of you? How is the new year shaping up?

We have a few other concerts coming up which is a wonderful way for us to travel and be together. We’ve been guest soloists with Keith Lockhart and the Boston Pops almost as long as we’ve been married (18 years married) and we’ll be with them again this June. Marin has a big announcement coming up… and no, she’s not running for President.

 

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