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Luba Mason shatters ageist notions in the musical Unexpected Joy
The amazingly youthful-looking Luba Mason isn't a grandmother in real life, but she doesn't mind playing one onstage -- so long as the character's not a stereotype. That's why she's embracing her role as Joy, a sexually fluid hippie at the center of Unexpected Joy at the York Theatre Company. With a book and lyrics by Bill Russell (a Tony nominee for Side Show) and music by Janet Hood, this chamber musical explores the familial tensions between Joy, an aging rocker, her conservative religious daughter, Rachel (Courtney Balan), and Rachel's rebellious teenage child Tamara (Celeste Rose), who takes after her much more liberal nana.
"As you get older in the business, there are fewer juicy leading roles," admits Mason, who appeared regularly on Broadway in the '80s and '90s, but has spent most of the last few decades as a recording artist, often collaborating with her husband, salsa and Latin jazz Grammy winner Rubén Blades. "So I'm always looking for characters with layers and depth and interest. Hell, the last role I played was a porn star in the Michael Friedman/Bess Wohl musical Pretty Filthy Off-Broadway, so maybe middle age ain't so bad!"
The title character in Unexpected Joy is going through some major changes. Her longtime music and life partner, Jump, died a year prior, so Joy's organizing a memorial concert and hopes to get the whole family involved. She's also in the throes of a new romance with a woman named Lou (Allyson Kaye Daniel), which is sure to rankle Rachel, whose husband is a TV evangelist.
"When this role came around, I jumped at it because Joy breaks the mold of what people first think of when they think of grandmothers," says Mason. "She doesn't have grey hair, glasses and a shawl. She is a modern grandma: alive, working and hip, with energy and a career, and she's entering a second stage in her life in a new relationship. She was a very interesting leading character."
Although the setup may sound gimmicky, it was actually inspired in part by a true story. The general outline occurred to Russell over a decade ago, when he heard that a high-school friend who had raised two children with her husband of 30 years left him for a woman. Russell and Hood, who have been collaborating since their '70s college days, are both gay, and initially Unexpected Joy's progressive politics felt cutting-edge. Of course during the show's many years of development gay marriage was legalized, and the creators wondered whether its message was still urgent. Considering the polarized world we're currently living in, which is reflected in the characters' conflicting views, Russell and Hood soon realized their musical's message of love is love is love continues to resonate.
That's why it's so important for audiences to fall for Joy, an iconoclastic free spirit whom Mason endows with incredible authenticity. "I relate to Joy on many levels," she says. "Like her, I am a musician with my own group that tours and performs. I know the life, the lifestyle and the process of putting together a concert and maintaining a relationship with the person you perform with. Also, my mother was a very strict religious person who never understood my life. She felt I was way too liberal and 'loose.'"
Mason's next theatrical role is another cool character: She'll play a tough music industry talent scout who can make or break a band's career in the world premiere of the Huey Lewis and the News jukebox musical The Heart of Rock & Roll at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre this fall. Like Joy, it's a part that helps industry bigwigs see that women of a certain age can still be vibrant and sexy and powerful. "The more I put myself out there in this vein, hopefully stereotypes will be broken and rewritten," she says. "And the more roles can come our way."
TDF MEMBERS: At press time, discount tickets were available for Unexpected Joy. Go here to browse our current offers.
Sandy MacDonald is a theatre critic who contributes to Time Out New York. Follow her at @sandymacdonald. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: Luba Mason in Unexpected Joy. Photos by Carol Rosegg.