‘Ragtime’s’ Marin Mazzie: Too soon to say goodbye
Ah, Marin Mazzie. It’s hard to let you go. (The three-time Tony Award nominee died Thursday of ovarian cancer at the age of 57.) I’ve mourned lots of Broadway stars, but it’s never been quite this hard before. Those great performers of past generations — the Barbara Cooks, the Mary Martins, the Gwen Verdons — were legends because people long before me had proclaimed it so. They were illustrious yet distant. I didn’t really know them.
But you, Ms. Mazzie — you were my generation. I had the privilege of seeing you perform on Broadway several times, beginning in 1987 with your performance as Mary Jane Wilkes in the big-hearted “Big River.” It took another decade or so to catch up with you again. Your performance as Mother (alongside Audra McDonald) in the premiere of the towering “Ragtime” in 1998 was what really turned me into a fan. Though it sounds downright cornball to even inflect it, I felt a little like I discovered you. I knew the moment I heard your voice — a powerful belt with husky undertones that could suddenly drop to the tiniest whisper — that I’d seek out everything you did.
I followed up “Ragtime” with the delectable “Kiss Me Kate” (1999), where you played opposite a “Ragtime” co-star, Brian Stokes Mitchell. That chemistry continued the next year in a rousing revival of “Man of La Mancha,” again with Mitchell. My next Mazzie fix came that same year at one of your famed cabarets performed with your husband, Jason Danieley. You were so elegant, so funny, so touching. I was moved.
From that point, alas, I had a long dry spell in terms of getting to see you perform again live, Ms. Mazzie. I had to wait until 2014’s wacky “Bullets Over Broadway,” when you played an aging diva in a role filled with delicious bluster, to again experience your electric stage presence. It was the last time we’d “meet” in person.
But you were always there in terms of my headphones. I thrilled to discover your aching performance in “Passion.” I latched on to your twisted mother in the reboot of “Carrie.” (Your version of “Stay Here Instead,” delivered with the throaty certainty of an ardent religious believer, can still give me shivers.) I laughed at your “I Hate Men” from “Kiss Me Kate.” And, of course, I soared just a little each time you sang “Back to Before” from “Ragtime.”
There’s a snippet of that song — the way you sing it, Ms. Mazzie — that gets me every time. Your character, Mother, is contemplating how she’s changed in the years since her husband departed on an extended out-of-country trip. Mother ran the household, made the decisions, dealt with crises. She changed, just as women around her in the first decade of the 20th century were increasingly demanding change in the name of equality. Your character sings:
There are people out there
Unafraid to feel sorrow
Unafraid of tomorrow
Unafraid to be weak…
Unafraid to be strong
There was a time
When you were the person in motion
I was your wife,
It never occurred to want more
You were my sky
My moon and my stars and my ocean
We can never go back to before
On the cast recording, Ms. Mazzie, your voice breaks just a little on the line “It never occurred to want more.” For a split-second, you swallow your word, as if you’re overcome by the moment. And then you recover. Your voice soars.
Every time, I listen for that slight gulp. I don’t know why, but I find it inspiring. It reminds me that musical theater isn’t just about beautiful voices, witty lyrics or snazzy production values. The magic of theater is finding the emotion in a song and telling the story of the character singing it.
So, Marin Mazzie, I realize it’s time to let you go. You never met me — just another theater lover from Fresno — but you touched me and so many others with your talent. I wish we could go back to before.