10:30 AM CST, February 5, 2013
When cabaret star Karen Mason played here last December, at Davenport's, one song drew the evening's noisiest ovations by far.
If Mason had sung "It's About Time" without introduction, the piece would have unfolded as a charming love song well worth remembering. But because she first told the crowd the back story – that the tune had been penned for the recent marriage of a gay couple – its lyrics carried important double meanings.
Here was a ballad that, on one level, expressed any couple's long-lived love for each other. At the same time, the piece represented a subtle but profoundly moving call for marriage equality, as in this passage:
"Feels like we have waited twenty lifetimes,
"Wishing for this moment to be real.
"And now we're stepping into the sunlight,
"To celebrate the way we truly feel."
That verse, like all the others, encapsulates the power of the song, its political message tucked into sentiments that any couple – straight or gay – might wish to express.
"Every time I've done it, people are taken aback by the simplicity and the honesty and the sweetness of it," says Mason, referring to a tune with lyrics by songwriter Paul Rolnick, her husband, and music by cabaret pianist Shelly Markham.
"No matter how you feel about marriage equality," adds Mason, "it makes the point in a very compassionate and loving way.
"That's what I think is so brilliant about the song: It can work for any wedding, it can work for any beautiful moment in two people's lives.
"But the last line, 'It's about time,' has an impact that's just amazing."
Indeed, when Mason sings the three lines that recur throughout the song – "It's about love, it's about life, it's about time" – those last three words hit you hard. Because once you've heard her singing about a couple's devotion, it's easy to relate. The culminating words "it's about time" then conveys an additional meaning: how long gay couples in America have had to wait for their moment at the altar.
That line "hits people after they've been emotionally connected to the song," says lyricist Rolnick. "What I love about that is it's a sneak attack. Because after people hear the song, and they've reacted emotionally, how can they not say: 'of course (there ought to be marriage equality)?"
Even so, Rolnick hastens to add, "I didn't want it to be 'We Shall Overcome.' I didn't want it to be something that Arlo (Guthrie) and Pete (Seeger) and Woody (Guthrie) would sing."
Rolnick, in other words, wasn't so much trying to pen an anthem about a political cause as tell the story of one particular couple – while capturing a historic moment in America. The couple for whom he and composer Markham penned "It's About Time" had waited fully 15 years to get married, and finally were able to do so last July 14, after New York state had legalized same-sex marriage.
But Peter Lichtenthal and Perry Eisman did not know that they would be hearing at their wedding a new tune composed specifically for them. Once they'd engaged Mason to perform at the party following their ceremony, she told her husband, Rolnick, that the occasion cried out for an original song. Rolnick agreed, contacted Markham, and a stirring piece was born.
"The fact that it was so personal and carried such a big message blew us away," says Peter Licthenthal, who was marrying Perry Eisman. "We were both in tears.
"We had decided we wanted to wait (to be married) until same-sex marriage got approved in our state. We wanted it to be a wedding in our state, a Jewish wedding, done in a way that was meaningful for us."
After Mason delivered the tune, "Everybody was going on and on and raving about the song, asking if they could purchase it somewhere," recalled Eisman.
At the time, they couldn't, because the song was too new. Since then, Mason has sung it in Chicago, San Francisco and elsewhere, as has pianist Markham, who will be including it on his next ablum, "Things I've Learned Along the Way."
Mason has cut an MP3 of the tune for her website, karenmason.com, and posted a performance on YouTube, all of which seems exquisitely timed. President. Barack Obama, after all, recently cited marriage equality in his inaugural address, and the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to take on two cases addressing the issue.
The song could not have a more passionate advocate than Mason, but all parties agree that if a superstar took on the tune, it could rocket into public consciousness.
"I'd like to see somebody (famous) do it," concedes composer Markham, who has penned a melody that progresses as unstoppably as gay rights have in the past several years.
Certainly if Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler, Barry Manilow or another singer of comparable stature performed the song, it would stand a very good chance of taking wing. Its message, high craft and pop accessibility suggest hit potential.
"Would I like Elton John to sing it?" asks lyricist Rolnick rhetorically, not even bothering to provide the obvious answer: of course!
But whether or not that happens, "It's About Time" surely has all the makings of a key cultural statement on marriage equality.
It's melodically and lyrically simple enough that anyone can sing and remember it, yet it's meaningful enough to bear repeated hearings.
Which is exactly what it should get.
To read more from Howard Reich, go to chicagotribune.com/reich.
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