Karen Ziemba may have won her Tony Award for her performance as a verbally abused spouse in Susan Stroman's acclaimed dance musical Contact, but it is the work of John Kander and the late Fred Ebb that has tested her mettle as a true triple-threat. Ziemba, who made her Broadway debut in the original production of A Chorus Line, first came to the attention of the Tony-winning composers in the Off-Broadway revue And the World Goes 'Round, where she earned a Drama Desk Award for a performance that featured wonderful takes on such Kander and Ebb tunes as "A Quiet Thing," "Arthur in the Afternoon" and "All That Jazz." In the composing duo's 1997 musical Steel Pier, Ziemba created the part of Rita Racine, a role that was written for her and one that brought the singer-actress-dancer her first Tony nomination. Ziemba later joined the long-running revival of Chicago as merry murderess Roxie Hart and also took part in a workshop of the long-gestating Kander and Ebb musical Skin of Our Teeth.
Now, the celebrated performer is back on Broadway in Curtains, which features music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb, book by Rupert Holmes, additional lyrics by Kander and Holmes, all based on Peter Stone's original book and concept. The musical at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, which officially opens March 22, also reunites Ziemba with Scott Ellis, who directed the vivacious performer in And the World Goes 'Round, Steel Pier and New York City Opera's 110 in the Shade.
About Ziemba, Ellis told Playbill.com earlier this week, "People always sort of accuse me of this, but I tend to work with a lot of the same people over the years. I think I'm fortunate to work with them. Why not work with people you love, who are talented? KZ, you know, we found for The World Goes 'Round. She was in the chorus at City Opera. She's one of those extraordinary people who cannot only sing and act but is also a dancer through an actor — she doesn't just dance, she acts and then dances. There are not a lot of triple threats out there, and she certainly is one of them. My relationship with her goes back a long time — we've worked together many times."
Last week I had the pleasure of chatting with Ziemba, who exudes warmth, about her newest Broadway role, her previous theatrical outings and her memories of working with the late Fred Ebb. That interview follows.
Question: Tell me a little about the character that you play in Curtains.
Ziemba: Georgia Hendricks is the lyricist on the show-within-the-show, and she is modeled after, in my mind, a Betty Comden-type character in that she was a former performer in the musical theatre and then became a lyricist because she had those other gifts, not unlike Betty. It's also modeled after a lot of those people that played a Betty Comden-type character, like Nanette Fabray in The Band Wagon and all those characters that did that kind of work — Kay Thompson in whatever movies she made — sort of like that wisecracking other person . . . or, really, I should say, more the straight man to the wisecracking person. [Laughs.] But I'm also formerly married to the composer in this piece, played by Jason Danieley. He plays Aaron Fox, who is the composer, and we are separated at this time, but we're still working together on this show, so it's a little prickly. [Laughs.] But that makes it more interesting! Question: What were the out-of-town tryouts like at the Ahmanson?
Ziemba: It was great. . . . Things were going well with rehearsals because it's just an amazing group of people. Then, the first night that we had an audience, it was like, "Oh my God! They really think this is funny!" [Laughs.] It was so exciting to get actual people viewing it and listening and reacting to it. It made all the difference in the world because Rupert [Holmes'] book is very clever and very funny and interesting to follow because there's the murder mystery involved, too. Plus, you've got all these different characters and their relationships and what's going on with them. So, you're following those stories, and you're following the murders — it's a lot to listen to, but that's what's great. It's the thinking man's musical comedy.
Question: How much did the show change during the tryout?
Ziemba: We had rehearsals every day. A lot of it was details, little snips here and there, little additions here and there. Since we've come back [to New York], they have not restructured the show. It's still the same story, but they have moved, say, a number to a different place, because it sits better with telling the story. It's all about everything being much more clear, and they've done great work on it, the creative team.
Question: How about now? Is it pretty much frozen?
Ziemba: Oh, no! [Laughs.] No, in fact, we've got some stuff going in [this] week. . . . If you're adding something to a show, then an orchestrator has to re-orchestrate for that particular number. You can take music and cut it out [and] just say to the orchestrator, "You're not going to play these bars," but if you're going to play these eight more bars, then something has to be there on paper to give them, and that doesn't happen just by the blink of an eye or the click of a finger. Somebody has to work on that, so that's where the time comes in.
Question: What's that like for you as an actor, getting changes at this point?
Ziemba: The changes keep you on your toes . . . but it makes it exciting and keeps you really paying attention.
Question: You've been in shows that have been big hits and some that have not. Is there a certain amount of anxiety when you're in a new show in previews, or do you just try and focus on the work?
Ziemba: I think it's a little bit of both. This group, headed by David Hyde Pierce — he's such a consummate professional, but he's also a lovely, kind, generous person as an actor [and] as a person. When [that kind of] captain is steering the ship . . . who just gives you a . . . confident feeling because we always know that he is going to raise the bar for us; everybody follows suit, and it's just amazing.
Question: It's such a starry company. Are you all having fun working together?
Ziemba: Oh, yeah. Some people I've worked with and some people I haven't, so it's fun for me. People I've known for many years that I've never worked with, too, so it's exciting. Then, of course, Deb Monk and I have worked together before. It's always great being with her — she's just wonderful and generous and lovely and makes people laugh all the time. And then, of course, [director] Scott Ellis I've worked with probably more than anybody in the company. And Kander and Ebb. Worked with John Kander, and he's around, and David Loud, who was my conductor on And the World Goes 'Round and then Steel Pier, and lots of other things. So the family's back together again!
Question: You've been in several Kander and Ebb shows —Chicago, Steel Pier, And the World Goes 'Round. Why do you think you're such a good fit for their work?
Ziemba: You know, you'd have to ask John Kander that. [Laughs.]
Question: What do you like about their work?
Ziemba: I think it's because it's just so eclectic. In their work . . . things can be bombastic and things can be very broad, but there's also a lot of stillness and reflection in their stuff, too, so it runs the gamut. Plus, they have always written great stuff for dancing, too. I think that when I took on this role of Georgia Hendricks, they created a character that went beyond what they originally thought because of what I do. So, that's part of the reason that I do some dancing in the show, too, and there is so much dancing in the show for everybody else — it's overwhelming what these kids do. It's unbelievable! [Laughs.] . . . [Choreographer] Rob Ashford has really raised the bar on his side of things. He's expecting a lot out of these kids, and they're doing it.
Question: Fred Ebb was such a big champion of your work. Was his death a big loss for you?
Ziemba: Oh yeah. We talk about this a lot — we still feel that he's around. He's all over this show because it's such a showbiz-y show, and he just knew how to write about that inside and out. He had his hand on the pulse of that, and yet there's a couple of really romantic things in this, too, that show his very soft and sentimental side — which not too many people saw — but in this show, you get a lot of that, too.
Question: Is there anything that you particularly remember about him?
Ziemba: I remember how one minute he'd make you crack up by something cryptic or caustic that he would say, and then you would look at him, and he'd have a tear coming down his face about something. He just had that duality about him, which just made his writing so rich, and he was just such an intelligent, clever, well-read poet. And yet [he] knew how to make things a little bit skewed too, so it wasn't just the norm. It was very unique. He really had his own voice, a very specific way of describing life and surviving life — a way of being downtrodden and yet smiling at it and barreling through.
Question: We were all really shocked here a few weeks ago when we heard about Daniel McDonald's death. Had you remained in contact with him after Steel Pier?
Ziemba: Yes, and I've been spending some time with his family this last year when he was ill and getting to know his wife better and his kids — just trying to spend a little bit of time with him. It's a terrible tragedy, and yet he's left his generosity and his love in his family and the people who knew him well. His wife and some of his friends did a little documentary about him, where he sings on it, and where we talked about him and interviewed [people]. So that will be a little legacy for his family, for his children who are too young to really have known him very well and what he was like before he was sick. It's going to be a nice thing for them to have and for people to view that are going through the same thing, losing somebody at a very young age.
Question: What was your memory of working with him on Steel Pier? Was that the first time you had worked with him?
Ziemba: Yes. Well, that was really interesting. Like Daniel said, nobody knew who he was. He'd been around, but he primarily spent most of his time in Los Angeles, but he always sang and he always danced. He auditioned for the workshop of Steel Pier, and he was the one guy in the group that I had never met, and yet when I got up to read with him for the scene for his audition, he really connected with me and had this kind of wise — these very soulful eyes — and I remember saying in our little meeting afterwards, to John Kander and Scott Ellis and [Susan] Stroman and everybody who was there, "I think that he's the guy. He's the one."
He just has this way of looking through you, looking into your soul. He had this thing about him, and the fact that he was playing an angel was very poignant. He had that ability to listen and to give generously of himself. He just was very different than your usual guy who came in and auditioned. He didn't come in with a lot of bravura — he was just different, something different about him. I really keyed into that, and so I put in my two cents, even though I was just there to help at the audition [laughs], and I think they saw it, too.
Question: Going back a bit in your career, you made your Broadway debut in A Chorus Line, right?
Ziemba: That's right.
Question: Is it strange that there's already a revival of the show?
Ziemba: It seems like it wasn't that long ago, but it's fantastic. I saw it, and it was just so wonderful to see it again because [of what] Michael Bennett did with that show and the rest of the creative team — Marvin Hamlisch and Nick Dante and Ed Kleban — how they put this incredible piece together. It's like this beautiful gem, this perfect show. The way it works — the lighting, the timing, what these kids are saying — it's really amazing. It's like it should be carved in stone or something. It's something that needs to be preserved, and I think that it was a brilliant piece of theatre.
Question: What year did you go into the musical?
Ziemba: I went into it in the mid-eighties, so it was after it had been running for awhile, but if you were the kind of performer that I was, that was the show you wanted to be part of.
Question: What roles did you play?
Ziemba: I played many roles. I played Cassie, Diana Morales, Bebe Benzenheimer and Maggie Winslow. So I did two "At the Ballet" girls and then also got to wear the red skirt. [Laughs.]
Question: What was it like when you played Cassie?
Ziemba: It was one of the most difficult dances I've ever done in my life! [Laughs.] Michael Bennett choreographed it for Donna McKechnie. It was really the movement that came out of her body, and he also was this guy that was very close to the ground, and it was this kind of movement that somebody should be doing in sneakers. It was very difficult, but it was great to do. It was just [that] you had to do it every single night or you never had the stamina. I remember when I first understudied it, I had to be in the wings, doing it along with the other Cassie because otherwise, if I ever had to go on, I wouldn't have the stamina. [Laughs.] It was one of those things that you just had to be in constant training for.
Question: Did you ever get to work with [Michael Bennett]?
Ziemba: He came to see a company that I was in on the road, and I met him, but personally, I never really did. But Bob Avian was sort of his spokesperson, and I remember him casting me the first time.
Question: You also recently had a cameo in "Scrubs" and you've done all the different "Law and Order"s. Do you like TV work? How is it different for you?
Ziemba: It's very different because you wait to do a certain scene, and you have to be really on top of it the minute you go in there. It's not like it's a continuation of a scene before. Also, when you're doing the "Law and Order"s and you're coming on in the guest spot, it's very imperative that you have your lines down because the people that are there all the time — like [Chris] Meloni and Mariska Hargitay, who play the leads — have so much material. You just want to get up there and really nail it for them. They're amazing in how they can memorize that stuff, the loads of copy every single day, and so it's one of those things where you really have to stay awake and pay attention and know your stuff. But I love the show. I always find myself, when I'm surfing at night [and] I come onto an old one, you get so sucked into them!
My first "Law and Order" was with Jerry Orbach, and he was my first leading man on Broadway — in 42nd Street — so it was like coming back after he'd made this major splash on "Law and Order." When I came on the set, he was like, "This is my prodigy from Broadway." [Laughs.] I had this little part, and he made me feel like I was the star of the set. It was so wonderful.
Question: Now going back even a little further, where were you born and raised?
Ziemba: I was born in St. Joseph, Michigan, and I was raised there and outside of Detroit. That's where I learned to sing and dance. My grandmother sang for City Opera, so there was always music in my house.
Question: At what age would you say you started performing?
Ziemba: I'd say I was always performing for my own family [laughs], and my brothers had to play all of my supporting characters — whether they were women or not — so I put them in pigtails and dresses and all kinds of stuff. But I would probably say six — six was when the ballet lessons started.
Question: When do you think you knew that it would be your career?
Ziemba: I wanted to be a ballet dancer, and when I was in college and realized that that was not going to be my major thrust, I thought that's when I wanted to be a concert dancer. But I realized that it was much more of a single focus — you didn't get to sing or tell jokes or laugh or make noises, so I used my skills as a dancer to bring me to musical theatre.
Question: When did that happen?
Ziemba: That happened when I was in college. I danced with the Ohio Ballet, and then I did a couple local musicals, and then I realized that was where I belonged.
Question: You've been in so many shows. When you look back on in your career, is there anything that jumps out at you as your favorite?
Ziemba: Probably 110 in the Shade (at New York City Opera). That was magnificent.
Question: What about that was special for you?
Ziemba: Well, the play The Rainmaker that it was based on is such a fantastic play. The characters are so wonderful. Because I grew up in a family with brothers, I really related to this character. Doing it at City Opera with a full orchestra — the score with the orchestrations by Hershey Kay — it was just magnificent. It was really a beautiful production. And Richard Nash, the playwright, was still alive, and he was very much present during those rehearsals. We added some dialogue from the play into that production. I loved a passage in this one scene and [asked], "Could I please add this before I start?" to the rest of what Tom Jones had adapted from the play into the libretto. And [Nash] said, "Yeah, you can add that." It was this wonderful speech about Lizzie looking into the mirror and feeling that she wasn't pretty and that nobody would ever love her, and I just said, "I have to say that." It's just so descriptive. I loved it. And that was also Scott Ellis and Susan Stroman, with Paul Gemignani conducting, so it was like sort of my family again. Question: Do you have any other projects in the works?
Ziemba: For the last couple of years or so, I've been slowly working on my own album with Jay Records out of London. I've done a lot of recordings for them. I did 110 in the Shade, I did Most Happy Fella and some other compilation albums of Kander & Ebb, Strauss, Andrew Lloyd Webber. We've slowly been putting together some material for my own [album], but it takes awhile! [Laughs.]
Question: What type of songs will be on the solo CD?
Ziemba: It's going to be Mary Martin songs — "Mary Martin's Broadway."
Question: Is there any release date yet?
Ziemba: No. We still have to put together orchestrations for some of the stuff from her obscure shows.
Question: Was Martin someone who influenced you growing up?
Ziemba: Yes, and I remember when I did 110 for Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt, and they said that I reminded them a lot of Mary. When they cast me in I Do! I Do! — because she had originated that [role] — they said, "Yeah, she's girl to play this part!"
[Curtains plays the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, 302 West 45th Street; for tickets call (212) 239-6200 or visit www.telecharge.com.]
FOR THE RECORD
Masterworks Broadway will release digitally remastered versions of the original cast recordings of Into the Woods, Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park with George and Merrily We Roll Along. The four discs will all boast bonus tracks and will feature new liner notes penned by director Richard Jay-Alexander. The Sondheim recordings are set to arrive in stores March 20.
The Into the Woods recording — starring Bernadette Peters, Joanna Gleason and Chip Zien — will feature three bonus tracks: "Giants in the Sky" (performed by John Cameron Mitchell), "Back to the Palace" (Kim Crosby) and "Boom Crunch" (Maureen Moore). The suggested retail price is $13.98.
Sweeney Todd — which boasts Tony winners Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury — will feature three additional tracks: "Symphonic Sondheim: Sweeney Todd" (from Sondheim: A Celebration at Carnegie Hall with Eugene Perry, Henry Perry, Jerry Hadley and the American Theatre Orchestra conducted by Paul Gemignani), "Green Finch and Linnet Bird" (Harolyn Blackwell, also from Sondheim: A Celebration at Carnegie Hall) and "Sweet Polly Plunkett" (Julie Andrews, from Putting It Together). The suggested retail price is $24.98.
Sunday in the Park with George — co-starring Bernadette Peters and Mandy Patinkin — will offer bonus tracks of "Putting It Together" (from Putting It Together, with Julie Andrews, Stephen Collins, Rachel York, Michael Rupert and Christopher Durang) and "Sunday" (from Sondheim: A Celebration at Carnegie Hall, with the Chorus and the American Theatre Orchestra). The suggested retail price is $13.98.
"It's a Hit" (demo from Sondheim's personal archives) and "Not a Day Goes By" (performed by Bernadette Peters at Sondheim: A Celebration at Carnegie Hall) will be the bonus tracks for Merrily We Roll Along, the short-lived musical that featured Liz Callaway, Lonny Price, Ann Morrison and Jim Walton. The suggested retail price is $13.98.
For more information visit www.sonybmgmasterworks.com.
Tony Award winner Victoria Clark, All Shook Up's Cheyenne Jackson and singer-songwriter Jane Kelly Williams will host Songs for Darfur: The Water Project. The March 26 benefit concert will be held at the Church of St. Paul & St. Andrew in Manhattan. In addition to Clark, Jackson and Williams, the 7 PM performance will also feature the talents of Maureen McGovern, Kelli O'Hara, Everett Bradley, Malcolm Gets, Elizabeth Stanley, Marilyn Torres and opera singer Marvis Martin. Musicians Ted Sperling and Dave Richards will also perform. Proceeds from the concert will benefit The United Methodist Committee on Relief and The Darfur People's Association of New York. Tickets, priced $40 (adults) and $20 (students, seniors and individuals with limited income) are available by calling (212) 362-3179. They will also be available at the door the night of the performance (cash only). Patron tickets, priced $100, include a pre-concert reception with the performers and reserved seating. For more information visit www.songsfordarfur.com. The Church of St. Paul & St. Andrew is located in Manhattan at 263 West 86th Street at West End Avenue.
Scott Siegel's acclaimed Broadway By the Year series will continue March 26 with The Broadway Musicals of 1938. Tony nominee Emily Skinner will direct the evening, which will include songs from musicals that debuted on The Great White Way in 1938. The starry cast for the 8 PM concert will comprise Andy Blankenbuehler, Sarah Uriarte Berry, Aaron Lazar, Shannon Lewis, Ray McLeod, Christiane Noll, Connie Pachl, Hugh Panaro, Martin Vidnovic and Barbara Walsh. Tickets, priced $40 and $45, are available by calling (212) 307-4100 or by visiting Ticketmaster.com. Town Hall is located in Manhattan at 123 West 43rd Street.
Gay Marshall, who recently ended a year-long run in the acclaimed revival of Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, will return to the Zipper Theatre March 22 for a solo concert. Entitled Gay Marshall Is Alive and Well . . . and Singing at the Zipper, the evening will feature the actress performing an array of material, including songs by Brel and those associated with Edith Piaf. Marshall, according to press notes, will describe "the pros and cons of living on both sides of the ocean and the challenge of trying to fit in with the French in excerpts from her one-woman show If I Were Me." Marshall will be accompanied by a trio of musicians; show time is 8 PM. The Zipper Theatre is located in Manhattan at 336 West 37th Street, between Eighth and Ninth Avenues. Tickets, priced at $25, are available by calling (212) 352-3101 or by visiting www.zippertheatre.com.
Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to email@example.com.