Karen Ziemba Goes From Heart to Hart in Chicago

Karen Ziemba Goes From Heart to Hart in Chicago Vulnerability is a Karen Ziemba specialty -- a helpful thing for a girl to have going for her when she's in the musical comedy heroine business -- and, God knows, Roxie Hart is keenly in need of sympathy, coming on like gangbusters in her opening scene in Kander & Ebb's Chicago, rat-a-tat-tatting to kingdom come the rat she's been committing adultery with; then, to get away with murder, she catfights her way through her cellblock to become queen of the tabloid tarts in the Roaring Twenties. Not since Gwen Verdon originated the role on Broadway in 1975 has such a lethal wanton come over so waiflike and appealing. Clearly, Ziemba knows how to lure us into the jury box for a quick acquittal.

"Roxie Hart, obviously, has had hard knocks, so she responds in kind," she says. "That's how she hides this pool of mush inside her. We see, not so much that she has remorse, but that she's not being loved or accepted -- and this is what she wants more than anything else. That's why she wants to become famous -- to be loved and accepted, even adulated. When she loses all that at the end, her response is, 'What about the publicity? The reporters and the photographers?' This is what is important to Roxie -- not being married to a wonderful man like Amos or having a good friend like Velma. It's all about someone going, 'Wow! She's a star!'"

Well, truth to tell, Ziemba wouldn't mind someone saying that about her sometime -- especially now that she's occupying the star spot and sending off all those sparks exactly like one. Within the ranks of the knowing Rialto regulars, she enjoys an impeccable rep. There's nothing you can ask her to do that she can't do well, wonderfully well -- sing, dance, act, clown -- and yet the public still hasn't picked up on her twinkle 'n' shine.

Karen Ziemba as Roxie Hart.
Karen Ziemba as Roxie Hart. (Photo by Photo by Carol Rosegg/Joan Marcus)

Vulnerability is a Karen Ziemba specialty -- a helpful thing for a girl to have going for her when she's in the musical comedy heroine business -- and, God knows, Roxie Hart is keenly in need of sympathy, coming on like gangbusters in her opening scene in Kander & Ebb's Chicago, rat-a-tat-tatting to kingdom come the rat she's been committing adultery with; then, to get away with murder, she catfights her way through her cellblock to become queen of the tabloid tarts in the Roaring Twenties. Not since Gwen Verdon originated the role on Broadway in 1975 has such a lethal wanton come over so waiflike and appealing. Clearly, Ziemba knows how to lure us into the jury box for a quick acquittal.

"Roxie Hart, obviously, has had hard knocks, so she responds in kind," she says. "That's how she hides this pool of mush inside her. We see, not so much that she has remorse, but that she's not being loved or accepted -- and this is what she wants more than anything else. That's why she wants to become famous -- to be loved and accepted, even adulated. When she loses all that at the end, her response is, 'What about the publicity? The reporters and the photographers?' This is what is important to Roxie -- not being married to a wonderful man like Amos or having a good friend like Velma. It's all about someone going, 'Wow! She's a star!'"

Well, truth to tell, Ziemba wouldn't mind someone saying that about her sometime -- especially now that she's occupying the star spot and sending off all those sparks exactly like one. Within the ranks of the knowing Rialto regulars, she enjoys an impeccable rep. There's nothing you can ask her to do that she can't do well, wonderfully well -- sing, dance, act, clown -- and yet the public still hasn't picked up on her twinkle 'n' shine.

"I understand that -- I don't like it, but I understand it," Ziemba grudgingly admits. "It really behooves an actor to have some kind of commercial cache, so a producer will say, 'Oh, we want this person in the show because she will set tickets.' It's very expensive to run a show, and you can't have one with no names because you have to guarantee you'll run for a while."

To that end -- making Karen Ziemba an authentic Broadway star -- some highly reputable talents are on the case. Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt, for two. The Fantasticks duo were so delighted with the Lizzie she did in their 110 in the Shade at City Opera that they got her to say "I will" to their I Do! I Do! "They said I had some of the same qualities as Mary Martin, and they thought I'd be right for it vocally. David Garrison and I went through a lot of growing as actors, having to age 50 years every night. What a great piece to work on! It didn't run long, but it was a wonderful experience."

John Kander and Fred Ebb champion her cause as well. The Chicago tunesmiths were the first to give her a role to originate in New York (their long-running Off-Broadway revue, And the World Goes 'Round) and, season before last, the first to give her a lead in a Broadway show (their sadly short-lived, but still gloriously tuneful, dance-marathon musical, Steel Pier).

The collapse of Steel Pier was a crushing blow -- "not only for me personally," she says, "but for all of us. With this show, the cast and crew and creative team became so close because we were creating something from scratch. David Thompson and Susan Stroman and Scott Ellis chose what person would be most appropriate doing what material, and I think that made all of us shine. It was like creating a show on the shoulders of these particular actors.

"Then, there was the nature of the show, too. When you're in somebody's arms all night -- and all of us, as marathon dancers, were -- we all had somebody onstage we were responsible for all night, a partner -- it does something to you, having not only that emotional contact but the physical contact as well. There was something about the piece that was so enveloping. It created this incredible family, and we were all hurt to have to leave our group when it closed."

Ziemba came twirling out of Ohio a dance major from the University of Akron. "I wanted to be a ballet dancer," Ziemba recalls, "but eventually I realized this didn't fulfill me totally as a performer. I wanted to sing. There was something about being able to extend my feelings through singing and dialogue that I just wasn't getting in pure dance." Possibly she was responding to her ancestral calling: Her grandmother was Winifred Heidt, the opera and theatre singer. "She sang for City Opera for many years -- her signature role was Carmen -- and toured all over the place. John Kander saw her perform Carmen in Kansas City. He knew her before I did, before I was born. Once, he brought me a copy of a Carmen she had done on CD -- live, at the Hollywood Bowl -- in English! It was so cool."

Grandmother turned out to be a wonderful "advance man" for granddaughter, who frequently finds herself working at the same places or with the same people. "'Great actress,' they always say," beams Ziemba. Heidt did Mrs. Mullin in a City Center Carousel in 1954 with Jo Sullivan (with whom Ziemba just recorded a multi-CD edition of The Most Happy Fella), and in 1957 she did Moss Hart's The Climate of Eden at Equity Library Theatre (where Ziemba would later meet her husband of 14 years, actor Bill Tatum, doing Seesaw).

A Chorus Line led Ziemba to Broadway -- and the flagship Shubert Theatre -- for the first time. She played the role of Bebe Benzenheimer (replacing Tracy Shayne), and after that, she stuck around and understudied other spots on the Line. Her pre-Broadway seasoning was in Babes in Arms at Tarrytown and New London. "Randy Skinner and I were the Mickey and Judy of that production. It's a show people love to mount because there are so many song hits in it."

It also had a legend in the director's seat -- Ginger Rogers, who played two roles Ziemba later reprised at the Shubert. "She was so wonderful about teaching how important stillness is onstage, being able to convey something with very little movement -- just with a deep, heartfelt emotion. She became such a master of that on the screen. I have quite a lot of her films, some where she didn't do any dancing like Primrose Path and Tales of Manhattan and, of course, Roxie Hart. She was so good in that -- so tough and funny. She just had everything."

The other Rogers role Ziemba did at the Shubert was an amalgam, really -- one part Ginger, one part Ethel Merman -- in Crazy for You, the Broadway remaking of the Gershwins' 1930 Girl Crazy. "Ken Ludwig combined the two roles in the rewrite, so I got to do everything -- Ginger's 'But Not for Me' and Ethel's 'I Got Rhythm.' The best thing about that show was doing that pas de deux with Harry Groener and singing 'Someone to Watch Over Me' every night."

There are other ladies in musical theatre Ziemba hopes to play. "You can't go wrong with the Rodgers and Hammerstein canon -- Mrs. Anna, Maria von Trapp, Nellie. They wrote great roles for women. And I love the women in the shows Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields did."

But for now, of course, Roxie has her heart.