What with a grandmother who sang at City Center Opera and a mother who imparted in her a special fondness for dance, is it any wonder that Karen Ziemba has become one of Broadway's most remarkable triple threats: an actress who sings and dances and does all three, often to great acclaim. With starring roles in Steel Pier and Chicago, Ziemba's moved into the upper echelon of Broadway musical performers, and now stardom beckons, thanks to her celebrated turn in the second section of Contact. Playing the timid, painfully abused wife of a Mafioso thug (Jason Antoon), Ziemba not only has moments fraught with sad drama, but entire sections of wild, delirious comic dancing, as the wife fantasizes that an entire restaurant has transformed into a follies-type cavalcade. The Tony Award nominators, who graced the Susan Stroman-John Weidman creation with a Best Musical nomination, were also impressed enough to reward Ziemba with her second nomination (the first was for Steel Pier), and the actress has already won a Featured Actress Award from the Outer Critics Circle and Drama Desk for her role in Contact.
Playbill On-Line: One could call this a case of a nice girl finishing first -- or are you so strongly associated with playing nice girls, the compliment starts to sound back-handed?
Karen Ziemba: There's nothing wrong with nice girl roles. Hopefully you dig a little deeper and find something below the surface. The Contact girl is a nice girl too, but with a lot of very deep issues. Obviously, Chicago was able to give me other sides, but there are so many levels to somebody who's nice. You don't have to play a shrew or a bitch for contrast; there are different levels in a normal person, which lie deeper than what meets the eye.
PBOL: Contact has become one of the hits, if not the hit, of the Broadway season. Any guesses as to why this would click so strongly with audiences and critics, yet, for example, your last new show, Steel Pier, didn't quite?
KZ: There are so many variables. Hindsight is the most important thing to have. I will say that with Steel Pier, that season we were competing with one of the best shows Kander and Ebb ever wrote -- Chicago -- which didn't help. Everyone said, "Well it's not Chicago." Well, of course not. It was about a totally different thing. It had a different flavor. Comparisons are always tough. That happened this year with the two Wild Parties; the "not as good as" thing. You need to see a piece for what it is. It was also a year when a lot of new shows weren't doing very well critically but had good things about them, like The Life and Titanic. Fortunately, we got a beautiful CD out of it; the score to Steel Pier was lovely. In hindsight, I don't feel that anything that is an original musical, something that you are writing from scratch -- unless it's absolutely failsafe -- should be done in a workshop and then put right on Broadway. You need to do a show in front of an audience on the road in front of people and work things out. You need time to ask, "Do we write more songs or take songs away?" In Steel Pier we were changing things three days before we opened. The advantage of taking a show out of town is to see if it plays and if people get the story and care about the characters. I felt we needed more time, more of a gestation period.
PBOL: Although Contact was able to hit the ground running. Why was the reaction so strongly and immediately positive?
KZ: People care about these characters. They care what's gonna happen to them. And it has some of the most incredible choreography that Susan Stroman has ever done. Yes, the story continues through the dance and through the movement, but if you didn't care about the people, that wouldn't matter. The characters are really clear and fleshed-out people the audiences know. The story is so spare, yet Jason Antoon's characterization and the story Stro helped create and the music that she chose to bring it about -- it's so obvious what's going on. The way Jason pushes my buttons. It grew each day and still does. That's another thing about Contact: we had no idea what it was going to be, or how it was going to be accepted. It wasn't anticipated to be such a hit; it just happened. There's such a duality of technical precision and exactness within an inch of its life, and simultaneously whatever happens and comes out of you must be let free. People ask if I'm exhausted after a performance and I say "yes," because it's so precise, and you have to let go of your emotions for people to understand what's going on inside you. It's so satisfying and fulfilling as an actor to do that.
PBOL: Precision while letting go -- probably as good a definition as any for the ultimate goal of acting. Did your early training put you in good stead for that kind of technique?
KZ: I always did all three -- singing, dancing, acting -- just for fun. I was the only girl with three brothers. My mother loved old movies; she'd wanted to be a dancer and was fascinated by Eleanor Powell, Cyd Charisse, Judy Garland, Gene, Fred... My mother took me to see the local ballet and then put me into ballet classes, which was something she always loved. I had an affinity for it and loved getting the attention, too. Singing was also important. My grandmother, Winifred Heidt, was a mezzo at City Center Opera. She did hundreds of Carmens all over the world. In fact, Beverly Sills was once in the quintet behind her. And when the first revival of Carousel was done at City Center, my grandmother played Mrs. Mullen [Barbara Cook was Carrie and Jo Sullivan was Julie]. I'm sure I got the singing bug because of the music that was played in the house. It was okay to go around singing and making beautiful sounds. When I was in high school, they were doing West Side Story, and we didn't have too many skilled dancers in the school. The show is very balletic, so they needed a Maria who could sing and dance her own dream ballet. I remember my ballet teacher saying, "make a choice: come to class or do the school musical." So I sadly went to the choir master and told him I couldn't do West Side Story. He said "No, you really need to do this for yourself and for us." I ended up doing it and keeping on with the lessons, and caught the singing and acting bug right there. Still, I went to school for more dance after that. But I danced with the Ohio Ballet for one year and realized I wasn't gonna make it as a ballet dancer. So I did A Chorus Line on the road and that became my first Broadway show. PBOL: Since then, have you gained or been given special wisdom on how to keep doing what you do?
KZ: I do remember my grandmother, who met many divas, telling me that "your ensemble is the most important people to you. They make you look good." I remember her saying that. I have been in ensembles and still enjoy that, but that's where I started, too, so I understand that. The people joining you onstage -- you have to give yourself to them in your performance.
PBOL: You're at the point in your career where you might start getting to play some of the parts you'd always dreamed of. Any specifics come to mind?
KZ: Well, I've already had a couple of dream roles. I played Lizzie in 110 in the Shade, a beautiful play [The Rainmaker] made into a musical with a lovely score. I was in Crazy For You, and you never get tired of singing or listening to George Gershwin. I've done Chicago, so I do have an interest in all those Gwen Verdon roles. She always brought such an interesting style to the "girl-gone-bad-but-still has-a-heart-of-gold" types. But coming up I will get a chance to do a real dream: Nellie, in South Pacific. Andre Bishop's favorite musical is South Pacific, so they're doing a big benefit concert version for Lincoln Center on May 22. They've put together an unbelievably exciting cast and creative team. We've got George Hearn as Emil, Pat Suzuki as Bloody Mary, Brian Murray as Luther, Frank Converse as Captain Brackett, Brent Barrett as Lt. Cable and Chris Invar as Harbison. We started rehearsal for the concert version on Monday [May 8], which is when I found out about the Tony nomination. When I got home, my answering machine was full!
PBOL: If that's one of the ultimate highs for a Broadway performer, can you remember one of the lows?
KZ: Oh yeah: taking a curtain call and falling flat on my ass. I was doing Babes in Arms, directed by Ginger Rogers. The final number was "Johnny One Note," a big tap number. After it, I was so excited I came running out for the bows and went Flooop BONK! I think dancers fall more than normal people.
PBOL: Okay, sorry to end on a tense note, but we can't let you go until you weigh in on the big issue surrounding Contact: Is it fair to call the show a new musical -- and judge it against shows with original lyrics and music?
KZ: Like any kind of art form, rules have to be changed. There are certain traditions that are wonderful to keep and appreciate, for example bringing back revivals and "revisals." But when you're talking about theatre which is a live art form, it needs to be reevaluated and redefined, and if it isn't, it's not gonna live. Things change and evolve. I want to say it is fair to put Contact up against musicals, because when this show was created, it was about the kind of music these kinds of people listen to on their CD players or, in my character's case, the hi-fi (probably Andre Kostalanetz records and the like). But it's hard to categorize Contact just as a play, because it's more than that. Because the dance is continuing the story, just as in Les Miz, the songs continue the story. Everyone will have his own idea of how to define things, just as some believe in Buddah, some in Jesus Christ and some in Satan. [Laughs.] This piece deserves everything it has coming to it. It's something the public should see because of how it makes you feel. It's more than just entertainment. That's what the theatre is. If theatre can turn into something deeper, more like art, you want to honor that.