Emmy winner Polly Bergen, who is currently portraying Fraulein Schneider in the Roundabout Theate Company's Cabaret, and Tony winner Karen Ziemba, who will star in the upcoming Encores! production of The Pajama Game, are collaborating on a new musical that is being penned by playwright and journalist Deborah Grace Winer.
In a recent interview with Playbill On-Line, Bergen spoke about her new project, which she had hoped to workshop this spring. Her commitment to Cabaret and Ziemba's upcoming Pajama Game prevented the workshop, but both are eager to work on the project — tentatively titled Little Shows — as soon as possible.
The yet-unscheduled piece is a two-woman character study that is told in song, dance and spoken word. The musical will feature songs that already exist, although the dialogue has been written expressly for the piece by Deborah Grace Winer, author of Off-Broadway's The Last Girl Singer. Winer had originally written the piece for Ziemba and cabaret-stage veteran Julie Wilson, but Wilson withdrew due to scheduling conflicts.
Bergen, who received a Tony nomination for her powerful work in last season's production of Follies, spoke at length about the new piece April 3. "The first act is primarily a one-woman monologue," Bergen explains, "of Karen Ziemba's character. It's basically a stream of consciousness. She is an authority on everything. Then, there is this startling discovery of who she actually is and where she [works]. At the end of the first act, I enter and wash my hands. [Ziemba's character] is actually a girl who works in a ladies' room . . . I come in, wash my hands, put a dollar in the [tip jar] and I leave, and that's two minutes from the end of the first act."
Bergen takes centerstage for the second half of the evening, portraying a woman, who like Bergen herself, was a hit singer in the fifties. About her character in Winer's work, Bergen comments, "[My character] became very bitter and left [show business]. I moved to Maryland and raised a child, and the child moves away. I have nothing to do, so I buy this little dive, and I turn it into a cabaret bar, so that I can star in it. [The second act] is me doing a show opening night in this bar, which has eight people in it. That's all who have shown up! Then you discover," Bergen continues, "that the gal from the first act, Karen Ziemba's character, is my assistant. You discover how that came about. When she leaves the ladies' room [in the first act], I am having a stroke in the hallway, and she calls the ambulance and waits with me. . . She becomes a surrogate daughter to me, and I hire her to be my assistant-bartender-cleaner upper plumber." Bergen's career encompasses five decades of stage, screen, television and radio performances as well as an impressive recording career that includes her signature hit, "The Party's Over." She has accumulated more than 300 film and television credits, including "The Helen Morgan Story" (Emmy Award), "The Winds of War" (Emmy nom.), "War and Remembrance" (Emmy nomination) and the classic film, "Cape Fear." Bergen received a Tony nomination for her role in last season's Follies and currently stars in the hit revival of Cabaret at Studio 54.
Ziemba won a Tony Award portraying the Wife in Susan Stroman's Contact, which is still playing Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theater. She has also starred on Broadway in Chicago, Steel Pier, Crazy for You and 42nd Street, and her Off-Broadway work includes a Drama Desk Award-winning performance in And the World Goes 'Round as well as roles in I Do! I Do!, 110 in the Shade and The Most Happy Fella.
Bergen and Ziemba first met when they starred in a reading of The Women to benefit Phyllis Newman's Health Initiative. Bergen portrayed Ziemba's mother, and the two became fast friends.
—By Andrew Gans