STAGE TO SCREENS: Ziemba and Luker Chat About “Law & Order”

News   STAGE TO SCREENS: Ziemba and Luker Chat About “Law & Order”
This month we chat with two top musical-theatre talents — Karen Ziemba and Rebecca Luker — who, since they're not currently appearing on Broadway, may be seen on a couple of upcoming "Law & Order" shows.
Top: Karen Ziemba, Bottom: Rebecca Luker
Top: Karen Ziemba, Bottom: Rebecca Luker


A Tony winner for Contact, Karen Ziemba enhances the May 16 episode of "Law & Order: Criminal Intent." She plays Isabel Dawson, "who's in love with a bad guy. He's played by Kevin Tighe, who's a really nice man. I put [Tighe's character] on a pedestal, and, unbeknownst to me, he's concealing some dirty dealings. I don't find out about them until the end of the show.

"I liked working with Vincent D'Onofrio and Kathryn Erbe [the series' stars, who play Detectives Goren and Eames]. They have a big responsibility. They have a lot of lines in every single episode. For them to be able to do that is quite a feat; you have to have skill and intelligence." Karen also has praise for Frank Prinzi, who directed the episode. "He had been [the series'] head cameraman. Frank would talk to me often about what was going on in my character's mind. He was very into the story."

Since she's associated with musical roles, does Ziemba find any difficulty in being considered for dramatic parts? "I think that they probably do look to cast someone who's done more straight theatre. But there are some really fine actors who also do sing. [Laughs] In New York, I think they're a lot more open-minded about that."

Among her television work, Ziemba did appear (as a forensics expert) on "Law & Order" with Jerry Orbach, which reunited her with the star of the original 42nd Street. "Peggy Sawyer was really my first major lead on Broadway. I'd done A Chorus Line [as Bebe], but I learned so much from Jerry. I literally learned onstage every night, and it's helped me ever since. When I went on the [‘Law & Order’] set, Jerry introduced me to everybody. He's very proud of his past [in musical theatre]." Having performed in a couple of recent tributes to Orbach — "at the Drama League and at the Friars," where the honoree also sang — Ziemba notes, "He sings so beautifully." Her current TV stint is only one item in Ziemba's very busy schedule. Having just done a "Musicals in Mufti" version of Weird Romance, she is one of the performers in Town Hall's Broadway Musicals of 1949 (April 19), takes a turn as Rosie in the Encores! presentation of Bye Bye Birdie (May 6-9), and come June (June 2-July 18) she’ll develop a bad, bad cold as Miss Adelaide in the Paper Mill production of Guys and Dolls. Referring to Rosie and Adelaide, Ziemba says, "I like to play roles that I haven't played before. Both of those [shows] are wonderful musicals."

Part of the reason she wanted to do Guys and Dolls, observes Ziemba, "was because I wanted to work with Michael Mastro, who's playing Nathan Detroit. He just did Gooper in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and he was in Side Man and Barrymore with Christopher Plummer. Bob Cuccioli is playing Sky, and a girl named Kate Baldwin is playing Sarah. Stafford Arima is directing; he assisted Frank Galati in Toronto on Ragtime, and he staged it in London and was nominated for an Olivier."

Which role has given Ziemba the most satisfaction? "It's really hard to say because they're all so different. When I did Contact, I was obviously at the right point in my life to understand what that character was going through. To play someone who lives somewhere in your soul is a very satisfying thing. On the other hand, that character [an abused wife] is very tragic. There's a real sadness that goes along with having to play a character like that eight times a week. There's a duality — fulfillment of playing a rich character, but also a sadness that you have to express." She only had "about ten lines," but acting through dance ("I think Gwen Verdon always did that") earned Ziemba a Tony.

The Pajama Game, opposite Brent Barrett, was Ziemba's most recent Encores! show, and there was talk that it would transfer to Broadway. She doesn't know its future. "Getting a musical up these days — ever since 9/11 — is really difficult." Ziemba also has a project on which she's worked with Polly Bergen, Little Shows. "We might be doing a reading of that at Lincoln Center next year. These things take time [to have produced] — unless you're Neil Simon, or you're associated with a theatre company." Speaking of Simon, Ziemba and her husband, actor Bill Tatum, did a production of the playwright's The Dinner Party in Bennington, Vermont, last summer.

It's not common for the Tatums to work together. "He doesn't really do musicals, though we met while doing one [Seesaw, at the now-defunct Equity Library Theatre; Tatum played Jerry, the male lead, and Ziemba "was in the chorus."] Also last summer, she appeared in a Williamstown production of The Threepenny Opera, in which the cast included Jesse L. Martin (a "Law & Order" star), Melissa Errico, Randy Graff, Betty Buckley and William Duell (re-creating the two roles he played in the legendary 1954 Off-Broadway production). "I enjoyed that a lot; it was fun."

"I loved playing Lizzie in 110 in the Shade [at Lincoln Center]. It's a great play, a great character; I related to her, I have brothers. It's Harvey and Tom's [Schmidt and Jones'] best score. I loved Crazy for You; I loved Never Gonna Dance — getting to sing Jerome Kern every night."

Whether the part is for television or the stage, Karen Ziemba prepares the same way "In both cases, you have to be really sharp. For TV, sometimes you have to start the scene right in the middle. If someone makes a mistake, you have to repeat it real fast and keep the thing moving. On camera, they can cut out the bad take. You have to keep in the scene. What's different [from stage work] is waiting in-between takes. Sometimes, it's almost easier to start from the beginning and go right to the end, which is what theatre does. You don't lose momentum. But doing a part eight times a week is very exhausting, and [so is] keeping it fresh for yourself and for the audience."


On the May 11 episode of "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," two-time Tony nominee (Show Boat, The Music Man) Rebecca Luker portrays Wendy Campbell, "the aunt of a little girl who apparently has been poisoned by her mother, my sister-in-law. In the teaser, I'm sitting with the little girl and am questioned by Benson [Mariska Hargitay]. We shoot my big scene on Tuesday."

Does Luker find that her musical-theatre background makes it harder for her to be considered for dramatic roles? "I'm often considered," she says, "but I find it difficult to actually get them. Part of the problem is that people don't see me in that world. It's a slow process. Casting directors have a lot of power. It's a very political thing to be seen for everything." Luker's most recent Broadway assignment was when she took over the role of Claudia in Nine. “The women [in the cast] were just wonderful — and just wonderful to me. I didn't have a lot of rehearsal. I played six weeks with Antonio [Banderas]. That was a lot of fun. I enjoyed the songs I had to sing, and I looked totally unlike myself. I had a ball!"

Prior to Nine, Luker appeared in the Kennedy Center production of Passion and Off-Broadway in the plays Can't Let Go and The Vagina Monologues. "I'd love to do a lot more dramas and comedies and Shakespeare."

Married to actor Danny Burstein, Luker is stepmother to two sons. Which role has brought her the most satisfaction? "I guess I'd have to say Marian [in The Music Man]. That's one of my favorite shows; I think it's in the Top Ten of American musicals." She played opposite three Harold Hills: Craig Bierko, Eric McCormack and Robert Sean Leonard. "You have to make subtle adjustments. Robert Sean is so young that they lengthened my hair to make me look younger. With Eric, they gave me shorter shoes. Craig was so tall. It's nice to have a tall leading man."

Rebecca Luker does a lot of concert work ("and some jingle singing on the side"). Her second CD (following the 1996 album, "Anything Goes: Rebecca Luker Sings Cole Porter") was released last month: "Leaving Home" on P.S. Classics. Among the selections are "She's Leaving Home" (Lennon McCartney), "Wick" (from The Secret Garden, sung with Alison Fraser, with whom Luker appeared in the musical), "Cherish the Child," "Morningtimes," "Four Green Fields" and "You're My Home."

Other musical-theatre actors appearing on upcoming "Law & Order: SVU" episodes include Tony winners John Cullum (April 27) and Jane Krakowski (May 4).


The March 14 END QUIZ question was: In 1984, Laurence Olivier starred in a TV presentation of "King Lear." Which Tony Award winner played Edmund: a) Kevin Kline; b) Robert Lindsay; c) Jonathan Pryce? Answer: b).

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