Behind the 'Curtains' with Karen Ziemba

Behind the 'Curtains' with Karen Ziemba

 by TJ Fitzgerald

Don't you just love a whodunit? And don't you just love Kander and Ebb, the guys who brought you CABARET and CHICAGO?? Now you can get your fill of both of them in the new hit Broadway musical, CURTAINS, playing at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre with an all-star cast featuring David Hyde Pierce, Debra Monk, Edward Hibbert, Jason Danieley, and the triple threat dynamo who talked to me about life in front of the curtains, Tony Award winner Karen Ziemba.

The Tony-winning actor-singer-dancer is one of Broadway's most versatile and beloved performers. Her current role as Georgia in CURTAINS has earned her Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle nominations.  Ziemba received the Tony award—along with the Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle awards—starring in Susan Stroman and John Weidman's hit musical, CONTACT, at Lincoln Center Theatre. She made her Broadway debut in A CHORUS LINE and later played opposite Jerry Orbach in 42ND STREET. She has starred as Roxie Hart in the revival of Kander and Ebb's CHICAGO, and originated the role of Rita Racine in their STEEL PIER, for which she received her first Tony award nomination as well as Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle nominations, and starred in CRAZY FOR YOU. Off-Broadway, she appeared in AND THE WORLD GOES 'ROUND for which she received a Drama Desk Award and I DO! I DO!, earning her a Drama Desk nomination.

Ziemba and I had a great chat about life on the stage and CURTAINS and some great theatre memories, which I now get to share with you. Enjoy!

TJ: Hi Karen. This is a real pleasure to talk with you, believe me. I have been a big fan of yours for a long time.

ZIEMBA: You know, Tim, it's hard to believe that I have been doing this for as long as it's been because it seems like it was just yesterday. It's amazing how many different people in this business you get to know and how many different shows you work on….it just becomes this huge family.

TJ: You have done a lot…I mean a lot!  I looked at your credits and I thought to myself, "Wow! She's has done so much and she's a young woman.

ZIEMBA: You know what's funny is when I am asked to give people a bio, they tell you that you need to cut it down. But I can't cut it down, but they tell you that you have to. (Laughing.)  I mean what do you cut out?  Do you cut out A CHORUS LINE or do I cut out 42ND STREET, all these old shows that I've done that are very important!

TJ:  And A CHORUS LINE was your first show.

ZIEMBA: Yeah, that was my first show.  That show ran for fifteen years. Of course, I wasn't in the original cast or anywhere near there, but I came to New York and that was a big deal.  If you were a singer who danced, that was THE show.  We wanted to be part of that show and experience that incredible seminal work.

TJ: That's so great. And now, it's back again!

ZIEMBA: I know!!  Both of those shows I had done have been revived. You don't have to say the original company... (Laughing.)  It will be coming back a third time at some point, you know.

TJ: Yep, it's back again!! Now, you are known for your work in the Kander and Ebb shows. There's a connection there, back to THE WORLD GOES ROUND.

ZIEMBA: Exactly. That's where we started.  What was so nice about that show was we got to do so much of their material from so many of their shows and in many different ways.  We had Scott Ellis and Susan Stroman, and Stro created this incredible staging and dancing. And then being able to take stuff out of context and stage it in a totally different way. Or like David Loud, who was the musical director on that and is also my musical director for CURTAINS, is a great vocal arranger. He took the theme to CABARET and made it into a five-part Manhattan Transfer style number and it was just gorgeous!  So we approached all their material in a different way and it was so exciting! It was just this little gem of a show. And it was so nice for John and Fred because it was their music being celebrated in such a fantastic way.  And what has happened to them since then with the revival of CHICAGO and CABARET and the movie version of CHICAGO.  It was just out of the ballpark.  You couldn't even imagine that all of that would happen to them. It was incredible! It couldn't happen to two nicer, more talented and gifted people.

TJ: And you've done CHICAGO too!

ZIEMBA: Yes.  That was the revival!

TJ: But of course!  I did see the original with Jerry Orbach!! The person with whom you shared your first stage kiss…

ZIEMBA: Oh, yeah. He was a great Billy Flynn!  I was a lucky girl to be on stage with him. Even before he did MURDER SHE WROTE with Angela Lansbury, he had done movie and TV work but you really didn't know him as much or see him as much until, of course, he did LAW AND ORDER.  I knew him as a song and dance man from the Broadway stage.  And years later, when I sang at his memorial, there were so many people there that knew him from LAW AND ORDER and films stars that he had befriended and people really had no idea what he had been through in his career beforehand.  I mean, they sort of knew but they weren't really sure. He was quite a mentor to me. He was like the first real big star I had worked with and I learned so much, being so green.  I had a lot of natural raw talent but I had never worked with those kinds of people from the old school that who never missed shows and stayed with the show as long as it was a hit. You know, that kind of stuff.  He instilled a lot of that into me, which I will be forever thankful for.

TJ: I didn't know you sang at his memorial.

ZIEMBA: Yes. I sang from THE FANTASTICKS, because that's really how he got started. I know that he was a replacement in The Threepenny Opera, but his first big starring role Off-Broadway was El Gallo.  I talked to a director I had worked with and told him I was asked to sing at Jerry's memorial in honor of him and I was searching for something to sing. He suggested They Were You and I thought, "Oh my god!"  That was perfect because it was about "all those shining lights and all those wonderful memories I have of being in your presence. Every time I see that, I think of you. "It was so perfect in that it was from his first show.  I get choked up when I think about it.

TJ: OK, I'll change the subject.

ZIEMBA: He's definitely still with us and cheering us on.

TJ: So, how's CURTAINS?gg

ZIEMBA: It is magnificent. And I'm not being corny or anything like that.

TJ: Well, it got nominated for 10 Drama Desk Awards and 6 Outer Critic Circle Awards, not to mention that you personally got nominations in both.   Congratulations. The show must be great!

ZIEMBA: Well, my friend, John Weidman, who wrote ASSASSINS and CONTACT…he's just the coolest guy…President of the Dramatists Guild….he came to see the show last night. He's a Tony voter and he came with his daughter. Well, we sat together going home and he said, "KZ, this show is really good!!" And I said, "Well, from what people said, didn't you think you might not like it?" And he said, "No, no. from what people were telling me, I was coming in thinking I was going to like it. You know what it is? It's got all these people on stage so magnificent all in the same place at the same time and you've got this really smart book by Rupert Holmes with little twists and turns but it's got this really wonderful old-fashioned kind of romantic musical comedy story with a murder mystery hanging on the edge, so you've sort of got that on the back burner.  It's really clever and it's well done."  You can sit back and be thoroughly entertained and see some really freakin' great performances.  What more is there? I mean, that's real Broadway!

You know, I wasn't so sure coming in on this. I mean, I knew I loved everybody in it and I was having a great time. But when you see the reaction, from everybody….from kids ten years old to eighty…they're all standing…they're all having a great time!  They all get it. And we're having a great time, so I think it floods over the stage. They can't help it!

TJ: Do you ever find yourself getting caught up in things like if something happens on stage and you struggle to keep a straight face? Come on….tell me the truth.

ZIEMBA:  (Laughing) Well, you know, it's very difficult. Especially in this show because there are so many scenes with the entire cast on stage together because it's about a murder mystery so we're all very much involved and being accused of being the murderer.  We're on stage a lot together and funny things happen. Like, for example, if something is supposed to fall down or a hole is supposed to open up in the stage or things don't happen or things do happen or somebody's tongue gets fumbled in their mouth and they mess their words and it's happens to all of us, believe me. Like it's the seventh show of the week and you open your mouth and what comes out is not what you expect. Everybody gets a chuckle! You see the shoulders bobbing up and down a little bit.  We try to keep it at bay and everybody's really good about getting back into the show. But that's what so fun about doing live theatre but also you have such great concentration. You can help each other out and be responsible for something or somebody if something happens. Like somebody kicked me the other day because their foot was going the wrong way or I'll, by mistake, do the same thing.  You just sort of have to smile and keep on going because the music doesn't stop.

But we're pretty good about it. There's a couple of people…I won't mention names….that have a harder time getting the smirk off their faces when something goes awry.  That's just because they've got too much of a funny bone. But we also whip each other into shape.

TJ: Well, I think you have to trust people that you're on stage with anyway.  That's got to be the most important thing in being up there. You don't have to worry. Right?

ZIEMBA: Yes. And with Rob Ashford's choreography, you need to trust people because it's so dangerous and wonderful and risky and it's great. But you do have to trust your partner and trust all the people who are next to you and that everybody's doing what they're supposed to be doing.

TJ: Tell me about your character Georgia. I heard she was based on someone very famous in the Broadway scene.

ZIEMBA: That would be Betty Comden.  She's a female lyricist of a certain time and because Betty was a former performer herself who became a lyricist, that just was like the prototype. The way she spoke and the fact that she was very urbane and yet also had this wonderful stillness about her too. She was a really good listener and she listened a lot with her eyes. Betty Comden was this diminutive powerhouse but she really expressed a lot of her feelings with her face.  She had this wealth of being a great poet and being funny. When she and Adolph Green worked together, they just created these incredible characters and words for their composers to play with. So that's who I am. I wish it was a little more fleshed out because it would be a very interesting character to make even go further.  Betty is the person I think of in my head along with some other people that have played her like Nanette Fabray in THE BANDWAGON movie, who played a female lyricist who was sort of based on Betty Comden.  I love Nanette Fabray because I think she's got great energy, is very funny and can move well. She has a great disposition.

TJ:  When did you first get involved with the show? Was it in workshops or what?

ZIEMBA: I did a reading of it about a year ago and then the show went to the Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles.  And that's how it all happened. It was the final reading before it moved to it's out of town tryout and they thought, "Hmm…Yeah…Karen Ziemba.  Why not?"  (Laughing) That's how that all happened. So, I had not been involved with it like Debra Monk and Edward Hibbert, who had been in many readings subsequent before that.  But it was nice to be a part of it.  Then it changed even when we got to Los Angeles. Things changed….new songs were written….it really evolved.

TJ: That must have been nice for you to see the whole creative process of the show from its early stages. But at the same time, it must be very difficult.

ZIEMBA: It is and yet, because it was a great place to collaborate, I enjoyed it very much.  First of all, I knew John Kander very well and I had worked for Scott Ellis many times. I had worked with Rob Ashford as a dancer but never worked for him…well, actually I have but never in a big show.  These people were all such great collaborators and really gave the actors a place to talk about their characters and to talk about the story and how it worked. David Hyde Pierce is such a smart man. He was asked a lot of questions and helped create his character too in many ways. And Debra too was very familiar with the role but also knew how to make things work better for the whole story and herself.  When you have really smart gifted people like that, who are also the people on stage playing the characters, everything works so nicely. And if the creative team allows you that space to vent and to make suggestions or to ask questions, it's just a really great place to be.

TJ: Sounds like you have had a great time!

ZIEMBA: It went from the top on down, from the score to the book to the choreography. It was all pretty much tailor-made, not only to make the show work on its own, but also for the individual performers. So things had to change. They wrote a beautiful song for Jason Danieley. He's got this powerful beautiful voice. It was all about making people shine but also making their character really pop out and let's you really follow their journey.

TJ: Do you ever get stage fright?

ZIEMBA: You know, part of the reason I don't like to know who is out in the audience is so I can just do my show  and not be distracted by thinking, "Oh my gosh! Steven Spielberg is in the audience!", or whoever… Mike Nichols…Stephen Sondheim… just to name a few.  When there are certain people out there, I get distracted.  And sometimes it does give you a kick like. "Oh yeah. Maybe it is good to know.", because then you can really turn it on. It's better for me sometimes just to do my show.

TJ: Yeah, but you're a pro!  You don't care about that stuff.

ZIEMBA: Well, once I get going….once the show starts, I'm not so bad.  But as far as stage fright goes, I haven't been too bad about it. I feel very comfortable out there. It's a very safe place for me to be.  As long as, like you said before, I'm out there with people I feel safe with.  A lot of it has to do with everyone out there sharing the stage with you. I like it…it's a good feeling for me.

TJ: I love seeing all of you up on stage because it's something I have always wanted to do….be a professional actor performing on Broadway. But I am having fun doing it on the community theatre level.  The daytime job supports the stuff I really love which is theatre.

ZIEMBA:  Have you see this show yet?

TJ: No, but will be there next weekend!

ZIEMBA: Oh my god! This is your show because it's about a guy…I mean it's about you!  You're not a police detective, but this is a guy who, in his time off, does community theatre and he loves the theatre. It's about you…this is so cool!!

TJ:  Wow, it's about me!  That is cool. I can't wait to see it.   Well, now we move on to find out about some of your favorite things. Ready?

ZIEMBA:  Sure!

TJ:  Alright then, what is your favorite pastime activity?

ZIEMBA: Oh gosh, that's a tough one!  I really love to watch films but I do like to go to the theatre too.  When I come home at night, I like to watch TCM to watch the film noirs. I love to watch stuff that you're not going to see on any other channel. I love to watch documentaries.

TJ:  OK, your favorite author?

ZIEMBA: You know what I really like? I really like biographies and I just finished reading Chris Gardner's biography, THE PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS. And I just read a book by Toni Lamond, an Australian musical theatre star, called FIRST HALF. And I like Wally Lamb and I am slowly getting through SAVAGE BEAUTY.

TJ: How about your favorite city?

ZIEMBA: I like San Francisco a lot. I've worked there. But you know what city I really like, especially to work in as an actor is DC. DC is a great place to be in a show because people in DC love their theatre and they get it and they're well-read people. I did MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING at the Shakespeare Theatre there and they love their Shakespeare down there. It's really exciting. And there are a lot of really fabulous professional theatres in the DC area that are doing very well and it's really exciting.

TJ:  Now you have also performed at the White House in the past, right? That's cool!

ZIEMBA:  Yeah. I had done a couple of Kennedy Center Honors too!  I did perform for President Bill Clinton and his wife. Bebe and I did a little shaking up there.  We did the Hot Honey Rag from CHICAGO.

TJ: If memory serves me, you also did that on the MY FAVORITE BROADWAY: THE LEADING LADIES?

ZIEMBA: That's right. It was great when I went into CHICAGO and Bebe was still in it. It wasn't the same after she left.  We were a great pair. We're so very different and she was so good to me. I love working with her. We were good foils.

TJ:  And finally, your favorite restaurant? I'll make it easier…favorite restaurant in NYC.

ZIEMBA: Café du Soleil on the Upper West Side.  Boy! These are hard questions, especially for New York because there are so many good restaurants.  Can I give you another one that I really like?

TJ: Sure!

ZIEMBA: The Village Den on 12th and Greenwich. It is the greatest place. One of the best diners in New York.  And it's got this funny mural on the wall. It's like the Last Supper with people like Groucho Marx and Dorothy Parker and Jackie Onassis…it's really funny!  But the food is fantastic!

TJ: If you weren't an actor, what would you be doing as a job?

ZIEMBA: I have a feeling I would probably be doing something with animals.  I always had this very strange feeling that I would like to be training dogs to help people who can't help themselves.  Not that I would make any money doing that but I think that there's something about when I see how smart animals are,  especially dogs and they help people that are infirmed or blind or something like that. I think that would be a cool thing.

TJ: So, you'll probably be at BROADWAY BARKS this year!

ZIEMBA: I hope so!

TJ: Thank you so much. This has been a lot of fun for me.

ZIEMBA:  Thanks a lot, Tim. Nice talking to you!

Wow, a Broadway show about me!  And it's probably about a lot of you out there too!! So, you definitely want to catch Karen and her amazing co-stars in CURTAINS, now playing at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre at 302 West 45th Street. The shows schedule is Tuesdays at 8:00 PM, Wednesdays at 2:00 PM and 8:00 PM, Thursdays at 8:00 PM, Fridays at 8:00 PM, Saturdays at 2:00 PM and 8:00 PM, and Sunday at 3:00 PM. You can get your tickets at the theatre box office or online through their website at http://www.curtainsthemusical.com or call (212) 239-6200. And for those of you outside NYC can also call (800) 432-7250