Broadway Bullet Interview: Karen Ziemba from Curtains
Listen to a sneak preview of the "Curtains" soundtrack with the song, "Thinking of Him/I Miss the Music (reprise)" performed by Jason Danieley and Karen Ziemba in Broadway Bullet Vol. 110
BroadwayBullet: Alright well I'm sitting here with Tony award winner Karen Ziemba in her dressing room backstage after a matinee of Curtains (www.curtainsthemusical.com/). How are you doing today?
Karen Ziemba: I'm doing good. We had a great audience today. It was pouring rain outside and It's always nice to hole up in a theatre and watch a show after you've been trudging through puddles with rain bonnets and umbrellas and all that kind of paraphernalia. It's so nice to be calm and cozy and waiting for that overture to start. It's the best place to be.
BB: Now you have quite a history of doing some Kander and Ebb stuff. I remember when I was younger I wore out the record of And The World Goes 'Round. It wasn't a record then.
KZ: Ah yes. And The World Goes 'Round was the first time I worked with John Kander and Fred Ebb in a compilation of all their stuff. It's great stuff. A revue of sorts. That really put me on the map. I'd been in the business for awhile but I never originated anything. I always replaced people in shows. So this was kind of my first foray into being the first original doing it and being on the cast album. So it was really great for me. And there was only 5 of us in the show. So it was a big deal. It was really nice. And then I went on to do Steel Pier for John Kander and Fred Ebb which they wrote.
BB: That got you a Tony nomination as well.
KZ: Yes, my first Tony nomination. Then I replaced somebody in Chicago which was also a Kander and Ebb show, which was the revival on Broadway. And then Curtains! So I'm sort of in the Kander and Ebb family, which is nice. It's a good place to be too.
BB: They definitely are some fantastic writers. As I watched the show I was just realizing again they write some of the catchiest stuff around.
KZ: Yes they do. And Fred Ebb passed away a few years ago now but a lot of these songs were written 8-10 years ago when he still was in the prime of life. Even when he was getting into his 70's he was still writing incredible stuff. And some of that stuff is in this show still. And you can tell. He has a way of poking fun at something but doing it very cleverly without being vulgar. It's just clever and catchy and very intelligent.
BB: For our listeners that haven't seen it yet or heard about it yet, Curtains is a show within a show.
KZ: Curtains is about a Broadway troupe that's out of town in Boston at the Colonial Theatre in 1959. And we're putting on a show, and the leading lady is a former film star and she's not much of a singer. So the people in the cast are wondering, "How is this going to work out? I mean she"… well, you'll find out when you come to see the show what happens. But we're not doing so well. And what happens is she takes a turn for the worst and we still have to do the show. People are dropping like flies, they're getting murdered left and right and so this detective comes in played by David Hyde Peirce, the wonderful David Hyde Peirce, in more ways than one. And he tries to solve the murder.
BB: And you actually play the lyricist.
KZ: My character, Georgia Hendricks, is the lyricist. She writes the lyrics to the songs in the show within the show which is called Robin Hood, which is the western version of Robbin Hood. But they wear chaps and 10 gallon hats and carry guns. 6 shooters. The guys look great. And I take over when the leading lady is found murdered. Because I, Georgia Hendricks before she became a lyricist used to be a performer. And that's how she first started in the theatre business.
BB: Now how does it feel playing the lyricist in a Kander and Ebb musical?
KZ: It's great. My prototype for her is actually Betty Comden who was a very famous lyricist at that time. She never worked with John Kander but she worked with some of the greatest composers of all time. She and her partner Adolph Green wrote Singing in the Rain, the Bandwagon, and Wonderful Town and On the Town. And she was a very urban savvy songwriter, and also was a great performer. She was in the original On The Town. So that's kind of who I mold her after.
BB: Now you get a great dance number in Act 1 out of this.
KZ: Yes. There's this great number that takes place in the saloon called, "Thataway" and it's all about this woman who wants to get her man, and how she's going to round him up so to speak. And I do this number with the rest of the saloon girl buddies and the cowboys. It's very rounding, very colorful. And we do a lot of risky dangerous choreography, which is fun and scary.
BB: Scary how?
KZ: Well we have to hang upside down a lot, jump up on things a lot. You have to kick high and kick over people's heads and you have to hope that they duck at the right time. Everybody is responsible for everybody else In a live show and you just have to really concentrate and be present and make sure you take a nap in between shows so you can pay attention.
BB: You're no stranger to dance. In fact you've danced in a lot of your shows. In fact your Tony award came from Contact which was pretty much all dancing.
KZ: Yeah, I started out dancing when I was 6 years old so I've been doing it all my life. So it's something that's always been a part of me but it's also something that helped me get into the business in the first place. Because I always sang too. But because I danced as well as I could I was able to fill in casts that were using only 4 singer/dancers in the whole female side of the cast. Because you had to be able to do everything. More and more that's how they're casting live musical theatre because in the old days they used to have a singing chorus, a dancing chorus, the acting people who were the principals and now everyone has to do a little bit of everything. And I was fortunate enough to have all that training. And I've been able to work a lot which is great. Because I like to dance when I can and when I'm asked to. So this show they cast me and they thought, "Maybe we should turn this number into a little bit of a dance number". And I'm like, "Are you sure you want me to do that?" They'd demonstrate something and they'd have the assistant choreographer demonstrate something and she's just this crack little dancer who's just amazing, Joann Hunter. And I'd say, "Oh I don't know if I can do that." But then I'd try and eventually get it right.
BB: Well a little about Contact. How did you get involved in that show?
KZ: In Contact back in Lincoln Center theatre in 2000 I'd worked with director Susan Stroman (http://www.pbs.org/wnet/broadway/stars/stroman_s.html) before. I'd been in Crazy For You and And the World Goes 'Round and The Sondheim Celebration and Carnegie Hall (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0262012/) and 110 in the Shade at City Opera. We had done a lot of shows together. And she had asked me, actually I was doing Chicago on Broadway. And she called me up and she said, "Karen listen to this cassette with this music. I'm thinking of noodleing around with this story I'm working on for Lincoln Center Theatre, I'm doing it like a workshop. A preliminary to doing it as a real show." And I listened to this cassette and it was all this classical music. And I was thinking, "What the heck is this? This sounds like ballet." I didn't have any idea what she had in mind. And we went in this room and she started creating this character. This woman in this Italian restaurant who was going out to dinner on her anniversary with her husband. And she had this vivid fantasy life. This woman was verbally abused in her own life and had kind of this tough life. But whenever she heard this classical music she'd go into her fantasy life and became this prima ballerina. It's hard to describe without actually seeing it but it was very affective and very moving that this woman could go into her fantasies and hear this music and become belle of the ball and become loved and be cherished by everyone in her fantasy life, in her mind. And it was a fully danced. There was a little bit of dialogue so you found out who this woman was. But you could tell through her dancing her heartache and her joy in becoming this other being. And that was my Tony Award. I related to her a lot. It was very fun to play. And it was very sad to play too. I did it for 2 years and after 2 years I was pretty much spent. Because emotionally, I had to conjure her up. It got to be very tiring and very sad. But for the time being it was very worthwhile and obviously fulfilling.
BB: Well I think it's fair to say that Contact let off this whole decade of what has been a lot of surprises and upsets at the Tony awards, of unconventional choices. Did anyone in Contact expect they were even going to get nominated for best musical let alone win?
KZ: No there was a big furor about the nominations with Contact because it was not using original music. It was using music that was being piped in, so to speak. With songs that were already recorded. But because it was still a show that had music and dancing in it and was telling a story it was still theatre. It wasn't conveying anything new. There wasn't a new score that was written. And there wasn't an old score being rehashed. But there was no live orchestra. So there was this big bone of contention of is this really a musical. And it was hard to say. It was sort of like a play with music but it was also a musical too because there was some singing in it and a lot of dancing. Then of course came Moving Out which came later, the Twyla Tharp thing. They were all dancing too but they had a live band so that was sort of a musical, but what really is it? But you're right. It really lead the way for more unconventional things being nominated for new musicals, and why not? And then Curtains of course now, the formula is like an old fashion musical the way the used to write it with the book…
BB: Watching it I actually felt like I was watching a revival in a weird way.
KZ: But not. Which is kind of cool. But Contact kind of did pave the way. I thought it was such a moving and provocative show, and people still ask me about it and how they felt it was one of the best things they'd ever seen and the most wonderful evening in the theatre. So when you get comments like that, why not call it theatre? Why not say it's worth all the kudos and awards that it can muster?
BB: Did it make it any sweeter at all winning your Tony for something that was so hard fought for even considered eligible?
KZ: Absolutely. When Susan Stroman came to me with this idea as I'd mentioned before and worked on it, I kept bringing friends and colleagues the run throughs and the workshop of it, and I said, "Do you think this is any good"? Do you like it? Do you think it has any legs?" And they'd say, "Karen, you should stay with this show. It's very moving and you're really good in it." I said, "Oh ok" and it turned out to be this big hit, because of the way it made people feel. And they walked away just full of wonder, and they had thoughts during the evening that made them think about things they haven't thought of in a long time, and they thought they could dance too. Which is a good thing as you're walking up the aisle. That's what live theatre is about. It's making you feel something. Weather it be joy or sadness or elation or just being drop dead funny. Getting your money's worth. These days it's about getting your money's worth.
BB: Speaking of that.
KZ: Speaking of that, I think Curtain gives you your money's worth. My Gosh!
BB: How many names are in the… How do they get all these names in the show? And how did you all fight for your space on the marquee?
KZ: We get so many good people to be in Curtains because, well first of all it's Kander and Ebb. It helps take the place of Peter Stone and Fred Ebb who you know passed away, who started working on Curtains. Like Rupert Holmes, who is also the most incredibly gifted and nice man, who is our book writer and now co-lyric writer with John Kander. You've got this incredible pedigree at the top. And Scott Ellis, who is a great director and so loyal to so many people. And has worked with a lot of these people before. He's worked with David Hyde Pierce on Fraiser. He worked with Debra Monk in many things. Both Deb Monk and I were in Steel Pier.
BB: Deb Monk is another Kander and Ebb loyalist.
KZ: Which Scott also directed. So it was very much a family affair. And Ernie Sabella who did Chicago with me, and he's known those guys for a while.
BB: Another Fraiser alum.
KZ: Edward Hibbert! So it's all about you want to do the best work and play the best roles and work with the best people and the time just flies by. It's so sweet And it's not that you don't work hard and you're exhausted, but when you're out there it's so much fun. And David Hyde Peirce who is the captain of our ship now, since we've already opened and we're up and running, he is so generous and so gifted as an artist, and such a wonderful human being that it trickles down to all the rest of us. And he really sets the tone.
BB: He's great. But the show is really an ensemble show. And even how prominent his face is and his name, his role isn't huge for a musical theatre lead.
KZ: Yes he's very much what you say, is the camera of the show. He's the eye looking in at all of us wanting to be part of it. There are so many different stories involved in this one but he is the eye, he is the man above the title, so to speak. He is the guy that we look up to. And how nice it is to look up to somebody not only as a star and a celebrity, but also as somebody who is such a great actor, but also a wonderful human being. It just makes you look forward to coming to work. And he loves being with all of us. So it makes you feel good about yourself. And it makes you feel responsible for everyone else, and want to be. And want to be on this team. Because that's what it is. It's 8 shows a week for a long time.
BB: How long have you signed on for?
KZ: A year. Along with Deb and Edward and David. And we've all signed up for quite awhile. And I've done long runs before and a year goes by very quickly.
BB: Before we end the interview I want to say that I first heard about you and I first saw you when I was a college student watching the Sondheim celebration at Carnegie Hall and you were performing "Sooner or Later" with Bill Irwin. It was a great performance. It was comically great. You performed it well. That was also fairly early still in your leading career.
KZ: Yes I had just done And the World Goes Round with Susan Stroman and Scott Ellis and they were the director and choreographer for the Sondheim celebration at Carnegie Hall. They brought me unto that to do this number with Bill Irwin. And she choreographed it and it was so clever. And it was with a full orchestra. It was kind of amazing being a part of that. It was a star-studded evening. But her work, Susan Stroman's work was exemplary. And she's one of those people who can make me do anything. She just says, she calls me KZ, Karen Ziemba, those are my initials. That became my nickname. "I want you to lay on this piano bench and slide it across the stage, then do a forward roll between his legs." And I'd say, "Okay let's try it." And we just did it. She just expects you to do anything and try anything and risk anything. And I say yes. And if you don't crack your head open you keep it in. You just do it.
BB: Well an evening of great performances, you were definitely one of the standouts from the show because of that great choreography. We're going to close this interview. I'm going to play the song.
KZ: And it's a great song that Sondheim wrote for the movie Dick Tracy (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0099422/) too.
BB: But I urge people not to stop at the song I play here.
The DVD (http://www.amazon.com/Sondheim-Celebration-Carnegie-Hall-Concert/dp/B000003FDW) is out and the performance is definitely not complete without seeing your chorography.
KZ: I think so too. Actually when you listen to the recording of it, because I'm doing so much choreography and tuning inside out and doing contortionism, that the singing sounds a little bit strained but when you see what I'm doing along with it you go, "Oh I get it." You understand. And you have to see Bill Irwin's reactions too and what he's doing too. Because he's amazing. He's so funny. He's such a great clown and also a wonderful actor. And what a gentleman. Boy I've been really lucky. I've had some great leading men in my career. I hope good karma and I'm bringing that to myself.
BB: Well thank you very much for taking some time out. I know you've been doing a lot of charity events too.
KZ: This week we're doing the Broadway Cares/Equity Fights Aids. I just went into the house yesterday after the show and collected. We sold our programs and a souvenir poster with all of our signatures on it to people in the audience. Who ever could come up with a few dollars after they spent so much on their tickets. But they did. They really did. They gave to the cause, which was wonderful. And they got their signed posters. So it's a busy week right now during the holidays.
BB: Alright, well Karen Ziemba, thank you very much. Curtains, check it out. And here's "Sooner or Later" from:
KZ: Sondheim, a Celebration at Carnegie Hall.