Growing up in the Detroit suburbs, Karen Ziemba dreamed of becoming Mary Martin, Gwen Verdon, Judy Garland, and Shirley MacLaine. And that, more or less, is exactly what happened.
In her current role in Contact, just now transferring to Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theater from a sold-out run at the Mitzi Newhouse, KZ (a coinage of her director and pal Susan Stroman) is allowed only to act and dance--but two out of three isn't bad, and her singing talents have already been displayed in dozens of musicals and on TV and CD. And who would have the breath left for a song after Ziemba's dizzying dream ballet in Contact?
Coming after a brief curtain raiser, Ziemba's piece "Did You Move?" is the one that tips the audience off that this three-act dance-piece-that-feels-like-a-musical is something unique. We're in a gaudy Italian restaurant in 1954 Queens, and Ziemba, the long-suffering wife of an uncouth and overbearing husband, escapes her confining marriage with an exuberantly choreographed dream life. Soon the whole joint is in a terpsichorean uproar, with waiters spinning, busboys pirouetting, patrons tangoing, pasta flying--all at the beck and call of her character's vivid imagination.
"It's like the merry villagers are taking over the world; that's how it feels when we all start dancing together," the friendly, articulate Ziemba tells me the morning after the first preview at the Beaumont. "I have this restaurant of people just joining me in my glee and my joy. It's so much fun." She doesn't miss the vocalizing, and neither, it seems, does the audience. "I feel that so much can be conveyed through movement and through expression. Each person has the ability to move in such a way that it enhances the story that's being told," she explains. "It's very strange how it's working so well. You think, well, you have to say something, you have to sing something, but it's really being told without that. People come away saying, 'My God, it's so clear what's going on.'"
The role seems tailor-made for Ziemba, and very likely it was. "I think Susan had a lot of stories in her head. She was thinking of a period from the '50s, and it started to be, I believe, a Rat Pack sort of thing. Then it started to generate into something about this woman, and I suppose it began to be about her because she is such a strong character. And I'm sure that because I'd worked with Susan for over 10 years, she just thought, 'Well, I guess KZ's going to be able to make something out of this.' And it did suit me."
The KZ-Stroman connection stretches back to And the World Goes 'Round, the Kander and Ebb revue-retrospective that won Ziemba raves and a Drama Desk Award. But her career goes back another decade from there, and a crowded decade it is, with highlights including: Peggy in 42nd Street on Broadway, and later on tour; Morales in A Chorus Line's national company; Alice in Teddy and Alice; Cleo in The Most Happy Fella at New York City Opera; star turns in Allegro and Ziegfeld Follies of 1936 for Encores!; Roxie in Chicago and Polly in Crazy for You, on Broadway and on tour; Agnes in the Off-Broadway revival of I Do! I Do!; and Rita in Steel Pier, the high-profile Kander-Ebb flop of a couple of years ago that is looking more and more worth a second look.
Here's how hard Ziemba works: During the month-long hiatus between Contact 1 and Contact 2, as she calls them, she spent one week visiting the folks, one week on vacation with her husband, actor Bill Tatum, and two weeks workshopping a new musical at the Drama Department. "It's by Doug Carter Beane and Doug Cohen, and I said, I'm not passing this up, because I love those guys, and also I got to stretch other muscles, including the singing voice and doing kind of a silly comedic role. It's called The Big Time, and it's about all these people on a cruise ship. I was a British diplomat's assistant, and I played it as kind of a cross between Julie Andrews and Gracie Allen, if you can imagine that. So silly and so fun, yet it does have some poignant moments in it, too."
But then, turning down work is an alien concept to Ziemba, who has been in training for stardom since she started learning to sing at age six. Ballet lessons followed, at the University of Akron, then a stint with the Ohio Ballet (but as she once told Back Stage, "I realized I had neither the body nor mentality for ballet. It's not that I'm undisciplined, but in ballet you have to be very disciplined.")
Now, in Contact, she gets to return to some of her roots. "The segment I do is basically classical ballet, and it means I have to do--not a particularly intense warm-up, but a very judicious one." Judicious? "I just have to make sure that I do certain yoga stretches, things for my back. In a very short amount of time, I have to get all the right things in for the certain kinds of moves I need to execute in the piece. Because I'm not 18 years old anymore! You need a very specific kind of technique to be able to do pirouettes and arabesques, and I really had to conjure that back up into my body."
There is the additional strain of adapting to the larger theater. The staging, she insists, is not all that different--this is the same Contact that won a raves (the kind that leads to long lines and Tony nods) from the Times. The main problem is the exits. Whereas downstage exits at the Newhouse went straight out into the audience and the basement, there are tricky staircases at the Beaumont to navigate: "When you're dancing with somebody and all of a sudden you're going koo-koo-koo-koo down steps, it has to be re-choreographed and re-staged so that it goes very smoothly. It's treacherous, and you have to be really focused and very responsible and very awake."
One of the nice things about Contact, she says, is how concentrated it is: One intense half-hour act, and she's off. That wasn't the case in her last new musical, Steel Pier, which was, literally, a dance marathon. Ziemba looks back fondly on the ill-fated show, but she has her own ideas on why it wasn't a hit. "One of the things was, it was so anticipated. It was the next Kander and Ebb musical--the next new one, I mean--after Kiss of the Spider Woman," she explains. "Plus, doing any kind of original piece from scratch, that's not based on a book or a movie or a play of anything--when you're working on a piece like that, it takes years to put together. We had a workshop and a long rehearsal period, and that was that. We were on Broadway."
I ask why Ziemba works so hard, and mostly in the theater, when others in her position might be out grabbing a sitcom. "Well, I think some people are sought out. Versatility, I think, is a very important thing to have, but it's also something that makes it hard to peg you down. Especially when you're talking about television and situation comedies--they write very specific kinds of characters, and they want you to be that character. Which makes sense, because then they can just write it right off of your personality."
But if Ziemba's versatility prevents her from peddling a singular persona, it keeps the offers coming her way. After Contact, she's not sure what will be next. She has spoken of wanting to play the great Rodgers and Hammerstein women, and of doing more nonmusical roles--especially Shaw among the classics, and Jon Robin Baitz, Nicky Silver and Donald Margulies among contemporary playwrights. If I may put in a vote: How about KZ as Charity Hope Valentine in Sweet Charity? The part requires wholesomeness and sexiness, stamina, consummate dance technique, a way with a song, crack comic timing, vulnerability, and personality. In short, for Karen Ziemba, a piece of cake.