Karen Ziemba is one of those constants in the theater world. She’s currently playing The Wife in the “Did You Move?” segment of Contact, an original musical which has proven to be a huge hit this season. Two days after our interview, Contact received seven Tony Nominations, including Best Musical, and Karen herself received a nomination for Best Featured Actress in a Musical. Contact is Karen’s seventh Broadway show, after A Chorus Line, 42nd Street, Teddy & Alice, Crazy For You, Steel Pier, and Chicago. She has also performed Off Broadway, in several PBS Great Performances, and at the White House.
Karen grew up in Michigan and studied voice and dance as a young child. Her grandmother was famed mezzo-soprano Winifred Heidt, one of the stars of the City Center Opera, where Karen performed years later after it was renamed the New York City Opera. She met her husband, actor Bill Tatum, when the two of them worked together in a production of Seesaw.
I met with Karen in her dressing room at Lincoln Center. I had to wait a few minutes though, because Karen, Boyd Gaines and Deborah Yates were entertaining a very important guest who had just seen the matinee performance - Shirley MacLaine. I asked Karen later if she had known that Ms. MacLaine would be in the audience and she said, “No. I never want to know who’s out there. I always find out later.”
Nancy Rosati: From everything I’ve read about you, it sounds as if you’ve always known you wanted to be a performer. You took dance lessons when you were a very little kid.
Karen Ziemba: It’s not so much that I wanted to be a performer, as much as it was introduced to me. Music was always there. We used to watch a lot of movies. My mother loved dance. They put me into ballet class when I was six, so it was something that was always available to me. It wasn’t like, “You gotta, you gotta, you gotta” - it was just something that I happened to excel at, and it made me very happy. I think the fact that I wasn’t pushed probably was a good thing. I didn’t resent it in any way. It just made me love it. The fact that I could also equate it with watching Ginger Rogers or Shirley MacLaine or Gwen Verdon or Chita, Rita, whoever, made me realize that you can do this for a living. Not that I was thinking about that at six years old, but I did realize that this was a real thing. It’s not just hard work, but there’s something at the end of the rainbow. The hard work pays off and I truly believe that.
NR: Your grandmother was an opera singer?
KZ: Yes. There’s a painting of her right behind you. It’s a painting that a friend did of her when she was doing The Madwoman of Shaillot. She started acting after she sang opera. (She was always acting when she was doing opera, but then she did a lot straight acting.) Because the music was always playing in the house, and my grandmother was a professional singer, I’m sure my mother was very influenced. My mother took ballet and tap, and things like that back in the 40's. When my mother had her family, my three brothers and myself, she gave it to me. She never did it as a profession.
NR: Did your grandmother give you any advice about this career?
KZ: One thing she did say that I remember is that the people who work with you on stage, your Ensemble, are the most important people to you, because they’re the people that make you look good. I remember my first Equity show. I was in the chorus of My Fair Lady and the man who played Colonel Pickering (his name was James Hawthorne - he’s not with us anymore), was the Juvenile in The Song of Norway for City Center Opera with my grandmother as the Duchess. He had worked with her. My second Equity show was a production of Carousel and the woman who played Nettie was the ingenue in that same production. They were very young people when they worked with my grandmother but they remembered her. Then of course I’ve worked at City Opera myself many times and there were people who were soloists in those companies who had worked with her when they were young. Even Beverly Sills remembered her. They all remembered her very fondly and said she was a lively, bawdy, wonderful, very funny woman, and a very good actress. I have great old black and white photographs of her with her chorus boys hugging her. The circle continues. They all loved her. She was a lot of fun and had a great sense of humor.
NR: She probably would have loved seeing you in this show.
KZ: Yeah, well, hopefully she is in some way or another.