Spotlight on Karen Ziemba

by Nancy Rosati        

(part four)

NR:  When you’re on Broadway, everything you do is in a goldfish bowl.

KZ:  That’s right. I don’t know if this had anything to do with it but I feel that it was also going to be compared very strongly to Kander and Ebb’s brilliant show Chicago which was running the same year and it just opened right before that. It’s kind of hard to compete with the best thing since sliced cheese that year. You couldn’t top it.

NR:  There were a lot of new musicals that opened that year.

KZ:  Yeah. Anyway, it was difficult.

NR:  I was wondering what would have happened if Steel Pier was given a chance to find its audience.

Most Happy Fella

KZ:  The show has been done in amateur and other small professional theaters around the country, but nothing major was done with it as far as a national tour. In order for that to happen, somebody with a pocketbook has to say, “This is what I want to do.” With Pimpernel and Frank Wildhorn and the people that work with him, someone said, “We have the wherewithal to do it, we think it’s pretty darn good and can find an audience, let’s do it.” But everybody kind of went their own way and started working on their next project, which was probably a way of getting over it. But I still have people come up to me and say, “What a beautiful score that was” and “What a beautiful CD.” It might have a resurgence. Who knows? (laughing) Maybe they’ll do it at Encores.

NR:  Your husband’s (Bill Tatum) an actor too?

KZ:  Um hum.

NR:  Does that make it easier or harder?

KZ:  It’s a little bit of both, but I think more easy in that he understands what I’m going through. He can work on things with me, he can give me suggestions, he can come to previews and say, “Maybe you need to do a little work on this or that.” We can work on scripts together. He actually gave me a lot of nice suggestions for Steel Pier that ended up being incorporated. Unfortunately he couldn’t save it! (laughs) No - it was more like personal things, things for myself. So, it’s pretty good. In fact, today is my sixteenth wedding anniversary.

NR:  Congratulations!

KZ:  He sent me these flowers. He's doing The Odd Couple up at the Old Castle in Bennington, Vermont so we’re not together, but he sent me these beautiful flowers.

NR:  That must be hard. Sometimes one of you is out of town, or sometimes one of you is doing very well and the other one isn’t I suppose.

KZ:  Sure. When we first got together, he was doing really well. He was the spokesman for People Magazine and he was working on soaps for a long time. You go back and forth, but so far so good.

NR:  What about when you go through the craziness of an audition. Do you get each other through that? That’s so stressful.

KZ:  Well, with theater I remember that there were times when I was called back many times for something that I really wanted to do. That’s very stressful. At this point, people sort of say, “Karen Ziemba’s not somebody who we want for this. We think she’s great but she doesn’t have the kind of sense of humor that we want, or she’s not ‘charactery looking enough’ or she’s not glamorous looking enough” - whatever their criteria is. Auditions still are nerve-wracking, but what can you do? Especially if it’s something you really care about and you really want to do. At least I’ve been pretty fortunate in that they’ll tell me right from the get-go, “This isn’t going to work out” or “You did a great job but you’re just not right for this.” If it’s something we really want to pursue, we might say, “I think you’re wrong. Let’s think about this again.” But that’s only if it’s something I really feel that I’m right for and I really want to play. There have been things that I’ve been asked to do that I don’t feel that I’m right for. (laughing) I have not said that at a time I’m not working, but for example, there have been things that I feel that my voice is too low to sing. There are a lot of revivals of musicals that were originated by people who had a high soprano voice which is not what I do. I can sing some soprano notes but I don’t hit As and Cs right off the top of my head very easily. I don’t pursue those kinds of things because I think there are too many other good people that should be seen for those things and who are probably more right. Besides, you try to do something eight times a week that your body wasn’t created for. We are each given a certain kind of a voice and to break through that and start pretending you’re a coloratura just doesn’t work.

NR:  Do you have any role that you’re still dying to play?

KZ:  I’ve always wanted to do Nellie so that’s something that I’m looking forward to. Gosh - I can’t really say off the top of my head, but I’m game for anything. I’d like to do some more comedy. I always like to do something new, to start stretching some other muscles.

NR:  Do you want to sing again after this show?

KZ:  Oh, yeah, of course. I continue to do that. When I was rehearsing this, I did a Kander and Ebb tribute, and I sang for Jerry Orbach a couple weeks ago for his tribute at the Friar’s. People ask me to sing all the time but as far as doing a full show, that would be really nice. (big smile) I would like that.

NR:  What have you learned? If you had to give someone advice - what surprised you about this life? Or what impressed you that you really learned - advice to hand on to someone else? (laughing) Other than to drink water and eat apples? (Karen told me beforehand that water and apples are her number one suggestion for singers.)

KZ:  You never know everything. You never can learn it all. You never can know too much. You can learn from the person standing next to you on stage or from the person that you idolize - for me, the Elaine Stritches and the Rosemary Murphys, the Julie Harrises, the Julie Andrews, the Carol Burnetts - these people that I look up to. It’s not that you steal from them but there’s nothing wrong with emulating somebody and learning from what they do and trying to incorporate that into the way you want to live your life or the way you want to associate yourself in the business in some way. You can never actually be somebody else, but there’s always something to get from somebody. In other words, (laughing) “Never kick anybody in the ass.” Never stop learning and studying.

NR:  That’s great. Thank you, and good luck with the Tony Nominations.

KZ:  Thanks.

At the White House

Karen is such a delightful mix of a seasoned performer and a wide-eyed innocent. She mentioned several legends to me and in fact she reminds me very much of those female icons - the triple threats who can sing, dance and act so well. Her versatility is obvious if you realize that she’s played roles as diverse as Roxie Hart and Peggy Sawyer. Even her character of The Wife shows a tremendous range of emotions and you can’t help but hang on her every movement, rooting for her to come out all right in the end.

As I write this, I don’t know if Karen will win that Tony but I wish her the best of luck. She’s such a class act and I hope to see her grace Broadway stages for many years to come.

Update: Congratulations to Karen on her Tony 2000 win for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical!

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