Karen Ziemba's Weird Romance With Theatre
She's been one of Broadway's most highly regarded triple-threat performers for years, starring in musicals as varied as A Chorus Line, Chicago, Crazy for You, Steel Pier, and winning a Tony award for Contact. This weekend, Karen Ziemba is appearing at the intimate York Theatre's Musicals in Mufti series, starring in Alan Menken's Weird Romance and next month, she will star as Rosie in the Encores! production of Bye Bye Birdie.
"I've always loved Alan Menken as a composer," Ziemba says of her attraction to Weird Romance, adding that Menken "has a wonderful mix of the pop idiom. He writes very contemporary music, but you can tell he's influenced by the old masters. He writes really lush melodies and sweeping ballads as well as funny, catchy tunes, also. He has breadth of ability as a composer... It's always nice to work for somebody new." While Weird Romance is her first production of a Menken musical, it is not her first collaboration with the composer. For the My Favorite Broadway: The Leading Ladies concert in 1999, she performed the song "I Wanna Be A Rockette" (with the Rockettes themselves!) from the Menken/ Tom Eyen musical Kicks. The show never made it to Broadway, halted by Eyen's untimely death, but the performance of that one song was preserved on video. "That was the only thing of Alan Menken's that I did!" Ziemba laughs.
A dancer from childhood, Ziemba revels in the challenge of creating a character without words. "When I dance, I get very involved emotionally and passionately. I don't have to speak when I'm dancing," she says. "Once you stop saying the words and singing, and your body takes over, you have to continue the dialogue with the audience, continue letting people know who your character is and the journey you're taking." She has worked extensively with fellow Tony winner Susan Stroman/> on no less than four shows, from And The World Goes Round to Contact. As a director and a choreographer, Ziemba says that Stroman "likes her actors to be fearless and take chances and try new things and create for themselves, too, and work with her and collaborate... I respect her very much." They work well together, Ziemba says, because "we have an unspoken language between us... I can make her work come to life the way she likes it. She writes from character and creates from stories, and I'm good at telling stories through my dancing, and creating characters."
The ability to create a character through dance is especially necessary with new shows on Broadway like Contact and Movin' Out that challenge the conventional definition of musical theatre. As these story-through-dance shows have become more popular on Broadway, Ziemba, like many fans and professionals in the business, has had to form her opinions on where the boundaries lie between dance and musical theatre. "I think [the shows] really proved that you can have an evening in which you tell a story through music and dance," she says. The two art forms have been linked for years, and innovative choreographers have long created stories through dance. "Choreographers have been doing it for years," Ziemba says. "Agnes de Mille did it in Oklahoma originally, Bob Fosse was a great storyteller with dance... Jerome Robbins was a master of that, too."
With story and character as the focal points, then, Ziemba believes that dance can be theatre in itself. "Any good choreographer is a storyteller, and really pushes their dancers to the hilt to make them create more than just pretty steps and big kicks and turns. You want to see flash, you want to see the prowess and the technique," she says with excitement, "but if it goes past that, if you feel something, if it's continuing the character that they're playing in the story, it makes it so much richer... To go past just the athleticism and technique and the beauty of it, there's something else: there's an element of humanity." That humanity, she feels, is what elevates dance to theatre. "Everything blends together: the music, the dance, the acting. You can see it on film, you can see it on television, but to see it live on a stage, and to experience it at the same time as the dancer is executing it- it's an experience like none other. So I don't know if [dance is] changing the face of Broadway. It's always been there." Dance theatre, she believes, is "combining the worlds of pure dance and theatre and making them one."