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."
It's a controversial opinion. Debates have raged for the past several years about the merits of dance as musical theatre. "I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that there wasn't a score," Ziemba says of the arguments surrounding Contact's billing as a musical. But, she argues, art is difficult to define. "What is a musical?" she asks, and answers her own question: "A musical is a piece of theatre that is told with music." Many revivals and revues use older songs, she points out, so the lack of an original score should not change a musical's status. "[Contact was] a new way of telling a story with music, and it wasn't told with song, it was told with dance." The divisions- and overlaps- in the many artistic genres remain under one category for Ziemba. "It's all semantics," she says of the various labels pinned on different shows, but ultimately: "It's musical theatre. What's the difference between musical and opera? Is Sweeney Todd an opera or is Sweeney Todd a musical? Does Michael John LaChiusa write musicals or does he really write operas? Does everything have to be Oklahoma? Does everything have to be The Pajama Game? Not everything is the same."
Indeed, variety is a very important aspect of theatre for Ziemba. "There is a great melding," she says of the many styles of theatre currently on Broadway. "People experiencing musical theatre today are so lucky, because they get to see everything, all these different forms, the old stuff, the new stuff." One generation of creators inevitably influences the next, and innovative and boundary-pushing works of musical theatre play alongside the classics. Having performed classic roles like Lizzie Curry in 110 in the Shade, Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, and Lucy Brown in The Threepenny Opera, as well as originating roles in new works on Broadway, Ziemba certainly understands the need for a great spectrum of theatre.
Karen Ziemba speaks the most eloquently about her love of performing. "I want to be there every night," she says passionately. "This transformation happens. It's something I can't explain. There's a great surge of many different feelings. There's a great elation, but also a great responsibility, because it's me in a large company, and it's a wonderful audience, and it's a crew, and it's an orchestra, and it's all different things that come together live every night that surges you ahead. That never changes."
Photograph courtesy of KarenZiemba.com