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BWW Interview: Karen Ziemba of SHAKESPEARE IN VEGAS at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley Lights up Stage and (Small) Screen

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BWW Interview: Karen Ziemba of SHAKESPEARE IN VEGAS at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley Lights up Stage and (Small) Screen
Karen Ziemba stars as Margo in Shakespeare in Vegas
(Photo courtesy of TheatreWorks Silicon Valley)

Tony Award winner Karen Ziemba and Tony Award nominee Patrick Page head the dynamic cast of TheatreWorks Silicon Valley's benefit online reading of Shakespeare in Vegas, a rollicking comedy by Suzanne Bradbeer. Presented by TheatreWorks' New Works from Home program in partnership with Vegas Theatre Company, this fizzy comedy features the unlikely pairing of a Vegas impresario with a dream and a despondent New York actor who join forces to bring the Bard of Avon to Sin City. Directed by Las Vegas native and TheatreWorks' Artistic Associate and Director of New Works Giovanna Sardelli, Shakespeare in Vegas will be offered via video streaming from Thursday, July 23rd at 6PM (PT) until Monday, July 27th at 6PM (PT). A link to stream the show will be available at TheatreWorks.org for no charge, although donations are encouraged to support the 2019 Regional Theatre Tony-winning TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, which like theatres across America has been forced to cancel in-theatre performances to prevent the spread of COVID-19. For additional information, visit TheatreWorks.org or call (650) 463-1960.

I recently caught up with Karen Ziemba from her home in New York. Her remarkable career includes 11 Broadways shows, countless Off-Broadway and regional theater appearances, and a few national tours for good measure. First coming to notice as a spunky dancing comedienne, she quickly moved on to leading roles and has recently tackled some classic Sondheim characters such as Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd and Desiree Armfeldt in A Little Night Music. She is particularly well-known for her many collaborations with master director/choreographer Susan Stroman and appearances in the musicals of Kander & Ebb. Ziemba has worked with so many theatrical luminaries over the years that any conversation with her is likely to be peppered with references ranging from Hal Prince to Olympia Dukakis to The Rockettes. Amiably chatty, Ziemba combines the infectious optimism of an eternally stagestruck kid with the hard-won knowledge of a showbiz vet who's learned how to roll with the punches. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you connect with the folks from TheatreWorks?

I met Giovanna Sardelli years back when I had done another reading of Shakespeare in Vegas in a different form. It was similar, but the playwright Suzanne Bradbeer has done work on it of course since then, developed it more. Since then I've become friends with Ronnie Plasters who's in Development at TheatreWorks. I'd met him in Chicago when he was living there years back and I was doing a production of Hello, Dolly! And then in New York I was doing a production of Kid Victory by John Kander, directed by Liesl Tommy at the Vineyard, and Giovanna and Ronnie came to see that, and we got connected again. When the sheltering in place happened, Giovanna thought of Shakespeare in Vegas again and I was available so she said, "Let's do this!"

How would you describe the play? What are audiences in for? The title Shakespeare in Vegas would seem to imply an oxymoron.

Right! Well, that's exactly what it is. It's this Italian guy, a typical Vegas guy, you know, who runs a theater in Vegas and wants to put on some Shakespeare there. He grew up with his grandmother, his nonna, teaching him all about it and so he wants to bring it to Las Vegas. But to appeal to Vegas audiences you've gotta hire certain kinds of people and so he's got like showgirls playing roles and that kind of stuff. It's pretty silly and fun and yet very sweet and heartfelt, too. You know, why can't people in Vegas appreciate Shakespeare? [laughs]

Tell me about the role you play in Shakespeare in Vegas.

My character, Margo, is an actress who's had a little tough luck lately and wants to keep working. She takes this job in Vegas because she wants to play these Shakespearean roles. She's very excited to do that and yet doesn't realize what she'll have to go through in Vegas. They've offered all this money and that looked really good to her, but what ensues once she gets there with these showgirls who are part of the cast and people who've never done a play before, doing you know Romeo and Juliet? [laughs] You have people out of their element trying to be Shakespearean actors and it's fun!

Have you done any other online play readings in this brave new world we're living in?

I have done a couple of musicals, and a couple of large compilation songs where a bunch of Broadway voices sing a song [separately] and then engineers on the other side put it all together. That's the thing with doing everything online now, it's not like you just perform it. You have to videotape yourself and your voices all have to be blended together as if you're singing in the same room. I don't know how they do it, but it's always looks really cool at the end. And I also did a reunion with the Broadway company of Curtains, so that's hopefully gonna come out in the future.

As a theater performer, how does it feel doing those projects in the solitude of your apartment with no live audience in the room?

You just have to really get into the other characters that you're seeing on your Zoom screen or whatever. Like we did a virtual musical and I played the grandmother of this young girl. We had this incredible relationship just by looking at each other in the camera and talking to each other. She was in Los Angeles and I was in New York City, and yet it was as if she was right there. That's just the way things are right now. We have to totally connect with whomever we're working with, with the material, with the other characters. Which is what you do live. It's just a very different experience because you're maybe sitting down at a table with all of your devices running. It's a totally different world.

I have to admit I do look forward to getting in front of an audience again and being in an audience again. I cannot wait to be in an audience and see somebody just move me to tears with a beautiful speech by themselves onstage. The last thing I saw Off-Broadway was Deirdre O'Connell in Dana H. And I thought to myself recently "Gosh, I miss that." I know it's only been four months, but still I think people are hopefully going be longing for that live connection with an audience and with actors, cause there's nothing like it. It's its own animal. What you feel, what you experience that way, you cannot really convey virtually - but we try as much as you can.

Going back to the early days of your career, the first show I saw you in was the national tour of Kander & Ebb's And the World Goes Round with the amazing Marin Mazzie -

Yes!

- right here in San Francisco at the Curran Theatre. You brought the house down with "Arthur in the Afternoon" which is such a loopy, slyly sexy song.

I know!

A year or so later you were terrific as Polly Baker in the national tour of Crazy for You. You sang beautifully, had such a winning stage presence, perfect comic timing - and then when you started to dance it's like your whole body just lit up and lifted the show to another level. For me, the hallmarks of that performance were the ease and lightness you brought to it. Even in a big production number, I could never see the work behind it. Is that something that just comes naturally to you or is it something you worked really hard at?

When it comes to whatever a performer conveys personally, I think that comes from within. It's not something that you can really teach. I think you can coach it and enhance it and try to bring it out in somebody, but... Like when I see somebody onstage that I just can't take my eyes off of or they move me so much, for whatever reason, whether it's sad or funny, that's something that's within them. And then all the technical stuff, the prowess, the training, the dancing, the singing, that's all layered in there. I think inherently some people just have a light. They have something that makes them want to give from a very deep place, a very deep well, you know?

So it's not really something I think I worked at. I think it's something that was within me and I think it's because I was allowed to, at a very young age, strut my stuff in the living room. I would say "Mom, Dad - Sit down! I'm puttin' on a show!" and they would sit and smile and laugh and clap and encourage me. That's a lot of it, just getting the high fives, so to speak. Your confidence level grows to be able to enter a stage and trust that people are paying attention.

When you dance, you are so effervescent that you seem to be the embodiment of joy. Do you actually feel that sense of joy while you're dancing?

Oh, gosh, I don't know... It's not that different than singing, when you hit that note or get to that point in the song where you have that wonderful feeling of release, of giving it away and sharing it. That's sort of what it feels like with dance, too. And because I've been doing it all my life, I feel very comfortable and can ease my way through it, as opposed to looking like I'm swimming upstream. That feeling of release really is what it is, that sense of "I'm just gonna dance now because this is what I'm doing as this character in this moment in time." Like that's where you're goin' with it and you're not gonna hold back.

Sometimes it's hard to explain how you get to a place in a performance, really hard to describe. I know actors have a hard time with that, too. It's like "Well..." Ya know?

Susan Stroman has played such a key role in your career and you've often been a muse for her. How did your partnership with Stro begin and what do you think it is that makes the two of you click?

Well, it started with And the World Goes Round. They needed a final character in that show that could handle dancing. Everybody danced in that show a little bit, but I danced a lot. I had just been standing by for a production of The Pajama Game at New York City Opera and had to go on as Gladys a couple of times. The director, Ted Pappas, put me into that show really quickly one morning, and I think I did the matinee and the evening show. It was wild! And Susan Stroman and Scott Ellis and the people who were working on And the World Goes Round were asking colleagues (in those days you couldn't Google people) "What do you think of this person? Are they a good team player? Are they gonna show up and do a good job?" I got the high sign from Ted because we had just had that experience together where he put me in the show in like a few hours and I had to go on and it went really well. So I have to thank Ted for putting in a good word for me. Then I had to go in and sing for John Kander and Fred Ebb, and Stroman, Scott Ellis and David Thompson.

We did that show at the Whole Theatre, Olympia Dukakis and Louis Zorich's regional theater in Montclair, New Jersey. A year later it was produced Off-Broadway and I did every single performance. I did every single production of that - I only did the national tour for six months or something like that, but I did 'em all. [laughs] I loved it!

We just really clicked. Stro's one of these people that makes you take risks and asks you sometimes to do things that you feel you can't handle - like "Just try it." And so I just said yes to her, and I think she liked my work ethic that way and we had a lot of fun together. We continued on with many other things since then. Our last show together was Prince of Broadway, but we still have another show called Little Dancer and then it was called Marie, Dancing Still when we did it in Seattle. It's based on the Little Dancer of 14 Years, the Degas sculpture, the girl who was the actual muse for that sculpture and Degas and the girl's mother, who I play. So that's still in the works - who knows?

But we kinda find each other through the years. There was a time for a while that I did not work for her when she was doing the stuff with Mel Brooks - The Producers and Young Frankenstein. But we did Steel Pier together, and of course Crazy for You, Contact. So I've done a lot with her.

And Bullets Over Broadway -

That's right!

I saw Kander & Ebb's Steel Pier and went in expecting you'd have some terrific dance numbers, which you did. But what I remember most clearly about that performance is you simply coming downstage at the top of the show to sing the stirring opening number "Willing to Ride." It was thrilling and I thought "Wow, she's really arrived as a leading lady." What did that role mean to you?

That was the first book musical I originated as the lead, so that was a big deal. It went through a lot of changes and unfortunately was one of those kinds of shows that I felt needed more time. That show probably should have toured and they should have worked on it somewhere outside of town before it came in. It was influenced by a lot of different stories, like They Shoot Horses, Don't They? and Here Comes Mr. Jordan, and Marathon '33 by June Havoc, but it was still an original book and original characters, and that is a very difficult task. It's not based on a movie, it's not based on anything specifically that you can steal from or just lift off the page. That stuff needs time, and it needs to be seen in front of the public as opposed to just in a workshop production where you bring in friends and guests and investors. We never got that luxury unfortunately, but there are some beautiful songs in that show.

The thing that was so fabulous about that show was you had to be in someone's arms all night long and dancing with them. The entire cast! People who didn't dance that well learned to dance well, learned to dance backwards in each other's arms. They danced all over the dance floor, the two-step, the Foxtrot, the Lindy. There is something about being that tactile with someone else and responsible for someone else. It changes you, the closeness and the concern for each other, and then of course the sadness when it was all over. It really changed all of our lives in many ways. All shows eventually close, and that one closed sooner than later. But we were left with a wonderful cast album and it'll be done again someday maybe.

And I lost my leading man in that, he passed away, Daniel McDonald. That was a tragedy and I was thinking about him again when we lost Nick Cordero recently, who I did Bullets Over Broadway with. People at the start of their lives and at the crux of their careers. It's just so sad. And they're such good people, too, you know? It's a tragedy. There's no other way to describe it.

Contact, on the other hand, was maybe a show you did have more time to develop?

Yeah.

You played a put-upon 1950's wife who escaped into increasingly romantic and fantastical reveries as a way of escaping her brutish husband. That role seemed tailor-made for you and brought you a richly-deserved Tony. How was that character developed?

John Weidman wrote this very spare dialog for my section of the show, just so you got an idea of who these people were, the period of time it was taking place in, and what my relationship was with my husband - to set it all up. You didn't need that much talking to figure that out, and then it took off with the dancing. Stro created where I went on the stage and what mood I was in or what mode I was in, cause I was either in my fantasy world or I was in reality. She said "The minute he comes back into the room, the lights shift and your whole demeanor shifts." And we all know what that feels like when somebody walks into a room that sucks all the air out, that makes you feel uncomfortable. We've all been there. That's what happened with that character. And then when he went away it was like "Ah, now I can go into my fantasy world and feel beautiful and loved and confident."

People really related to it. I can't tell you how many letters I got from women, and even male friends of mine, who said "I came to that show and I cried." I think it's because the experience they had in their own families, people who had been put upon and not respected and verbally abused. Not only was it a beautiful, funny story, it was also very moving and very tragic and relatable. So many people said to me, "I was married for 25 years and that was my life, and I got out of it."

Somebody from Roosevelt Hospital who led domestic violence seminars said "Omigod, Karen, you really nailed that woman!" [laughs] You hear things like that and you kinda laugh, but that's what it's about. It's about performing truth, even through the tears and the joy and everything. Because the show itself, the whole evening of Contact, was such a beautiful theatrical experience, that just made me look that much better. Even though I did get to do something that was tailor-made for me, and Stroman really took care of me in that thing she created, the show itself was so uplifting and fascinating that it just buoyed my performance.

What are your memories of Tony night that year? I assume it's more fun when you win, but in the moment are you really able to take it all in and really enjoy it?

Of course you're very distracted, but I was lucky I didn't have to perform that night. The night of Steel Pier when I was also nominated I had to perform and then get changed and come back [into the audience]. That was crazy. That was my first time though so that was a whole 'nother set of feelings. But yeah - it was very exciting, and it was at Radio City Music Hall, which is one of the first places I worked professionally. They used to do those big summer shows where they had singer-dancers and The Rockettes and ballet dancers and all these different specialty acts. The show I was in was the 50th anniversary of Radio City, called Encore. It was my first big job in New York and so I was very comfortable on that stage when I went up to accept my award. It felt very warm and loving. Rosie O'Donnell was the host that year and she said, "Everybody! 45 seconds - get on, get off! Don't make me have to preempt somebody's musical number because you're talking too much!" [laughs] So it was one of those things like get your butt out there, say what ya gotta say, thank the people that are most important and that's it. So I remember it happening very quickly, too!

Your most recent Broadway show was Prince of Broadway co-directed by Susan Stroman (once again!) and the legendary Hal Prince. What was it like working with him?

Well, he's amazing because he has done so many shows, from such a young age, starting out as a stage manager and then working his way up. He had so many fabulous stories. I remember when he was working with me on the tune from Cabaret, "So What?," which was originated by Lotte Lenya, he talked about her. That was so fabulous, getting a taste of that and putting those thoughts into my being, and inhabiting those feelings of you know this German woman of that time, her robustness and her strength and also her joie de vivre. She just had so much, you know, in this tiny little woman.

And if he didn't like something, he was just straight to the point, "No. Can't do that. We're gonna do this instead." He would say very little, but he knew what it should look like. He had a great eye. And he was really a good man and very loyal. And that was the first thing I'd ever done with him.

Also in that show you also recreated a number originated by Angela Lansbury, another iconic performer.

Right!

I'm trying to imagine what the rehearsal process with Hal was like for you. Was it intimidating? Did you have any trepidations?

Well, not so much once I got into rehearsal. What I was nervous about was I had to go to his office at Rockefeller Center. It was not huge, like the size of a smallish kind of office. It had a little tiny spinet piano in it, a couple of chairs and a desk in the corner with books and awards all around it, but pretty small. I had to go in there and sing "Worst Pies in London" spitting distance from him. And this is not a sweet, you know, [sings the opening of Kander & Ebb's "A Quiet Thing"] "When it all comes true." This is like [mimics the rat-a-tat, off-beat rhythms of "Worst Pies"] I was nervous about that. I'd had no idea what his office looked like - I thought maybe you know I'd be 20 feet away from him, but no, I was practically standing on his desk! [laughs] I finished that and had to sing "So What?" from Cabaret and he gave me some notes on that and he said, "Yeah, don't worry about this. I make everybody come in and do this for me." [laughs]. But I was very fortunate because I had just worked with Emily Skinner not too long before - in San Francisco!

Yes, in A Little Night Music at ACT.

We became friends during that, and she was already in Prince of Broadway. I told her I was going to be auditioning for Hal, and she supposedly talked to Hal and said "You know what this show needs? Karen Ziemba!" [laughs uproariously] When I came into my audition, he said, "You know, you've got some champions around here." So I always tease Emily, I say "Emily Skinner got me this job!" Not that it wasn't Susan Stroman, too, of course, but it was like "I know she's gonna deliver. Hire KZ, she'll be great." Emily was my good friend in that, and just felt that I would be able to rise to the occasion and do what Hal needed and wanted.

I'm always fascinated by those kinds of connections. In this case, your getting Prince of Broadway through a prior relationship with Emily from A Little Night Music.

And the thing is that it was one role they were looking for and Hal knows hundreds of actors. You always like to work with people you've worked with before - and I had not [worked with him]. Having somebody in your corner really, really helps.

I can't end any interview these days without asking how you're weathering the sheltering in place. What is your world like these days? Where are you finding inspiration?

Ha-ha-ha! Well, the first couple weeks was sort of quiet, and then a friend who is the director of the Department of Theatre at Western Michigan University [contacted me]. I had done a week there with the seniors a few years back working on their showcase for their audition to come into the real world when they come to New York, helping them out and coaching them on some of their audition material, and then we all put on a show together at the end of the week. He and his writing partner wrote this song for their show Mata Hari called "Resilient" and the words were so perfect for what's going on right now with the pandemic. They got together a bunch of people from Broadway and some health care workers who like to sing, literally doctors and nurses. We all did it from our own homes, recorded our song to a track and videotaped ourselves. We sent them the video files, the engineer put it together, and it became this incredible song we're all singing together. It's fantastic. [Check it out here.]

That was the first thing I did, and I thought "You know what, Karen? You started. You started doing the virtual performance thing. Just keep going cause this is what you may have to do for a while." And just being asked is nice enough. Now, as far as getting paid for it? That's the rub. You don't always get paid for doing these things because a lot of them are for charity. I have gotten a couple of jobs that I've been paid for, not what you would get like doing a Broadway show, but they're working on that and they're trying to figure out some contractual things for people doing work virtually now.

It's a new world, but like I do with Stroman, I said yes. As Fred Ebb wrote, [sings] "Say, yes! Life keeps happening every day...'' [laughs] I know it sounds kind of corny, but it's true!


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From This Author Jim Munson