The phrase "triple threat" sounds so--well, threatening. But Karen Ziemba, one of Broadway's supreme singer/dancer/actors, is anything but scary, unless you're intimidated by prodigious talent, a Tony Award, and a resume nearly as long as her killer legs. Indeed, when she talks about her role in the new Kander & Ebb musical Curtains, which opens Mar. 22, Ziemba still sounds a bit like the warm, aw-shucks Michigan native she is.
"It's a real old-fashioned musical, with lots of big dance numbers and a big, brassy sound," Ziemba says. It even has an overture! "I know, isn't that great? It gets you in the mood, like when you see Gypsy or Guys and Dolls and you hear those first notes, it really gets your heart going."
When lyricist Fred Ebb died in 2004, he and composer John Kander had several musicals in the works, of which Curtains was the furthest along. After original librettist Peter Stone also died, Rupert Holmes came on board to do rewrites, and Scott Ellis signed on to direct. Ziemba's association with the Kander & Ebb canon is strong: She played Roxie Hart for a while in the long-running Chicago revival and originated roles in the Off-Broadway revue And the World Goes 'Round and in Steel Pier, Kander & Ebb's last new Broadway show.
Does performing in Curtains, then, feel a bit like the end of an era?
"Oh, I hate to think of it being a last hurrah," Ziemba says. "There are still Kander & Ebb shows that are being worked on: The Visit, and the adaptation of Skin of Our Teeth, which is now called All About Us. So their stuff is still floating around out there in Theatre Land." But once the Kander & Ebb trunk is empty? "I'd like to think that some of our new theatre composers are influenced by them, just as they were influenced by Rodgers & Hammerstein and Kurt Weill and the great opera composers. Still, it's true--old-fashioned musicals are hard to come by."
Ironically, for a performer who made her mark in revivals like 42nd Street, 110 in the Shade, The Most Happy Fella and the "new" Gershwin musical Crazy for You, it was for her all-dancing performance in Susan Stroman's non-traditional, genre-defying Contact that Ziemba won her Tony. But Ziemba hastens to explain that all her work has one key ingredient in common.
"In every medium, you're acting, just in a different form," Ziemba says. "It's all storytelling, whether it's with your body or your voice or your dialogue. With Contact there was so much I needed to convey without dialogue, just with movement."
It's a lesson she learned in part from the example of her grandmother, the opera singer Winifred Heidt, who with the City Center Opera performed on the same stage Ziemba would later tread in several Encores! performances. Though she never heard her grandmother sing, except on a recording that Kander found for her, she absorbed some crucial advice.
"Opera buffs that I've met have told me that her strength was her acting," Ziemba says of Heidt. "Charles Nelson Reilly had seen her perform and said, 'She was one of my favorite Carmens, because she did this incredible flourish in this one piece of music which I was never able to figure out what to do with.' I've learned a lot about her from people who worked with her." In fact, in Ziemba's first Equity show, My Fair Lady, the actor playing Col. Pickering, James Hawthorne, had been the Juvenile in City Center Opera's Song of Norway with Heidt, and he had this pithy praise for Ziemba's grandmother: "She was a bloody wonderful broad."
Ziemba is channeling another larger-than-life figure for her performance in Curtains, the backstage story of a musical cursed with the usual problems in its out-of-town tryout--and the slightly less common problem of a murdered leading lady. Ziemba plays the show's lyricist, Georgia, a character openly modeled on the late, great Betty Comden, who with her inseparable partner Adolph Green wrote such seminal stage musicals as On the Town and Bells Are Ringing, as well the watershed MGM film musicals Singin' in the Rain and The Band Wagon.
"She had a very wise, kind of stagelike way of talking--a real urban sort of gal," Ziemba says of Comden. "She had a great sense of humor about herself; she told it like it was."
Thought Curtains by all accounts is a pretty lighthearted musical--Ziemba calls it "a bit of a valentine, though it does have its share of gasps"--the experience of making it does sound a bit haunted. Ziemba says she sometimes gets goosebumps while hanging around the Hirschfeld Theatre, formerly the Martin Beck.
"We have this huge old ghost light, the bare light bulb, with a cage around it," Ziemba says. "And sometimes when you feel a draft, you feel like maybe there are ghosts--that life took place there. It's not there to touch anymore, but you feel it there."
She need not worry: If there are ghosts at the Hirschfeld these days, we're certain they're having a ball watching a new Kander & Ebb musical strut the stage.