Karen Ziemba (Photo provided by Karen Ziemba)
By Matthew Wexler
With 11 Broadway credits to her name, Karen Ziemba returns to the Great White Way in one of the fall’s most anticipated shows: Prince of Broadway, which pays tribute to legendary theater icon Hal Prince. The Broadway Blog had a chance to chat with the Tony Award-winning actress in between rehearsals before the show’s opening on August 24.
Eleven Broadway shows and not one with Hal Prince… until now! What’s it been like diving into this iconic body of work?
I’ve really been enjoying playing contrasting roles. I’m working with nine fabulous, talented actors—it’s a great ensemble. At times we’re part of a scene presenting a character, then we’ll take over a lead role. It’s like being part of a rep company.
I’ve never worked with Hal but have known him for years. I auditioned for the pre-Broadway production of Kiss of the Spiderwoman. A lot has happened since then! We change, reinvent, and morph into different stages throughout our careers in this business and he’s been a part of so many shows. West Side Story, A Little Night Music, Cabaret, Sweeney Todd. The list goes on and on, so I’m very familiar with his work.
What have been some of the highlights of the rehearsal process thus far?
The sets used in each section are adaptions of the originals and scenic and projection designer Beowulf Boritt has honored the original artists by putting their names on each piece. Being on those iconic sets, like Company and Follies, and wearing costumes similar to the originals, changes the way you walk and feel inside. It’s very informing. Every choice has purpose and Hal is so canny and deft at making the audience focus on something.
It’s such an ensemble piece where everyone gets to shine. The opening number from Company was very complicated to learn and features the entire cast. I’ve known Chuck Cooper for so many years and we’re doing a scene from Sweeney Todd together, and Brandon Uranowitz, who plays the Emcee in Cabaret, played my son in a regional production of Broadway Bound.
It’s also unbelievable what goes on backstage—it’s 40 steps up and 40 steps down to make costume changes at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre!
Do you feel, in a way, that this is a love song to your own journey to Broadway, a snapshot of the past 40 years that you’ve been witness to?
In a way, yes. The first musical I ever did and the first musical I ever saw were both originally Hal Prince shows.
The first musical I ever did was West Side Story in high school because they needed a Maria that could dance her own dream ballet. Years later I played Anita at North Shore Music Theatre.
A Little Night Music was the first Broadway musical I ever saw. I was coming to New York City to take ballet class and we could choose one Broadway show. I remember when the Quintet was revealed on this great lawn with white benches (sets by Boris Aronson) that I could viscerally smell the fresh grass in the intimate Shubert Theatre.
I was a teenager, and it all felt very turn-of-the-century sophisticated and sexy. It was quite an experience, and then I’d listen to those Sondheim lyrics—so witty and titillating! A couple of years ago I got to play Desiree at American Conservatory Theatre. It took me many years to fit into that role.
And now it’s all coming full circle.
There’s a terrific new song at the end of the show by Jason Robert Brown called “Do the Work.” We keep getting up and moving forward—even Hal Prince with his 21 Tony Awards. He’s had successes and flops, and that doesn’t mean they were necessarily bad shows. There have been productions with great scores and characters, but maybe the timing registers differently now compared to when they were originally produced. You look at shows like Merrily We Roll Along and Follies… they’re timeless pieces and have been revived time and again.
At almost 90 years old, Hal still wants to keep working. He’s a straight shooter: inspiring, funny and touch. He also has a deep passion and emotion for the work that you can feel when he’s around. Hal’s not afraid to show that and share it with us.
Prince of Broadway
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 West 47th Street
Opening Night: August 24