Karen Ziemba

American dancer, actress, and singer Karen Ziemba (b. St. Joseph, Michigan, November 12, 1957) is one of New York’s favorite performers, both on- and off-Broadway, with a Tony Award® and three nominations, two Drama Desk Awards and three nominations, to her name. She is also very active on tours to American cities and has a toehold in television series dramas.

Karen Ziemba’s grandmother was mezzo-soprano Winifred Heidt, a star at the New York City Opera and known worldwide as a compelling and beautiful Carmen. Heidt appeared with Barbara Cook and Jo Sullivan in the 1956 City Center revival of Carousel, in the same theater where her granddaughter would eventually star in productions for City Center Encores!, and with the same company that was to revive 110 In The Shade with Ziemba in the leading role.

Ziemba got her college degree in dance at the University of Akron, Ohio, and was a member of the Ohio Ballet from her sophomore year. She earned her Equity card at North Shore Music Theatre in Massachusetts. Her first big New York break was in Radio City Music Hall’s Fiftieth Anniversary Celebration, backed up by the Rockettes. She appeared at the Goodspeed Opera House in Funny Face and toured with the national company of A Chorus Line. By the time the Broadway company of Chorus Line celebrated its milestone as the longest-running musical in history, Ziemba had joined the home cast. In November 1983 she moved to 42nd Street, then in the middle of a nearly nine-year run, to take the lead opposite Jerry Orbach.

A minor role in Teddy & Alice (1987) with Len Cariou was Karen Ziemba’s next assignment, though she was understudying for Alice Roosevelt at the same time. The show lasted no more than seventy-seven performances, and Ziemba then took starring roles in several regional productions: Babes In Arms, under the direction of Ginger Rogers, in Tarrytown, Stardust at the Kennedy Center in Washington, Nunsense off-Broadway, an R & H tribute called Some Enchanted Evening with Mary Rodgers, Barbara Cook and Marilyn Horne in New Jersey, and The Pajama Game with the New York City Opera. She also played five roles in the Los Angeles production of Jerome Robbins’ Broadway.

The most brilliant and resounding triumph of Ziemba’s career so far, in a Kander & Ebb revue called And the World Goes ’Round (1991), took place off-Broadway. An eclectic showcase of songs from the team’s lesser-known or as yet unstaged musicals, it won the Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Musical, an Outer Critics Circle Award, and three Drama Desk Awards, one of these for Karen Ziemba as Outstanding Featured Actress. Running for a full year, the show established a close association between Ziemba and Kander & Ebb, and among director Scott Ellis, choreographer Susan Stroman, and librettist David Thompson, who would later work with the dancer/actress on Steel Pier and the 1996 revival of Chicago. The World Goes ’Round toured the country, with Ziemba, for ten months from August 1992.

Almost simultaneously with that production, Ziemba appeared at the New York State Theatre as Cleo in The Most Happy Fella for the NYC Opera, at Carnegie Hall for celebrations of Cole Porter and of Stephen Sondheim, and at the Alliance Française in a special concert of Porter’s Fifty Million Frenchmen.

In 1992, starring as Lizzie in a City Opera revival of 110 In The Shade, directed by Scott Ellis and choreographed by Susan Stroman, Ziemba received a Diva Award from the Princess Grace Foundation. Another prestigious award, Chicago’s “Jeff,” landed on Ziemba’s shelf in the course of a national tour of Crazy For You – “The New Gershwin Musical.” After a City Center Encores! appearance in Allegro, Ziemba joined the Broadway company of Crazy For You in the starring role of Polly Baker, staying until the show closed at the beginning of 1996.

I Do! I Do! was revived off-Broadway at the Lamb’s Theater in 1996 with Ziemba and David Garrison, and she picked up another Drama Desk nomination. The next year Kander & Ebb created the role of Rita Racine in Steel Pier especially for her; once again the team of Ellis, Thompson, and Stroman collaborated on the show. Although it ran for only two months, it brought Ziemba nominations for awards from three entities: the Tony® (her first), the Drama Desk, and the Outer Critics Circle.

In March of 1998, after touring with the national company of Chicago, Karen Ziemba joined the Broadway cast of the long-running Kander & Ebb show as Roxie Hart. That year offered new adventures for Ziemba as well: her former leading man from 42nd Street, Jerry Orbach, now playing Detective Lenny Briscoe on NBC’s Law and Order, was instrumental in getting her her first guest spot on television as forensics expert Detective Tarvis. She also got to meet the President: on the occasion of a televised Performance at the White House: Dance in America, she and Bebe Newirth hoofed their way through “Hot Honey Rag” for Bill and Hillary Clinton.

In 1999, Susan Stroman and John Weidman created Contact: The Musical, to considerable critical controversy, since the music was pre-recorded from classical and pop sources, the plots of the three acts unrelated, and there was no singing. Nonetheless, at the Vivian Beaumont in 2000 it was a hit; Karen Ziemba danced the daydreaming Wife of the second act and won a Tony Award®, as well as Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards.

In the interim before her next Broadway engagement, Ziemba appeared in several galas and regional productions, most notably in Hartford and Washington, D.C. as Beatrice in Mark Lamos’s production of Much Ado About Nothing, and at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in The Threepenny Opera. She returned to New York starring as Mabel in Jerome Kern’s Never Gonna Dance, for which she received another Tony® nomination and won the Outer Critics Circle Award in 2004. The same year she squeezed in another appearance on Law And Order: Criminal Intent.

Ziemba’s most recent run on Broadway was as Georgia in Curtains (2007), receiving Tony® and Drama Desk nominations. Other recent regional work has included Guys and Dolls at the Papermill Playhouse in New Jersey, Ken Ludwig’s Leading Ladies at Ford’s Theatre, Washington, D.C., and The Opposite Of Sex at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre, for which she received the Bay Area Theatre Critics’ Award. A workshop of Kander & Ebb’s musical version of Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth starred Ziemba at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton.

Another guest spot – as a doctor – on Law And Order: Special Victims Unit, a cameo appearance in the movie of The Producers (2005), and a role in Alec Baldwin’s film The Devil and Daniel Webster, with Anthony Hopkins, have filled in whatever empty spots there may have been in Karen Ziemba’s schedule. Thirteen original-cast, live-performance, or studio-cast recordings. many from her City Center Encores! performances (Fifty Million Frenchmen, 110 In The Shade, The Most Happy Fella, Ziegfeld Follies of 1936), are available.

– LEC