20 Questions With...Leigh Zimmerman
Date: 25 November 2002
Actress, dancer & singer Leigh Zimmerman, now starring in Susan Stroman's Contact, talks about communicating through dance & balancing family life with two West End careers.
Originally trained as a ballerina, American Leigh Zimmerman has found success on stage and screen as a classical and modern dancer as well as a singer and actress.
Zimmerman moved to London in 1999 with her Scottish actor-husband Domenick Allen and quickly made an impression on West End audiences - first, opposite Darryl Hannah in the revival of The Seven Year Itch; then, most notably, with her year-long turn as murderess Velma Kelly, opposite first Denise Van Outen then Claire Sweeney as Roxie Hart, in the long-running musical Chicago.
She had also appeared in the hit Kander and Ebb musical on Broadway, where her other credits have included The Will Rogers Follies, Crazy for You and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.
On American film and television, Zimmerman's credits include Home Alone II, Rear Window, Mr Jealousy, Second Nature, Another World, One Life to Live, Guiding Light, Spencer for Hire and Central Park West.
She is now starring as the notorious "Girl in the Yellow Dress" in the London production of Susan Stroman's Tony Award-winning dance musical Contact at the West End's Queen's Theatre.
Date & place of birth
Born 28 March 1969 in Madison, Wisconsin.
Now lives in
Regents Park. I moved to London three and a bit years ago. My husband (Domenick Allen, currently starring in the West End musical 125th Street is Scottish and we first came because he's written a musical called A Sense Of Freedom, based on the play The Hard Man about the Scottish gangster Jimmy Boyle, that will be produced here in London. In the meantime, we started a family here and got busy with other work.
I joined the Boston Ballet as a ballerina when I was 16 and also trained at the North Carolina School of the Arts where I did tap, jazz and modern dance. My acting training was in New York, where I've studied the Sanford Meisner technique. And I continue to train with teachers here in London. I'm always studying, whether I'm working or not.
First big break
In theatre, it was when Tommy Tune hired me to be in the original Broadway company of The Will Rogers Follies. That was in 1991, when I was fresh out of the ballet world. At the same time, my film break came when the Hollywood director Chris Columbus asked me to be in Home Alone II. It was a very significant year for me.
Career highlights to date
Chicago and getting to do Bob Fosse's work with Ann Reinking and Joel Gray, who had worked with him when he was alive. Those people taught me a lot. And then going on to play Velma in Chicago here in London was certainly a high point. But working now with Susan Stroman on Contact is truly the highlight of my career I think.
Favourite productions you've ever worked on
The Broadway revival of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Forum, directed by Jerry Zaks, who taught me about comedy. Nathan Lane was in it, too, and I remember one night when we were both really milking the audience, getting lots of laughs and Jerry said to us, "just because they think it's funny doesn't mean it's good." That was an important lesson. You need to keep yourself in check sometimes because, even though you may be getting a reaction, it's not necessarily always servicing the material. In fact, that production was another career highlight.
Joel Gray was wonderful in Chicago. Also Alec Baldwin is incredible to work with on film, and we've done some theatre benefits together in New York. Alec is the consummate professional. Nathan Lane, who always keeps you laughing, and Ann Reinking.
Susan Stroman is at the top of my list at the moment. Aside from her, my choices for favourites are those directors with a theatrical sensibility but a cinematic vision. I'd very much like to work with Sam Mendes, Nicholas Hytner, Michael Grandage and Trevor Nunn - they all have the big, big picture in mind. I don't think it's coincidence that they're all British. I think there's a worldliness there; they know how to play both sides.
Favourite musical writers
Cy Coleman, Peter Stone, Stephen Sondheim, Kander and Ebb - I am lucky to have worked with some of the greats. And I would love to work with Mel Brooks. It'd be great to be involved with The Producers when it comes to London. Ulla is a fantastic part. In terms of playwrights, I'm drawn to David Mamet and Neil Simon because of the sheer timing of their dialogue.
Again, Stroman is at the top of list. Not just because of Contact either. I also worked with her on Crazy for You and I've seen everything she's done. She is truly innovative, original, groundbreaking - as a choreographer and a director. I also really enjoyed working with both Tommy Tune and Ann Reinking. Tommy for his big wedding cake musicals with their kaleidoscopic images, which are visually very exciting. And Ann because of the intimacy of Fosse's style. I so wanted to work with Fosse, but he died in 1987, the year I moved to New York. I was devastated by that.
What roles would you most like to play still?
Charity Hope Valentine in Sweet Charity, Ulla in The Producers and Sally Bowles in Cabaret. But I'd temper that with wanting to play new roles in new work coming out, too. If you can imagine the types of film roles that people like Nicole Kidman, Susan Sarandon and Gwyneth Paltrow are best known for - intelligent, strong, sexy women. Those are the kinds of roles I would want to bring to the stage.
What's different about performing in the West End versus Broadway?
The audiences. That's a definite cultural difference. The British are simply less vocal. It took me a good year to learn that just because they made less noise here, it didn't mean they were less appreciative. My ear had to adjust. I also think, in London, we get a much bigger cross-section of the non-English speaking world - all the Europeans, the Japanese and everything else too. That's a great challenge because you still have to reach those people.
What's the last thing you saw on stage that you really enjoyed?
Jesus Hopped the A Train at the Donmar - stunning performances and brilliant writing, with complex themes handled very simply. There was nothing presentational about it all, which is right. Less is more in performance. It was good to see that just before going into rehearsals for Contact, because Contact really is a play first. Even though we're dancing with some dialogue, the more people think of the stories we tell as a play, the more they'll hook into the emotional core of the piece.
What advice would you give the government to secure the future of theatre?
I'm still learning so much about Britain as a whole, but I think it's important to introduce the arts back into the school curriculum as much as possible. Art opens up a new world, and it has to start with young people.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead), who would it be?
My two-and-a-half-year-old daughter. I would love to see the world through a child's eyes and be able to remember it. There's an innocence there. I don't like to say I'm jaded, but the more mature we become, the less able we are to get full enjoyment from things. Like children do, it is great to experience everything for the first time.
How difficult is it balancing two West End careers with family life?
Very difficult. Whatever you can think of, it's a huge challenge. But Domenick and I want to raise our child ourselves so we don't have a live-in nanny. We bring her into the theatre with us as much as possible - though obviously we need help because she's too young to be left unsupervised. It's important to us that we maintain that direct influence over her, but I also think you need to be a happy person to be a happy parent so we try to strike a balance between work and home.
At the moment, John Peter, the Sunday Times theatre critic, inspired me to rediscover Raymond Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely and The Big Sleep, when he referred to me in his review of Contact by quoting Phillip Marlowe - "...a blonde who could make a Bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window!"
Favourite after-show haunts
There are two places. Two Bridges is a private members club I was introduced to by Darryl Hannah while we were doing The Seven Year Itch. There's another club called Blacks - it's got lovely fireplaces and big couches, which is nice in winter after a show.
Favourite holiday destinations
The Caribbean. To really relax, I need the warmth of the sun, a white sand beach, aqua blue water and lots of cool drinks.
I use the Internet all the time. I've been approached to do my own website so I've been looking around at others for inspiration. I've developed a huge appreciation for sites that are properly laid out, colourful and fast with lots of interesting links. I'd like my own to be my favourite. It should be up and running in the next couple of months.
What attracted you to performing in Contact?
Working with Susan Stroman in the first instance. And, once I was in it, the wonderful surprise was that it wasn't just a dancing role. From the outside it may appear to be that, but it's not. It doesn't matter that I'm not singing - I'm telling an important story and it's more of a challenge to do that when you're not given words. In rehearsals, Michael Praed and I worked for endless hours to imagine what our words would be during our time on stage together. If you think the words and communicate them with your body, the audience will get it. I'm not just a sexy girl in a sexy dress, there's a much bigger picture. I could gush for hours about this show, no joke. It's so wonderful, and I'm grateful that I was asked to be in it.
Do you think the London production of Contact is different than the New York one?
Yeah I do. We've been given the freedom to boil everything down to its simple essence and not worry about recreating anyone else's performances. We're special because of that.
What's your favourite number from Contact?
I guess it would be "Simply Irresistible", because of the infusion of energy it brings to the audience and those on stage. Also, in the "Sing, Sing, Sing" section, when the Girl in the Yellow Dress (who I play) finally dances with Michael Wiley (Michael Praed). That's when she discovers she needs something from him, too - that if they do succeed in making contact, they will both survive and be each other's salvation. It's a really strong dance - everything in the story is encapsulated in those movements.
What's the funniest/oddest/most notable thing that's happened during rehearsals/ run to date for Contact?
Michael Praed is a non-dancer and he was hired as such, , but I've never worked with a non-dancer as a dance partner. There are a lot of non-dancers in the cast, and they're expected to dance just as much as the dancers. They're doing a great job, but that combination has made for a lot of comedic moments, especially during rehearsals. As a company, we've been all over each other, stepping on each other's feet a lot and laughing throughout the whole process.
What are your plans for the future?
My career takes left turns all the time. I enjoy jumping from one medium to another so I'm looking forward to doing another film and some television work.
- Leigh Zimmerman was speaking to Terri Paddock
Contact continues at the West End's Queen's Theatre, where it opened on 23 October 2002 (previews from 3 October).