This week, we have another amazing podcast from the Theater People team. Karen Olivo, who is probably most known for her time spent as Vanessa in In the Heights and Anita in the 2009 revival of West Side Story.
Although she is an amazing performer, she made the shocking decision to take a break from performing last year. She explains that due to stress at work and dealing with personal issues, including divorce, she decided to move to Wisconsin. She notes that she felt that the parts and music she wanted were not coming her way, and she longed for the day that she could take control of her art as opposed to only having what was brought to her. As a result of her decision, she was able to figure out what she wanted.
While in Wisconsin, she was able to pursue a new side of performing: teaching. She tells Patrick that she just finished her first semester at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where she is teaching musical theatre. She notes that her goal is to get her students to see her as a peer, as opposed to a teacher. She hopes that this will allow her students to pursue their own styles, and not be taught one certain type of performing.
Back in June, she made her return to the New York stage in Jonathan Larson’s tick, tick…BOOM. She starred alongside Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote In the Heights, and SMASH star Leslie Odom, Jr. This performance was special to her, as Jonathan Larson’s other musical, RENT, was her Broadway debut. She played Maureen and Mimi, in addition to several other parts in RENT.
Of course, she and Patrick spend a lot of time discussing her time in In the Heights. She remembers that as an actress, she was outspoken and a “ghetto mess.” During the workshop, the creative team felt that the personalities of the actors should be reflected in their characters to make them relatable. Thus, Vanessa is basically a younger version of Karen. They also discuss Karen’s lasting relationship with Priscilla Lopez. She tells Patrick that the reunion concert in Washington Heights spoke about the legacy of the show and how the audience responded.
Karen says that she is a terrible dancer, which is why she had said no to auditions for West Side Story. She also felt that the role of Anita was too big for her. Finally, she auditioned for the role two weeks before rehearsals began. Lin-Manuel Miranda, her co-star from In the Heights, was in the room during her call-back and knew that she would get the part.
During her time in the show, Arthur Laurents took her under his wing and built her up to taking on Anita. In fact, choreography was altered to fit her abilities. So, she felt that other cast members resented her for getting the part, since she is not a dancer and is, instead, a singer. Yet, she felt lucky to be given the opportunity and eventually won the Tony Award for her role. However, she had no expectations of winning, feeling that she had not met her own personal standards for the role.
She left the show due to a broken foot. She received the injury during a performance, and had to crawl off stage on her own, while her co-stars continued the show. It should be noted that she would have gotten help, but she was in the middle of the stage and could be seen by the entire audience. Because of the stage set-up the other actors had to ignore her, as she was behind a pretend wall. She was out for six-to-eight weeks, but when she tried to come back to the show, the dances proved to be too difficult for her recently injured foot.
She says that she felt the broken foot marked a turning point in her career. So, she decided to pursue TV and film. During that time, she got parts in several television shows, including The Good Wife.
Does she plan to move back to New York and return to Broadway? Maybe. If she knows that she is meant for the part, but she plans to stay where she is. As an artist, she finally has control and can pursue art in her own way. And that’s how she wants to live.