When I asked Tony winner Karen Olivo – the star of Moulin Rouge! on Broadway – just how she compartmentalizes, I could tell right away I had asked the wrong actor this question. “All of my work – I don’t get to punch out. It becomes my whole being…when I leave the stage I basically put on clothes so that I can go home and get my body ready to do it again.” Olivo says.
I’m not sure why I’d even posed the question, as I should have gaged this quality about Olivo after seeing Moulin Rouge!; her performance is one that I can only describe as beautifully gigantium in every possible way. The fact is, this rare kind of presence has always been a given whenever Karen Olivo acts, sings, dances…or does anything, really.
Highlights from her career include being in the original cast of Rent (I learned on the podcast Little Known Facts from Ilana Levine, that in college Olivo slept outside for two nights to get tickets, then went to an open call and scored a part as a swing), originating the role of Vanessa in In The Heights, playing Angelica Schuyler in Hamilton in Chicago and winning the Tony Award for Anita in West Side Story, a part producers had to ask her – multiple times – to audition for:
“West Side Story was something that I was going to have to do. The universe was propelling me towards it. And Karen had to look Karen in the mirror and say “Karen are you ready to grow this much?” I would say the trepidation with those kinds of decisions involve me having a moment of stillness and being like ‘How much would you like to grow today?’”
And thank goodness she decided to grow. If you saw her in West Side Story, you know how heartbreaking and utterly iconic Olivo’s performance was – one that both spans and stamps time and is something you’d mention decades later. (Yes, we are major theater people, people.)
It isn’t just her onstage persona that’s a testament to Olivo’s presence: It’s the fact that in both her professional and personal life, the actor seems to define the term “manifesting.” On both occasions of Rent and In The Heights for example, she saw or heard the work and simply decided she wanted to be part of it. It was not a matter of if, just a matter of when.
So when I asked about manifesting – in the vein of half-interviewer, half the way you’d pose a question to a life coach – she said, “If you don’t give yourself the option for anything else, then eventually that becomes the only option. You say ‘I’m going to have that.’ If you don’t give yourself a Plan B then you end up having it.”
(I sat wondering how much of that quote would fit on a needlepoint pillow, a graphic tee-shirt, a baseball cap – something with enough surface area.)
Olivo is at that point in her career where now, she chooses. But like any actor, that wasn’t always the case; “I think the younger version of me did feel like I was being – a lot of times – victimized because of the things I was put in. Or what I was expected to do…You can look at it in that way or you can say, ‘OK, right now the playing field is this. But it will change. And you will come into your power. And you will be able to make the changes that you need.’”
It’s this ability to turn any situation into a road not a roadblock that makes Olivo so inspiring. It’s never been about what she didn’t get, but rather what she will get. She says, “Much like anything that you want, most things that you want take time. So building a career, sometimes you have to do things that you don’t necessarily want to do to get to a point in which you can start calling the shots.”
In a sense though, Olivo’s approach to her craft has made her someone that does always, in a certain way, call the shots:
“I’ve never really approached being an actor as an occupation in the sense that most people would look at it. It is a necessity. It was something that I needed. It defined me early on, even before it became my profession. So there is much more of a personal, gut feeling that I navigate most of my choices through as if it was a relationship.” Going deeper into what that gut feeling looks like, she says, “When I audition for things, I don’t go into a room and think – Is this the right job for me? I think – Do I want to spend all of my time with that director? Because this is going to be six months, a year, two years – It’s a different overview of what I do.”
When it comes to Moulin Rouge!, Olivo brings some of herself to the part of Satine (the role Nicole Kidman played in Baz Luhrmann’s movie) whose hyper-sexualization Olivo describes as “the sword that she wields.”
“My first steps in this business centered around me being visually something that someone found appealing. And so I understand that and that’s what I bring to it. Someone that’s using the tools that she has in her toolbox.”
Being Karen Olivo, she is always finding ways to reinvent the part for herself and for the audience when it comes to doing it eight times a week:
“I have lots of personal benchmarks within the show. Of discoveries. I know that there are certain places that have to stay the same because they involve other people and there’s timing of scenery…But there are other parts of the show that are a little bit more freeform. That I control the pace. And so I leave those for myself to make discoveries, that won’t hamper anyone else’s show.”
If you’ve seen it, you know this show is no easy feat, and Olivo’s routine is a manual on utter dedication, “There’s really no life. I am living like a hermit…I don’t get to go out and have dinner with my friends. I don’t go to a restaurant if it’s too loud. I don’t go to crowded places because I’ll have to speak over a whisper. I just don’t. Those are not the things that I get to do right now.”
The show is not like most musicals I’ve seen when it comes to the crazy vocal range that seems necessary, and Olivo confirmed, “We sing all the lows and all of the highs. A handful of the numbers – because they’re written in every part of our range – they’re not in our best range. We use all of them.”
Seeing as TNP Studios (our production arm) has a satirical mockumentary about social media coming out in the spring, I could not help but ask Olivo about the alternate universe that it is. She’s on it, but she doesn’t do much of it, explaining “My job is to tell the truth, right? I put on costumes and then the way that I rope you in is by being honest. And I find that social media does not really allow for that in a lot of ways,” she says. “I don’t want to curate my existence for social media, and I feel like that’s something that is very popular right now.”
In the age we’re in, Olivo’s truth is refreshing, and it’s that truth that seems to be the place from which her acting stems from. “I think I’m more of an actor than I am anything else. I feel more like an actor. Even when I’m singing, I can’t sing well unless I’m understanding the acting portion of it.”
What has always struck me about Olivo’s career in musical theater is just that: She’s an incredible actor in addition to being an exceptionally talented performer.
I personally feel that in a world that’s become noisier than ever – and so over-saturated with content – it’s unique when an actor achieves a depth and soulfulness that leaves the people watching them feeling more empowered themselves. That’s exactly what Karen Olivo does.
When I asked her what she attributes that depth and edge to…well…I’ll just let her finish her own story…
“I would attribute the edge to a lot of things. My upbringing. Being a woman of color. Coming up at the time that I did. I remember from a very young age, my Father who immigrated here was always dead set on us being very americanized kids because he’d come here not knowing the language. One of the things that he’d always say is “In every room you have to be the best at what you’re doing, because you’re a woman and you’re brown. So take that, and figure out your life from there.” And I think that gave me a little bit more of – work harder, be as direct as possible, be true to your word, don’t ever be lazy; you can’t afford to. That’s in someone else’s cards. You don’t get to do that – So that has given me a little bit of – I would say – a shell. But over time as I’ve gotten older I’ve not allowed it to make me bitter or jaded. Because you can’t make art and be bitter and jaded. You can’t. Because you’re in the business of creation.”
We either start or end with food of course, and it turns out, Karen Olivo is a major foodie (all the best people are). Here is what her ideal food day would be…
“It would be my husband and I waking up and going to an incredible bagel place. He would get sesame with egg and cheese probably. I would do lox, tomato, the whole nine yards. I’m probably a sesame. That would be breakfast. And then we would take a very long walk maybe down somewhere around where the Highline meets Chelsea Market. We’d probably do tacos. Al Pastor – just three pork tacos for me. And then I am a huge fan of fancy, fancy dining. I went to Chicago and I went to Alinea and it changed my life. And just recently I went to Eleven Madison Park and that also changed my life. So I would like something that’s very pedestrian, something that is almost a street food. And then nighttime being a very lavish multiple course with pairings at Eleven Madison Park.”