When I saw Karen Olivo playing Faith in the musical Brooklyn, I knew, by the power and beauty of her voice, that a star had been born. When I saw Karen as Vanessa in the 37 Arts Off-Broadway production of In The Heights, I told everyone I knew to run to NYC and catch her performance. After the show transferred to the Richard Rodgers Theatre, Broadway audiences were treated to Karen’s feisty Vanessa in last year’s Tony Award Winning Best Musical.
More than 50 years after it opened at the National Theatre, the new production West Side Story , under the direction of the legendary Arthur Laurents, returned to the National in preparation for its Broadway opening. DC audiences and critics alike cheered Karen Olivo’s scorching portrayal of Anita. Before she left Washington, Karen did this interview for us.
Joel: How did you think opening night (Jan. 7th) went?
Karen: I think Opening Night went well. We were all excited to perform the show officially. We have been in previews for what seems like a lifetime.
Joel: How did you get involved in this production?
Karen: I was called in by Jeffrey Seller (a producer on the show). At the time, I was performing on Broadway in In the Heights (playing Vanessa). Jeffrey called and said they had not found their Anita, and asked me if I would take a crack at it.
Joel: Where were you when you got the phone call that they were offering you the role of Anita?
Karen: I was in my studio at home, painting.
Joel: How do you relate to the character of Anita? How much of the real Karen is in the way you play Anita?
Karen: I relate to Anita in a very basic way. She is a woman, and I am woman. She is in love, and I am in love. As for how much of the real Karen is in my Anita, well, I hope ALL of the real Karen is in my portrayal of Anita. I try to put all of myself into my work whenever possible.
Joel: What is different in the way you play Anita than others who have played it before – Chita Rivera and Rita Moreno, for example?
Karen: I am a different person, so all of my choices and the way I understand the text is invariably different.
Joel: What personal experiences did you draw upon in preparing to play Anita?
Karen: Anita loves deeply, and I am fortunate enough to have fallen in love and truly grasp that concept.
Joel: Is the way you are playing Anita based on a family member or friend?
Karen: No, my Anita is me. At times, when speaking Spanish, I think I sound like my mother, but that has more to do with genetics than an actual acting choice.
Joel: Was there chemistry between you and Josefina Scaglione, who plays Maria, and George Akram, who plays Bernardo – from the first day of rehearsals?
Karen: Yes, they are two generous and talented performers. I felt early on that our work together would be easy and natural, and I am happy to say, it has been.
Joel: I caught up with Robin de Jesús – who I podcasted with Andrea Burns a few days before opening night of In The Heights – two weeks ago at the stage door, and I promised him I would send you his and the cast’s best wishes. They all miss you.
Karen: Well, speaking of talented and generous performers, Robin De Jesús is one of my favorites. The cast of In The Heights is a rare find. They are all just as talented as they are kind. I love them and miss them as well.
Joel: I’m sure it was a difficult decision to leave this year’s Tony Award Winning Best Musical, where you were burning up the Richard Rodgers Theatre playing the feisty Vanessa? What convinced you to join the West Side Story production?
Karen: Playing an iconic role like this in one of the best musicals ever, comes around but once in a lifetime. My ITH family recognized that, and I knew I would have never been happy having let the opportunity pass me by.
Joel: I saw the Off-Broadway production of In The Heights at 37 Arts. Before it transferred to Broadway, the creative team made some changes – to make it even better – when it opened at The Richard Rodgers. What changes – made here at The National Theatre – have made this production stronger and better, and does this journey – starting in DC and ending on Broadway – feel similar to the In The Heights journey?
Karen: This experience feels completely different from ITH. As far as changes are concerned, I think the addition of Spanish is a great change. From an actor’s point of view, it has given me a lot of new material to work with. I think audiences recognize that they are seeing an exhilarating variation on a theme, and that is exciting for me.
Joel: What is it like working with Arthur Laurents, and what is the best advice he gave you about playing Anita?
Karen: Arthur is an exquisite human being. He is obviously a theatrical genius, but MOST importantly he is a generous person. The best advice he ever gave me will follow me to the grave. Sorry.
Joel: Not only are you a fabulous singer and actress, but you are also a terrific dancer. Congrats on your Astaire Award for Best Female Dancer on Broadway for In the Heights. What was the most difficult dance to learn in Joey McKneeley’s “reintroduced” choreography for West Side Story?
Karen: Thanks. “America” was and is the most difficult by far.
Joel: “A Boy Like That” is now sung in Spanish by you and Josefina. Do you feel that singing it in Spanish gives the scene more emotional punch?
Karen: I know that singing the song in Spanish makes it easier to lose myself in the emotional circumstances. As for whether or not it is more effective, I leave that to the audience and the Creatives. I know that I enjoy it.
Joel: Now that Arthur has removed the subtitles for the Spanish dialogue and lyrics, are you seeing a different reaction from the audience than you did when the subtitles were used?
Karen: Arthur has made the acting of this piece his main concern. And anything (subtitles) that distracts the audience from watching the acting can only hamper our efforts. I know that our show without subtitles will ask more of our audiences, but I feel like we should ask our audiences to be more involved. Theater is a fine art, after all. And we should be developing our theatrical palette.
Joel: Which scene that you are not in gives you the most emotional reaction?
Karen: The Prologue and the Rumble are extremely moving to me.
Joel: Introduce our readers to your husband actor/songwriter Matt Caplan. Where did you meet, and what’s it like to be a show business couple?
Karen: I met my husband Matt years ago when we were both in Rent. He is a fine actor /performer (currently in Lincoln Center’s South Pacific) and his songwriting is truly astounding. He has a gift for melody and lyrics. We are two artists that are in love, we are not a show business couple.
Joel: Is there a role that you haven’t played yet that you would love to play?
Joel: How has the DC experience been for you and the cast, and are DC audiences different than NYC audiences?
Karen: We have been submerged in putting up this show. I have not had much time to see DC. However, the audiences have been very responsive and kind.
Joel: What do you want DC audiences to take with them when they leave the National Theatre after seeing this unique production of West Side Story?
Karen: Hopefully, they leave feeling that they were part of an experience.
West Side Story opens February 23rd at the Palace Theatre, 1564 Broadway, NYC. For more information, visit the website.