DIVA TALK: Chatting with In the Heights' Karen Olivo Plus News of Akers, Colella and Callaway

By Andrew Gans
July 18, 2008

News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.

KAREN OLIVO
Karen Olivo may have won the Fred & Adele Astaire Award for Best Female Dancer on Broadway, but she gets my vote for Vocal Discovery of the Season. True, Olivo has already appeared on Broadway in Rent (she made her Main Stem bow as a swing and an understudy for Mimi and Maureen) and Brooklyn (she created the role of Faith), but it was during my Broadway encounter with the Tony-winning In the Heights where I was completely won over by Olivo's rangy belt, which seems to pierce the soul with its staggering power. Olivo plays Vanessa in the Washington Heights-set musical, which recently won four 2008 Tony Awards, including the top prize for Best Musical. I recently had the pleasure of chatting by phone with the young actress as she was making her way to Manhattan by train. Olivo spoke about her Broadway debut, her work in Brooklyn, her current role in In the Heights and even her Wicked thoughts; that interview follows.

Question: How have audiences been since In the Heights won the Tony?
Karen Olivo: Incredibly encouraging. [Laughs.] Obviously, [we've had] packed houses, and so many people at the stage door from all different walks of life saying how much the show moves them. Honestly, it hasn't been too much of a difference as far as audience response, but as far as the amount of people that have shown up, that's the biggest difference.

Question: Has it been pretty much sold out?
Olivo: Yeah, it's sold out and standing room only. It's wonderful.

Question: That must make a big difference in terms of the energy you get back.
Olivo: Seeing faces does wonders, especially on a two-show day. [Laughs.]

Question: Let's go back a bit. How did you originally get involved with In the Heights?
Olivo: I had a friend, Eden Espinosa, who had done a reading of it. She told me about it when she was doing the reading, and she said, "If this goes on or if they start looking for people, you need to get involved because it's a really great piece." So that's how I heard about it, and then my agency passed me the demo. The moment I heard the music, I was like, "That's it! I wanna be a part of it, however I can be a part of it."

Question: Do you know what role Eden was playing at the time?
Olivo: I think she was playing the Nina role.

Question: Were you involved in any of the workshops, or did you join the show for the Off-Broadway run?
Olivo: I did the first workshop that was at 37 Arts, and then I did the Off-Broadway run.

Question: When you were doing the show Off-Broadway, did you think it would make it to Broadway?
Olivo: Honestly, when we were doing it Off-Broadway, all I could think about was how good it was. I have a theory: If the work is good, it's going to go as far as it needs to go. I wasn't necessarily pushing for it to go to Broadway. I just wanted to make sure that we stayed true to it, the material. I thought that if we do that, then we're going to be a success in whatever realm we need to be a success in.

Question: How has the Broadway experience differed from the Off-Broadway one?
Olivo: It's just a harder show! [Laughs.]

Question: You think it's harder now?
Olivo: Yeah, it's definitely harder. We added a lot of things: We added a lot of layers, songs got longer, dances got harder, scene work got more in depth. It's much more taxing. The facility at 37 Arts is definitely challenging. The terrain was a lot bigger — I think our stage was like 72 feet across. It was a bit of a trek to get around the stage. Now that we're on a smaller stage, I think the work itself has become harder.

Question: How would you describe Vanessa?
Olivo: Vanessa is that ambitious person in all of us, the person who sees where they are and wants to move on.

Question: Do you have a favorite moment in the show for your character?
Olivo: Yeah, but it's offstage. [Laughs.] It kind of happens onstage. Right before the dinner scene happens, Priscilla Lopez and I are crossing behind a piece of scenery that no one can see. Every night she makes up an impromptu dance that I have to follow in her footsteps. It's really symbolic of what my entire life has been. She set the bar for all of us, and to be able to walk out really in her footsteps every night is kind of like a dream come true. I pinch myself every night.

Question: In his Tony speech Lin-Manuel Miranda thanked his girlfriend Vanessa. Is your character based on her?
Olivo: No, I think it's a coincidence.

Karen Olivo in In the Heights
photo by Joan Marcus
Question: This year you won the Fred and Adele Astaire Award for Best Female Dancer on Broadway. What did that mean to you?
Olivo: It was completely humbling. I feel like dancers are the hardest-working people on Broadway. They really are. They make the leads look good. Specifically for me — I'm a trained dancer as much as I can say I'm "a mover." [Laughs.] All of [choreographer] Andy [Blankenbuehler]'s stuff is so complicated and so specific. The dancers in our show were so encouraging and so helpful. They break down steps for me all the time. All of my dance partners in the club — I dance with all these different men — they are so supportive and so responsive. . . . To be in those ranks is unbelievable. They work so hard and they never complain, and it's never an issue of how many times we have to do it as long as we get it right. It's just so cool to be in that club.

Question: Do you think In the Heights has a message? What does it mean to you?
Olivo: It has many messages, and I think that's why it's so impactful. One of the ones that I think is pretty important is to be in the moment. The whole thing with Usnavi, thinking about the places that he thinks he wants to be, when in actuality, he comes to find that the place that he is right now is the place that he is supposed to be. For a lot of us, a lot of our characters, we all have similar journeys where we're striving for something else, but we neglect what's right in front of us the entire time. I think that's a really important thing for all of us to have. I know in my life it serves a purpose. I think about that a lot, being in the moment.

Question: Speaking of moments, what was it like performing on the Tony Awards?
Olivo: It was the most stressful and amazing experience ever! We were so prepared. Andy did such a great job of really drilling us and making sure we knew exactly what was going to be asked of us on the rehearsal day. There is nothing like it, getting up on that stage in front of all of those people and knowing what you're there to do and knowing what you're representing. It was such an emotional and life-changing experience just to be on that stage.

Question: Do you remember your reaction when they announced that In the Heights had won the Tony?
Olivo: Someone told me — I don't remember it all that well, but I think I bunny-hopped all the way down the aisle in my formal dress! I was like a child. I couldn't contain myself. [Laughs.]

Question: I think you have such an amazing voice. When did you know that you could really sing?
Olivo: I was always singing when I was really young. When I was like seven and eight, I was always making up songs in the car. My mom would be like, "Where'd you learn that?" and I'd be like, "I just made it up." But I was never really trained until I got to CCM. I went to Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. My voice teacher there was one of the opera voice teachers. Unfortunately, she has passed, but she was instrumental in encouraging me and making me feel that just because my voice was so different and the way I used it was different, didn't mean that I couldn't be a success and I couldn't keep doing what I was doing. I think probably college would be the time where I really figured out that I could actually do something.

Question: Was your hope to do opera at that point?
Olivo: It sounds strange and no one knows this part of my voice, but I'm a soprano in all forms of the word. I loved doing all of the arias and I loved that for school. But when it was me in room by myself, I was just trying to see how high I could belt. [Laughs.]

Question: How high can you belt?
Olivo: I don't know. Actually, I can go pretty high when I don't look at the piano and when you don't tell me what it is. It's all in the mind.

Question: Have you ever thought about or wanted to play Elphaba in Wicked? Your voice sounds like it would be a great fit for that part.
Olivo: It's a very strange situation. I saw Idina [Menzel] do it, and I saw my friend Eden [Espinosa] do it. I really am a firm believer in if someone has done it the way you think it should be done, there's no reason to go and try to do it again. You know what I mean? I feel like they got it. Between the two of them, they nailed it. On top of it, I feel like I'm better at creating things and making things from nothing.

Question: And, it's probably more interesting at this point in your career to be able to do create a role.
Olivo: And who wants to be painted green? [Laughs.] Come on!

Question: Since we've never spoken before, where were you born and raised?
Olivo: I was born in New York, and when I was younger, I moved to Central Florida and was raised down there.

Question: When did you start performing?
Olivo: When I was about six years old, my dad put me in my first play.

Question: Was it something you wanted to do?
Olivo: He was a children's theatre director, so it was easier to put me onstage than have someone to watch me.

Question: When did you think you knew that performing of some nature would be your career?
Olivo: Pretty early on. I think I was probably in my first community theatre production when I was seven or eight, and I thought, "Nothing feels as good as this." I was like the one kid who didn't have any extracurricular activities. All I did was go to the theatre. From pretty early on, my parents knew that that's all I was interested in.

Question: As a teenager or in college, were there actors or singers that you admired or influenced you?
Olivo: Shirley MacLaine. I won a scholarship — the Ruth Eckerd Hall Scholarship in Florida for musical theatre, and she was the one who gave it to me, and she was really great. I got to meet her, and she gave me some advice: "It's really hard. If you really want to do it, you're going to have to stick with it. And a lot of people are going to tell you you can't do it, but you gotta just keep trying…" Stuff like that. And then, obviously, Priscilla Lopez and Rita Moreno because they're of Latin descent, and there weren't a whole lot of people that I could identify with.

Karen Olivo in Brooklyn the Musical
photo by Joan Marcus
Question: What was your first Broadway job?
Olivo: My first Broadway show was Rent.

Question: How did that come about?
Olivo: I went to an open call. I was in college at the time, and I went to an open call with a friend of mine. We drove to Toronto because that was the only open call at the time, and they said, "You're an American. Why are you coming to Toronto?" And I was like, "I just want to be in the show." I figured I could try any way I could get in. And they said, "Well, why don't you just come to Broadway?" And that was it. I got my first Broadway gig. [Laughs.]

Question: Were you in the chorus?
Olivo: I was a swing and an understudy for Mimi and Maureen.

Question: What was it like when you made your Broadway debut?
Olivo: I was petrified. I actually tried to leave the stage, I was so scared. I did Aiko Nakasone's role, the Alexi Darling role, and I remember being onstage in that wonderful iconic moment when Anthony [Rapp] comes onstage, and he looks at all the cast members and then he starts the monologue. During that look around stage, I thought, "Wow, this is going to be really hard!" and I started to back up offstage right. [Laughs.] I started taking little tiny baby steps. And then Mark Setlock, who was playing the drug dealer, was behind me, and he actually put his hand on my back and stopped me from leaving the stage! [Laughs.] But yeah, I was petrified, but it was the most exhilarating moment of my entire life.

Question: After that was Brooklyn. What was that experience like?
Olivo: Brooklyn was amazing because it was the first time that I got to originate something. When I got involved with Brooklyn, it was so free-form. They knew parts of the story, but my character was just an idea at that point. They were really like, "This is kind of where we want it to go. What can you do? What's your strong suit? Where do you see it going?" All of that took place, so I felt like I had a lot to say in my character specifically. As it transformed during the out-of-town run and what it ended up being on Broadway, obviously all of those things changed, but I felt like I had more of a stock in it. I also met some of my best friends ever: Ramona Keller and Eden Espinosa.

Question: Do you have any plans to make a solo album?
Olivo: I've been talking to a couple of people about that. So many people have been coming up to me and asking about that. It's not something that I had ever really thought that I would do. It's so weird — I never really thought of myself as a singer. I always figured that I was more of an actor who sang. That's what I hear from most people, "Oh, your voice, your voice." And I'm like, "Wow, maybe I'm really neglecting the talent. Maybe I should actually sing more often." [Laughs.] I'm mulling it over. I'm talking to a couple of friends who have put out albums and seeing what they went through, trying to think of what I would want my album to be if I made one.

Question: Do you know if you'd want to do musical theatre songs or pop material?
Olivo: I'm not the pop kind of person. I'm much more singer-songwriter based. I think that has primarily to do with theatre. It's always telling a story through song. I'm thinking that maybe it would probably be a mix of the two. It would probably be a jazz standard or two, then maybe one or two obscure musical theatre songs, then maybe some Joni Mitchell, maybe some Indigo Girls, something like that.

Question: How long will you stay with In the Heights?
Olivo: We're such a family over there, I don't know. As long as I can. [Laughs.] It's hard to say. You never know what's around the corner.

Question: Do you have any other projects in the works?
Olivo: I have lots of other stuff that I'm doing, but nothing has fleshed out just yet. . . . We just won the Tony and so all of these people are coming to see us. We kind of want to revel in what we made a little bit. I'm kind of focusing on this, but on my off days I'm working on other stuff.

Question: Has there been anyone who has come to see the show that you were especially excited to meet?
Olivo: I'm a huge, huge, huge basketball fan, and Bruce Bowen, who plays for the Spurs, was in the second row the other day, and I didn't realize how starstruck and crazy I would be. I spotted him because he was dancing in his seat! That's jarring enough to see a seven-foot-plus man in his seat dancing around. That was the most amazing thing, just to see crossover like that. Basketball, sports — it's such a different arena. To see him come to the theatre and totally, totally get it and be happy and jump to his feet at the end, it made my week.

Question: Did you get to meet him afterwards?
Olivo: I didn't. I don't think that he knew anyone in the show. I think he came probably because he heard we had won the Tony. I went straight to the press office and was like, "If they ever come again, if any of them ever come again, I have to meet them!" [Laughs.]

[In the Heights plays the Richard Rodgers Theatre, 226 West 46th Street. For tickets call (212) 307-4100 or visit www.ticketmaster.com]

Karen Akers
19th ANNUAL CABARET CONVENTION
The line-up for the 19th Annual Cabaret Convention — which will be held Oct. 29-Nov. 1 at Jazz at Lincoln Center in Manhattan — was announced earlier this week.

The week-long convention, which salutes the best of New York cabaret, will kick off Oct. 29 with a Gala Opening Night that boasts some of the finest in the field (Karen Akers, Christine Andreas, Judy Butterfield, Jason Graae, Karen Mason, Phillip Officer and Paula West) as well as three performers making their Cabaret Convention debuts: Matt Cavenaugh, Shelley MacArthur and Gregory Moore. The evening will also feature the presentation of the Julie Wilson Award to singer Butterfield.

Hats Off to Liz Smith is the title of the Oct. 30 concert, which will pay tribute to the syndicated gossip columnist, who has "championed this vital and exciting world of song." Performers will include Klea Blackhurst, Ann Hampton Callaway, Jeff Harnar, Marilyn Maye, Sidney Myer, Daniel Reichard, Catherine Russell, Jennifer Sheehan and Tommy Tune.

Nancy Anderson, Barbara Brussell, Eric Comstock, Tony Desare, Barbara Fasano, Mary Cleere Haran, Justin Hayford, Sylvia McNair, Craig Rubano, Lumiri Tubo and Julie Wilson will perform Oct. 31 in a program titled We Hear America Singing. The evening, which will feature songs from the Great American Songbook, will also include the presentation of The Dick Gallagher Award to Desare.

The 19th annual convention will conclude Nov. 1 with A Lovely Way to Spend an Evening. Among the performers scheduled to perform are Barbara Carroll, Mary Foster Conklin, Baby Jane Dexter, Eric Michael Gillett, Barb Jungr, Donna McKechnie, Todd Murray, Karen Oberlin, Julie Reyburn, Steven Santoro, Olivia Stevens and KT Sullivan. The latter will receive the Mabel Mercer Award.

All shows begin at 6 PM. Tickets are priced $25, $50 and $100.

The Rose Theater is located at Frederick P. Rose Hall within Jazz at Lincoln Center at Broadway and 60th Street. For more information about the upcoming convention, visit www.mabelmercer.org.

Jenn Colella
DIVA TIDBITS
Broadway: Three Generations, a three-act evening featuring condensed versions of Girl Crazy, Bye Bye Birdie and Side Show, will be presented at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in October. Lonny Price will direct the Oct. 2-5 run in the Eisenhower Theater. The cast for the staged concert performances will include Tony Award winner Randy Graff as well as Brooks Ashmanskas, Lisa Brescia, Jenn Colella, Michael McElroy and Max von Essen. The production, which reopens the renovated Eisenhower Theater, will "track the development of the Broadway musical over three overlapping generations of composers," according to press notes. Girl Crazy will feature von Essen as Danny Churchill with Graff as Kate Fothergill, Ashmanskas as Slick Fothergill and Colella as Molly Gray. Ashmanskas will be Albert Peterson in Bye Bye Birdie with Brescia as Mrs. MacAfee and Graff as Mae Peterson. And, Side Show will cast Colella as Daisy Hilton with Brescia as Violet Hilton, McElroy as Jake and von Essen as Terry Connor. Tickets, priced $25-$90, will go on sale Aug. 11. For more information visit www.kennedy-center.org.

Karen Mason, who currently plays the conniving Velma von Tussle in the Tony-winning musical Hairspray, will celebrate her new CD, "Right Here, Right Now," with an upcoming evening at Birdland. The Aug. 4 concert, which will feature songs from Mason's new recording, is scheduled for 7 PM. Mason will be backed by musical director Chris Denny on piano; Barry Kleinbort directs. Birdland is located in Manhattan at 315 West 44th Street, between Eighth and Ninth Avenues. There is a $35 cover charge and a $10 food-drink minimum. Call (212) 581-3080 for reservations or visit www.birdlandjazz.com.

More Birdland news: Several Broadway performers will take part in Extravagainza: The Songs of Henry Gainza Aug. 11 at the famed jazz club. Expect performances by Chris Jackson (In the Heights), Janet Dacal (In the Heights), Andy Senor (Rent), Veronica Vasquez-Jackson (Nervous Records), Darius de Haas (Songs for a New World) and Tituss Burgess (Little Mermaid). Show time is 7 PM. Gainza's songs, according to press notes, offer a "musical fusion of salsa, pop and influences from the Great White Way." There is a $25 cover charge and a $10 food/drink minimum; for reservations visit www.birdlandjazz.com or call (212) 581-3080.

Complete casting was announced earlier this week for the Broadway production of Billy Elliot—The Musical, which will begin previews at the Imperial Theatre Oct. 1 with an official opening scheduled for Nov. 13. As previously reported, young actors David Alvarez, Kiril Kulish and Trent Kowalik will alternate in the musical's title role. Haydn Gwynne, who created the role of dance teacher Mrs. Wilkinson in the show's original London cast, will repeat her work for Broadway audiences. Also among the principal cast are Gregory Jbara as Dad, Tony winner Carole Shelley as Grandma and Santino Fontana as Tony. David Bologna and Frank Dolce will alternate in the role of Billy's friend Michael with Stephen Hanna as Billy's Older Self, Joel Hatch as George, Leah Hocking as Mum, Thommie Retter as Mr. Braithwaite and Erin Whyland as Debbie. For more information visit billyelliotbroadway.com.

The Kaufman Center's 2008-2009 season at Merkin Concert Hall will once again feature the acclaimed Broadway Close Up series, which presents "an inside look at the world of musical theatre" and will comprise three evenings: Jones & Schmidt, Maltby & Shire and Bound for Broadway. The season will kick off Oct. 6 at 8 PM with a tribute to the work of Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt, who are best known for their record-breaking Off-Broadway musical The Fantasticks. The evening at Merkin Concert Hall will feature lyricist Jones and host Sean Hartley as well as several performers to be announced at a later date. The work of Richard Maltby, Jr. and David Shire, whose musicals include Baby, Big and Taking Flight, will be examined Nov. 3 at 8 PM. Both Maltby and Shire will be on hand for their evening, which will also feature the duo's favorite singers. The Broadway Close Up series will conclude Dec. 8 with the annual Bound for Broadway concert. Liz Callaway will again host the evening, which will feature songs from five new musicals and interviews with the writers of these new shows. A three-concert subscription is priced $85; single tickets are $40. Visit www.merkinconcerthall.org for more information.

Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.