“Shut up and dance with me,” Karen Olivo says, grabbing Aaron Tveit’s arm before launching into a familiar Top 40 hit with an identical hook. The two, now starring as Satine and Christian in Broadway’s Moulin Rouge!, radiate energy on the Al Hirschfeld Theatre stage as if they’ve been stockpiling it. In some ways, they have.
“We were actually laughing about that the other day. We couldn’t believe it,” Tveit tells Playbill amid previews of the new musical. The actor was last on Broadway in 2011 in Catch Me If You Can. Olivo, meanwhile, hasn’t hit the Main Stem since winning a Tony in 2009 for West Side Story.
The two have been busy, of course, and didn’t abandon performing altogether. Tveit starred in USA’s Graceland and brought musicals to the screen with Les Misérables and Fox’s Grease Live!. Following her Tony win, Olivo starred in Murder Ballad Off-Broadway before relocating to Madison, Wisconsin, later appearing in the Chicago sit-down of Hamilton and a mounting of West Side Story at the Salzburg Festival.
“I always think if you can, spend a little bit of time away from the theatre. When you decide to come back, you’re that much more of a rich performer...you have a completely different perspective,” explains Olivo. The artist announced she was stepping away from the theatre scene in 2013 as a way of “starting over” and to focus on personal desires. She may have left New York, but she didn’t leave art. She taught; she wrote; she sold whimsical pottery on Etsy.
“I got to do so many other things. I got to be a regular person—a ‘civilian,’ as we like to say.” (Few others could call starring in Hamilton and an international production of West Side Story the "civilian" life.)
Still, the lights of Broadway hit a particular way—especially at the Moulin Rouge, where audiences are greeted with towering red neon and an illuminated windmill. “There’s nothing like getting up on stage and doing work in front of an audience. This is the dream, right?” Tveit says, posing the question to Olivo.
He continues talking to her: “I don’t know if you noticed; I actually had a moment [at the] invited dress. I sang, ‘My gift is my song,’ and I almost couldn’t sing after that. I was overwhelmed. I let myself think about where I was—on stage—and it was incredible. It’s incredible to be back.”
“I noticed,” Olivo assures him. “It was beautiful.”