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‘Why am I making you money?’: Karen Olivo wants something better than Broadway

A portrait of Karen Olivo through clear glass.
Karen Olivo, the Tony-nominated actress who left Broadway this year as a political act, in Madison, Wis.
(Lianne Milton / For The Times)

Broadway may be back, but without Karen Olivo. The alum of “In the Heights” and “West Side Story” announced her exit from the musical adaptation of “Moulin Rouge!” in April as a response to the industry’s relative silence about producer Scott Rudin‘s alleged abusive workplace behavior.

Before the Tony Awards, airing Sunday on CBS and Paramount+, Olivo gets candid about her painful Tony-nominated performance in the stage spectacular, leaving a production amid a pandemic and empowering fellow artists and arts workers to get savvier about the inequities of the theater business. The conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

What drew you to the “Moulin Rouge!” role?

I was leaving “Hamilton” at the time in Chicago because my dream job of a professorship had materialized at Northwestern. But in that process, this audition came up. It’s one of my favorite movies, and they wanted Satine to have more grit, to be a sex worker and someone who is a fighter. I realized I had never really done a role that uses my entire skill set before, and every single bit of comedic timing, vocal training, dance, every tool I had was going to be utilized in this one role.

It was a challenge to be in my 40s, originating a lead in a musical. I thought, I owe it to myself to see if I can carry a show. I worked with some incredible people, and because there are so many technical components, everyone really has to work together closely to make sure it gets off the ground every night, and it’s gratifying when it does. But it was a real endurance test and, looking back, it was not healthy. I don’t know why I was trying to prove that I could do that.

How so?

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To fit into some of those costumes, I really did have to become a smaller version of myself. I’m someone who enjoys eating, and I did not allow myself for so much of the three years it took to make it. I’m also onstage for most of the show and, because of all the singing and dancing, I have to drink water, which means I have to use the restroom. But they couldn’t figure out a time in the show for me to do that. So I spent almost two years, through off-Broadway and then on Broadway, holding my urine, which I now have issues with. At the time, I thought, maybe I just need to tough it out. Now, I can be holding my urine for so long and not know it that when I do know it and it’s time to go, it’s almost too late.

I was also told by a producer not to talk about how difficult the costume changes were. The reality of it is that quick changes are hard — and these are corsets! Have you seen that video footage of Kelli O’Hara doing a costume change? They highlighted it because it’s incredible, it’s seconds and it’s done. But that really does speak to the power dynamics and trying to control the narrative at all times, regardless of what the reality of the situation is.

When did the inkling to leave “Moulin Rouge!” begin?

When everything shut down, I had gotten COVID — luckily, it didn’t put me in the hospital and I only had two days that were kind of scary. But I went to a building, I did something in good faith, and there was no one checking up on us. It’s another instance of how the industry doesn’t take care of its own, even though we’re “family.” It only shows up when the cameras are on or when it’s time to fundraise. In the year of community organizing during the shutdown, I realized I can actually help my industry in a different way, by caring about the people who are suffering in silence, because we can’t go back to the way it was.

Then, there was the complete and utter silence from my industry. I’m a survivor of assault and sexual abuse, and I was like, I’m not going to say yes to an industry that can’t stand up for survivors. These are people from inside our industry, who were courageous enough to speak up! Something really shifted in me.

Karen Olivo and Aaron Tveit in a scene from "Moulin Rouge!" with a "L'Amour" sign and a full moon in the background.
Karen Olivo as Satine and Aaron Tveit as Christian in “Moulin Rouge!” on Broadway.
(Matthew Murphy)

Plus, when it came time to make offers to go back, they offered the same amount of money, and the same amount of rehearsal time. This is the hardest show I’ve ever done. I was like, who’s gonna remount it in six weeks? This robot that you built to look like me? I can’t. I was like, you don’t really mean you want to take care of us. You want to get us to the stage so that you can keep making money or start to make some of the money that you lost. I was like, I’m good. I’m out.

There’s no malice at all toward the cast or crew, and Natalie Mendoza, who is taking over for Satine, is a gorgeous light of a human being. But the commercial theater system itself is something I can’t endorse.

Why make the announcement via Instagram Live?

It was because they wanted to control the narrative yet again. They were like, “Can you just not say anything? And let us control it?” But I was making a personal decision about what this industry means to me and what it can’t mean to me anymore. And you want to control it for your pocketbook? No. So I went live.

I recognize that I have the privilege of being able to walk away — I’m lucky enough to have a partner whose job has been stable, I moved to Madison [Wisconsin] and decided that I can live with a smaller amount of money. A lot of people are not in a place where they can risk everything, flip their life completely upside down and try something else. But it’s also scary when being on a stage is the only thing you know how to do.

It’s a bold statement. How have you felt about it since?

Doing that drew a line in the sand for me and a lot of people in the industry. I don’t want to use the word “lost” because I realized now I never had some people in my corner, in terms of friends or supporters. But a lot of people can’t watch someone do something that they’re afraid to even admit to themselves. It’s been isolating because it drives a wedge between me and those who can’t have this conversation.

But I’ve found a completely different group of people who will support me in the good times and the bad. My colleagues in grass-roots organizations have been incredible. And my students are wonderful. They’ve shown me that I have so many more tools than I thought I did, and now I’m getting to wield them all for anyone who wants it, whether you’re a student at a college where I’m teaching or someone who gets in my DMs because they want to get something changed in their school board.

You made your Broadway debut in 1996. What do you think sparked your disillusionment with commercial theater?

I’ve always had a tugging that this is not a good relationship. I mean, wonderful things can happen: go to the White House, sing for Obama, win a Tony [for 2009’s “West Side Story”], all of these things that you’re like, “Oh my God, is this my life?”

I put it all on pause for a minute before, after I finished negotiating my own contract for the show “Murder Ballad.” Its first incarnation had already taken so much out of me, I was taking home maybe $300 weekly. Then they were like, “We want to remount it in a bigger place and make more money.” I was like, “Cool, but from a business perspective, I need to make sure that I’m going to make money because it costs me so much to do it.” I got the company members to basically “Friends” the negotiations, which doesn’t happen in our industry: “There are only four of us, they can’t do it without us, let’s build something that we can be proud of.”

It was in that negotiation where I got to see how I was spoken about by these people who needed what I was going to give them. I started thinking, why am I making you money? Why would I give my art to people whose integrity doesn’t match my own?

Karen Olivo accepts her 2009 Tony Award.
Karen Olivo won the Tony Award in 2009 for her performance as Anita in “West Side Story.”
(Andrew H. Walker / Getty Images)

Will you be attending the Tonys?

I made a choice not to be a part of the Tony Awards. If I thought for a second that Broadway was in a place of real transformation in policy and structure and transference of wealth, and not just putting out statements or changing one tiny little thing or putting a handful of people who look a certain way in positions of power, great. But none of those things have actually happened.

Truthfully, this is a really hard week for me because “Moulin Rouge!” [14 nominations, including best musical] is also opening. My husband said, “You broke up with your boyfriend, and now he’s dating someone else. And you just you have to kind of watch them and now they’re engaged, and they’re gonna get married.” It’s harder than I thought. Because at my core, it is the medium that I love. I’m trying to be really graceful with myself this week.

Are you gonna watch the ceremony, at least?

I think I’m gonna pass on it. What can it do for me? I think it’ll just be a source of pain. I’m sure there are plenty of great performances and especially for people who were just nominated and really want to believe in that, this is gonna be the pinnacle of everything. But I think I’m going to be nice to myself and let it go and give myself some peace. There’s a really good Chinese food place around here. They make some hand-pulled noodles. It might be just a whole spread.

What advice do you have for those who choose to remain in the Broadway system, for whatever reason?

I can’t fault them because I don’t know their life or their circumstances. I do mourn for them, though. I’ve been in this business for a long time, so I don’t want anyone to ever have to go through what I went through. So when I see someone stepping back into a relationship in which they’re undervalued, where the same BS is happening, it shows me that they don’t know how much they’re worth. It makes me sad when people don’t see that it can’t happen without them.

I want people to be educated enough so that they’re making choices based off of what they know rather than what someone told them. Know what you’re getting into. It’s a business, so act accordingly. You want to get in the ring, know you’re probably going to get hit and it’s not going to feel good. And if you don’t want to get hit, then you need to be strategic. We keep believing that Broadway is the center of theater when it’s really a real estate game, because some of the greatest theater never even made it to those stages. Don’t go in there being like, all my dreams are gonna come true, and I’m gonna be a better actor because now I’m on Broadway. It doesn’t happen like that. It needs to be, I need to know more about it if I’m going to navigate it properly or else I’m going to get taken for a ride.

Karen Olivo points to herself.
“Because at my core, it is the medium that I love,” says Karen Olivo of the stage.
(Lianne Milton / For The Times)

For an actor, what does that look like?

What we do is such a strange thing. You’re baring your soul over and over again at a ridiculous rate. You sign up to be shot out of a cannon every single night. There’s a business component that preys on the idea that you have to love this thing to do it. What we forget early on is that we’re groomed to not listen to ourselves, to not discuss money, to not be a problem. So a lot of the work I’m doing now [with AFECT, a nonprofit founded with Eden Espinosa] has to do with intrinsic value, which is something we’ve lost. You can’t talk about your worth in dollars and cents if you don’t know your worth on another level.

What’s fascinating is that the people who make these decisions, who dictate these structures in which we work, are the people who put the money upfront, but they never do the work. I mean, they just happen to have money that they can put into this place. And when the worker is like: “Hey, you know what, if you change this, if you let me have that meal there, I’d be able to work harder, faster, better.” But they still don’t listen, they push hard and they don’t want to hear about how hard it is because they don’t want to feel bad. There are plenty of people who I would gladly work for, but those people treat me like an equal and listen to me when I say, “This might be too much for me.”

For those who love theater, whether they’re buying Broadway tickets or even just watching the Tonys, do you hope they do so with a grain of salt?

Look, I’m not going to tell people to not enjoy live, commercial theater. That’s just never going to happen, right? People live and breathe it. But I would hope that they cared about the person who is giving them their all for three hours and was doing things that made your jaw drop, what it takes for them to do that and how they’re being treated. And sometimes that means you do a little bit more digging. Our audience needs to be a little bit more educated, and that’s the way we change the market. I mean, we see it all the time: When a company is doing something unethical, people are like, Why are we buying that? I mean, people turned on Goya in two seconds, right? Why would I give you my money?

If we’re gonna be smarter consumers, your job is to figure out where your money’s going to go. Because if people were actually honest about the things that happen, then maybe you’d look at a stage and really ask yourself, Is this still entertaining if I know all of the things happening in the background? Am I going to give up my enjoyment so that you can have your humanity? That’s a question for the person who buys the ticket. I can’t answer that for you. I just know how it falls on me. I know what I’m going to look for and how I’m going to spend my money if I go to the theater.

Would you ever go back to it all again — maybe for a specific role?

I can’t say that I won’t work in New York or in commercial theater ever again. If I do, you’ll know I’ve vetted it properly and I’m working with people that I trust. If I’m stepping onstage, it’s going to be for a much bigger picture.

And like, I’m trying to spend my time figuring out how I can be a better human, rather than how can I sing eight times a week. What role could be better than the one that I’m creating right now?


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