The windows are open in a house on Madison's west side. They frame a quiet, peaceful neighborhood. Then out of nowhere comes the vocal wallop of the Tony Award-winning singer and actress.
This isn't a show tunes album or a Broadway broadcast on the radio. It's a live performance by Karen Olivo, a Broadway star who recently moved to Madison from New York City. Known for originating the role of Vanessa in the groundbreaking musical In the Heights, she was also named best female dancer on Broadway in 2008. She then received a Tony the following year for portraying Maria in a revival of West Side Story. Surprisingly, it's the only Tony awarded in the history of that show. Olivo has also appeared on the NBC show Harry's Law, which ran through May of 2012.
Olivo made headlines last year when she left behind her high-profile career. The New York Times published an article that seemed to ask why anyone, especially a successful Broadway actress, would leave New York for Madison.
To be fair, Olivo may have begun the controversy. In March 2013, she announced on her blog that she was "starting over... by leaving behind the actor, and learning how to be me." But Olivo hasn't really left her art behind. She's found more ways to express it. Aside from working on a new album and a sold-out cabaret-style show (Overture Center, Nov. 20), she's been writing. Her first writing project, a collaborative piece with Theatre LILA, was September's Suitcase Dreams. Fittingly, it was about transitions.
Olivo calls writing "wonderful and alienating," and recalls doing a lot of it as a young person. But when she took up acting and moved to New York, she lost the title of author.
"In New York, no one would ever look at me as a writer. I allowed my desire to do it to fall by the wayside," she says.
So Suitcase Dreams was a big achievement, even if it was in a small city.
The road to Rent
Olivo was born in the South Bronx and grew up in central Florida. She remembers the orange groves and trailer parks. But her most vivid early memories are of New York: sledding in Central Park, going to Yankee Stadium, seeing movies at the Ziegfeld Theater. Even then, she knew she'd return to New York. "My parents encouraged it," Olivo says. "They knew that as an artist you eventually have to venture to New York City to try it out big."
Olivo's parents were artists, too. She credits them with introducing her to the stage. Her father started a theater company through a local church when she was 6. It was easier to put her on stage than hire a nanny. Dad busied himself with scenic design and directing, while Olivo's mother, an aspiring fashion designer, created the costumes and worked as the stage manager. All of her siblings did shows. But Olivo was the only one who stuck with it.
Eventually, she did make it back to New York via Ohio. A teacher recognized her talent and encouraged her to go to college, something Olivo says didn't interest her at all. The teacher suggested the University of Cincinnati's College Conservatory of Music, where Olivo could concentrate exclusively on music and the stage, the things she loved best. She gave it a try, but before she graduated, fate intervened.
The Rent soundtrack was released Olivo's junior year. Enthralled, she listened to it over and over. Then she and a friend decided to see the show in New York, sleeping outside for two days straight to get tickets. Once she saw the show, she was hooked.
"I knew right away this was all I wanted to do," she says.
A few months later, the show had an open call. Olivo returned to school and trained for the audition. Ambition collided with opportunity, and Olivo was cast as a swing. She left for New York.
"When you're that age, you don't really understand the enormity of things. But I did understand that it was unlikely that something like that could happen," Olivo says. "But then I didn't expect to get into college, either."
Getting cast in Rent reinforced her strong work ethic more than it made her feel like a star. She stuck to a dogged approach for years, working tirelessly with one eye fixed on the next opportunity. She wasn't content to remain in what industry friends called "a government job," an ongoing Broadway gig that guaranteed a paycheck. She yearned to originate a production and help build it from the ground floor. After a run in Brooklyn: The Musical, she auditioned for Lin-Manuel Miranda's In the Heights.
"The moment I heard the music, I thought, 'I'm doing that.' Kind of the same way I felt with Rent," Olivo recalls.
Featuring in West Side Story followed, and Olivo managed to appear on the CBS hit The Good Wife during the same period.
"Working both jobs was crazy," she admits, "but I had to do it. There's just no saying no to something like that."
But eventually, she did say no. Living in New York, paying steep bills, shuffling back and forth to Los Angeles and constantly auditioning began to weigh her down.
"I didn't feel in control anymore," she says. "I was basically a gun for hire. You can't be an artist unless you've lived, and my life was stunted because I was chasing after work constantly."
Reinvention and romance
One day Olivo had an epiphany.
"I realized I could start my life over and make all the art I wanted, be in charge of it, and still have all the things that couldn't be afforded when I was hustling," she says.
Enter Madison or, rather, James Uphoff, a Broadway sound tech who grew up in Fitchburg. He and Olivo fell in love, which meant trips to Madison. Uphoff introduced Olivo to the city by taking her to the downtown farmers' market.
"That kind of sealed it," she recalls. "I was pretty sure this place had to be great if he decided to move here, but once I got here I [saw] it's a little bit of a jewel. I'm really lucky to be let in on the secret."
Uphoff also exposed Olivo to Madison's theater scene, which she calls "outstanding." His sister Jennifer Uphoff Gray, artistic director of Forward Theater Company, was an excellent guide as well. After seeing her first Forward show, Olivo realized that Madison wasn't an artistic wasteland. It offered the opportunity to do quality work, experiment with new art forms, and even nurture local performers.
Since moving to Madison, teaching has become central in Olivo's life. She's taught musical theater performance at the UW and coached students at area high schools. She says she was shocked by the high quality of local talent, so much that when Overture Center vice president Tim Sauers approached her about doing a cabaret show, she insisted on using three of her UW students.
"I know I wasn't as good as these students at their age. A lot of the students I see coming through my doors will definitely be on Broadway," she says.
Olivo sees teaching as an important part of her future as well. She points out that, as a former Broadway professional, she has a valuable skill set, even though she didn't finish her college degree. Her approach includes teaching young people about the realities of auditioning and "building on [talents] they already have."
Sauers agrees that Olivo makes a unique contribution.
"Having Karen in Madison increases the artistic quality and teaching in our community. She continues to work on her career nationally, but now she's doing it from Madison instead of New York. She's a genuine person, and this comes through in her work."
Olivo says she feels more connected to theater than she ever has, and she's been able to investigate other outlets for her creativity, such as pottery. Rather than quiet that one-of-a-kind voice, she aims for the rafters as she undergoes a personal renaissance. And Madison is key to that revival.
"It's the place I feel most comfortable working it all out."