At the Palace Theater in New York City, the crowd cheers the loudest for Karen Olivo. She isn’t the lead of Broadway’s West Side Story revival, but as Anita, the Puerto Rican spitfire and Sharks gang girl originally played by Chita Rivera in the 1957 musical (and Rita Moreno four years later in the film version), she’s the one the audience jump to their feet for. Rather than replicate those earlier famous versions of her character in the Romeo and Juliet–esque 1950s love story, Olivo was encouraged by author and director Arthur Laurents to make the part her own. “He told me, ‘Anita comes onstage, hits a home run, then goes backstage and rests until she comes back and hits another one,’ ” she explains before a matinee. “I’m lucky I got the role.” And Sunday night she proved it’s not just luck: Olivo won the Tony for best performance by a featured actress in a musical.
Olivo, who’s imbued Anita with strength, sexiness and humor, started training nearly two decades ago at the Lois Cowles Harrison Center for the Visual and Performing Arts in Lakeland, Fla. “I was 15, playing Anita and doing my best Rita Moreno impersonation because I didn’t have any life experience,” says Olivo, 32. Born to a Native American and Puerto Rican father and a Chinese and Dominican mother—and often teased for her indeterminate beauty—Olivo relocated from the South Bronx to central Florida when she was 8. “My parents spoke Spanish, but we weren’t encouraged to speak it,” recalls the second-oldest of four. “They wanted us to own the fact that we were American.” She now taps into her upbringing as the unapologetically Americanized Anita, who reverts to her Spanish-speaking roots only when tragedy strikes.
Olivo landed her first role on Broadway—and met her husband, actor Matt Caplan—as an understudy in Rent the summer before her senior year at the College-Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati. Brooklyn, The Musical followed in 2004. Last year’s leading role in the Tony Award–winning In the Heights, set in NYC’s Washington Heights barrio, brought with it a newfound awareness of her heritage. “Wearing that feeling of pride is something important that I never experienced in my childhood,” Olivo says. “I’m glad that at this age I can still learn about my culture.” And, hopefully, she’ll never stop.