Karen Olivo takes on ‘tick…tick…BOOM!’

Karen Olivo has temporarily returned to New York.

Stage actress Karen Olivo, who won fame in the Broadway musical “In the Heights” and subsequently a Tony Award for her portrayal of Anita in “West Side Story,” dramatically announced last year that she had become disenchanted with show business and was relocating to Madison, Wisconsin.

She has returned to New York — temporarily — for a concert revival of “tick?tick?BOOM!,” a little-known rock musical by Jonathan Larson (“Rent”) that was produced Off-Broadway after the writer’s premature death. The three-member cast also includes Lin-Manuel Miranda (“In the Heights”) and Leslie Odom Jr. (“Smash”).

“tick?tick?BOOM!” marks the first part of City Center’s second annual Encores Off-Center series, which is dedicated to bringing back important Off-Broadway musicals.


Were you already familiar with the show?

Absolutely. When I was in “Rent,” they had a VHS tape of Jonathan Larson performing some of it and they encouraged us to watch it so we could become more familiar with him. He performed it as a solo piece. A one-man block show.


How does “tick?tick?BOOM!” compare with “Rent”?

It was the first conversation he wanted to have about what it’s like to be an artist in New York. An aging artist. “Rent” encompassed more social issues. He sort of alludes to them in “tick?tick?BOOM!” It was unearthed after we lost Jonathan. Those who stepped in to get “tick?tick?BOOM!” performed did a really good job of staying true to him. It was fleshed out into a three person show.


What does it say about artists?

It’s a look into a maturing artist’s mind. If we could get into a writer’s head, this is what we would see. He really does allow you to sort of get in and see all the mess and the insecurities and the wild fantasies and the fears about what may not happen. It’s a really intimate and brave piece. It speaks miles about the writer he was.


Who do you play?

I play Susan, his girlfriend. There are a lot of similarities in Susan and me. There’s a wonderful lyric in one of the songs where she says “Susan longs to live by the sea ? Susan wants a family.” And that’s my life.


What made you decide to leave New York?

A lot of things about the business have been weighing on me. I’m a woman in her 30s. I’ve done lots of Broadway. I was in L.A. doing the whole pilot season and started to realize the art I wanted to make was something that would be put on hold because I was constantly asking people’s permission to make art. I decided for my own sanity and integrity I wanted to get away from the machine the business can be and really hone in on why I was doing what I was doing. Now I’m writing and teaching and doing the art I want to do in spite of not being in New York or L.A.


What’s it like to perform again with Lin-Manuel Miranda?

I’m incredibly fortunate in my relationship with him. We love collaborating with her other and hanging out. It’s going to be a bit of a homecoming in a lot of ways. During the workshop days of “In the Heights” we were really young and green and hungry and sort of learning life sessions at a staggering rate. Now we’re a bit older and seasoned and have other stuff on the horizon.


If you go: ‘tick…tick…BOOM!’ at City Center runs from June 25-28 at West 55th Street between Sixth and Seventh aves., nycitycenter.org

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