Firebrand put original stamp on 'West Side Story' role

Karen Olivo was just a teenager when she took her first stab at Anita, the fiery Puerto Rican who often steals the show in productions of “West Side Story.” But her hard work paid off earlier this year, when — some 15 years after that first attempt — her portrayal of Anita in the show’s first Broadway revival since 1980 earned her a Tony as featured actress in a musical.

The role is a charmed one — it made Chita Rivera a star when the musical debuted on the Rialto in 1957, and Rita Moreno won a supporting-actress Oscar playing the part in the 1961 film version. But that history also means plenty of baggage.

“It was a question of do I really want to jump off this cliff,” Olivo says. “But when Arthur Laurents (who wrote the show’s book and directed this production) said he was dead-set on a different take on it, I thought, OK, I can do that. If you give me a blank slate, I can fill it with color.”

Her first instinct was to do the exact opposite of everything Moreno did in the film. Eventually though, she developed an original, rather than reactive, take on the character. “I tried to make Anita as much like me as possible — like an alternate-universe me,” the actress says. “Arthur gave me all the freedom in the world, and I took her everywhere my imagination would allow. I didn’t censor myself. The essence is passion. Arthur and I decided on focused energy, but also to have something boiling underneath. Anita is a roller-coaster ride and one of the best roles ever.”

Having conquered the Great White Way, Olivo is branching out. A solo album is in the works, and she’s eyeing film and TV parts as well. But no matter what the medium, Olivo remains driven by the impulses that brought her to the stage: “Is the risk really there?” she asks. “Is it such a big challenge that it would literally wake me up at night? I guess I’m a bit of a thrill seeker.”

IN A NUTSHELL

Job title: Actress

Mentors: Victoria Wuertz. “She was the first woman in the arts that believed in me and pushed me extremely hard.”

Career mantra: “You can sleep when you’re dead.”

Leisure pursuits: “Listening to my husband, Matt Kaplan, play music.”

Philanthropic passion: “I haven’t really found one that I can call my own. I’m still looking though!”

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