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Karen Olivo on the Playground of Murder Ballad

Tony Award winner Karen Olivo talks about creating new musicals, The Good Wife, and playing The Karate Kid's girlfriend.

Karen Olivo
© Tristan Fuge
Karen Olivo has been getting into a bar fight eight times a week at New York City Center. The actress, who won a Tony Award for her fiery performance as Anita in the 2009 Broadway revival of West Side Story, is currently starring off-Broadway in Julia Jordan and Juliana Nash's environmental rock opera Murder Ballad, which runs at Manhattan Theatre Club's Studio at Stage II through December 16.

In the show, Olivo plays Sara, a New York City woman caught up in a potentially deadly love triangle between her doting husband (played by Tony nominee John Ellison Conlee) and her alluring former flame (Tony nominee Will Swenson).

Olivo caught up with TheaterMania shortly before the show's official opening to discuss performing on the show's environmental set, working in New York and Los Angeles, and her upcoming television roles.

In this production, you're working in an environmental space, where there's no traditional stage, and you're performing directly in front of and around audience members. What's that like?

It's interesting. Normally we do a warm up. But here, those five minutes [when we enter the space] are the warm-up. This is the playground and these are the rules. It's such a strange experience, you can't act the way you normally would. It's not a proscenium, there's no fourth wall. You're struck into a space with people and you have to cohabitate [with them] for 90 minutes.

Your character, Sara, ages several decades over the course of this show. How did you approach playing this character through all of these stages of her life?

[The show] takes her from wild child to mom to middle-aged, midlife crisis, and back out the other end. Part of the reason I wanted to do this show was I knew how challenging the concept was going to be. When I read it, I thought [that] to play the role believably, I have to be in a place in my life where I kind of got Sara. I turned 36 this year, so I'm kind of in a place where Sara is. You could go for the rock star or the person who's going to be there when you're 80 years old, trying to figure out what the next 20 years are, and appreciating the last 20.

Juliana Nash, who wrote the score, doesn't have a theater background; this is her first musical. What was that like?

Because she doesn't have the theatrical background…she doesn't want you to think about the music, but she wants you to feel it in your gut and your chest…. She's not interested in how things are perceived, much more about how things are felt.

[In rehearsal], she would say ‘wow that's too theater-y.' That was informative; she didn't view this piece as a musical theater rock opera… the guidelines were thrown to the side..she was like ‘this is an experience' and that was really liberating. [Director] Trip Cullman is ridiculously inventive and so open. It was a really cool process.

Is there any chance of a cast album?

We are trying to record the album. We're trying to figure out how to fit it into our schedules.

The show is extremely physical, and also completely sung-through. Has it gotten easier throughout previews?

No. It has gotten more and more difficult because of fatigue. I don't do anything other than come home and get ready to do it again. We all kind of know that we're doing something that hasn't been done before. We know that it's completely out of the box, and that sort of fuels us. We just had a six-show weekend. We know this is crazy, and we're the only ones doing this, so we better do it right.

Are you planning on staying in New York after the Murder Ballad run or are you going back to L.A.?

Right now I don't have any plans to stay; I'm going back to L.A. for pilot season. I moved my whole life out there. But I'll be back. New York is my home.

Can you talk a little about the Fugitive Songs album? What was your favorite part of recording that?

I love Chris Miller and Nathan Tysen. I've always been a huge fan of their music. When they asked me to do it, I felt like I finally made it. It was the biggest joy. I'm really surprised that people are not commissioning things from them all the time. They just don't know how to do anything poorly. I'm glad that I got in on the ground floor before they blow up.

You're reprising your role as Giada Cabrini on The Good Wife. Do you have anything else coming up on TV?

My Good Wife episode airs on November 18 and I just did a Lifetime movie called Holiday Spin with Ralph Macchio right before I came here [that airs the same night, November 18]. It's about ballroom dancing, and I play Ralph Macchio's girlfriend.

Click here for more information and tickets to Murder Ballad.

Click here for TheaterMania's review of Murder Ballad.

Click here for TheaterMania's review of Fugitive Songs.