Madison’s Karen Olivo lands ‘Hamilton’ role

When Broadway star Karen Olivo first saw Hamilton, she knew she would jump at the chance to play one of the show’s three female roles. Her leap finally took place this past July when Olivo, a Madison resident since 2013, was cast as Angelica Schuyler in the upcoming Chicago production of the award-winning Broadway hit.

Hamilton opens in preview performances Sept. 27 at the PrivateBank Theatre in Chicago’s Loop. In addition to Olivo, the cast for the award-winning hip-hop-infused musical includes Miguel Cervantes as Alexander Hamilton, Joshua Henry as Aaron Burr and Ari Afsar as Eliza Hamilton.

Olivo, who won a Tony Award for the role of Anita in the 2009 Broadway revival of West Side Story, already had a special link to the show and its creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda — a connection that made her a natural fit for the culturally diverse cast.

“I was working on an album a few years back and I sent Lin a set of lyrics and asked him to write a song for me,” says Olivo, who had originated the role of Vanessa and performed opposite Miranda in his 2008 Broadway hit show In the Heights. She also appeared with the actor/writer in the 2014 revival of Rent creator Jonathan Larson’s tick, tick…BOOM!

Olivo’s lyrics, entitled “Next Life,” were about a woman who couldn’t be with the person she loved and promised to do so in her next life. Miranda obliged, providing Olivo with a lovely melody for her bittersweet lament. Unfortunately, the album was never completed.

A few years later, as Miranda was involved in his six-year creation of Hamilton, he asked for his song back.

“Lin wanted to use the melody in the show, and the lovely piano arpeggio that Angelica sings became the song ‘Satisfied,’” Olivo says. “That’s how I knew what role I wanted to play in Hamilton, because that was originally my song.”

Olivo also admires the character of Angelica, the oldest of the three Schulyer sisters and sister-in-law to Alexander Hamilton, who marries Angelica’s sister Eliza. The character has a fiery nature and is Hamilton’s intellectual equal, a role that perfectly suits the actor.

“Angelica is someone who seems troubled and encumbered by the choices she’s made in life, and even though there is less material for the part, she seemed the most interesting of the three women,” Olivo says. “I have two younger siblings and have already played that role.”

Angelica also has her own romantic relationship with Hamilton through the letters they exchange. After Hamilton is killed in his duel with Aaron Burr, she joins her newly widowed sister to champion Hamilton’s legacy.

“Even though she went on to marry someone else, Angelica never lost her flame for Hamilton,” Olivo says. “This is a woman who was severely dedicated to her family and their happiness and it colors every decision she makes. So much so that she spends her life in love with someone she can never have — Alexander Hamilton.”

The prosaic back-story of Hamilton belies its massive success. Miranda, taking a vacation after In the Heights won its four Tony Awards, happened upon Ron Chernow’s biography Alexander Hamilton in an airport bookstore. After a few chapters, he was convinced of the subject’s potential for a Broadway show, and eventually Chernow himself became a consultant for the production.

Hamilton, originally conceived as a mixtape, was nominated this year for 16 Tony Awards, winning 11, including Best Musical. It also won the 2016 Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album and the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. President Barack Obama is a huge fan of the show, and Miranda himself performed selections from Hamilton in the White House for Obama and his family.

‘Vocally demanding’

Olivo says the rehearsals have been challenging both vocally and physically, especially given the sheer volume of words the show’s hip-hop style involves.

Hamilton boasts 20,000 words, or 144 words for every one minute of stage time, according to the website FiveThirtyEight. The lyrics for the song “Guns and Ships” clock in at 6.3 words per second, the website adds.

“All theater is challenging, but this show is incredibly vocally demanding,” Olivo says. ”I have never had to sing songs with so many words and plot points. We’re stretching the art form and using rap and hip-hop to tell Alexander Hamilton’s life story.”

Hip-hop is a musical form that’s very versatile and variable. Moreover, it builds on a base that is perfectly suited for musical theater, Olivo says.

“Before Hamilton there was a huge misconception about hip-hop, which first and foremost comes from a storytelling tradition,” Olivo says. “Sometimes it does feel like I am learning to sing in another language, but I don’t think learning this show was any harder that if I had learned, say, Carmen.”

As to the culturally diverse casting for a time period when the fledgling country’s power brokers were white Europeans, Olivo feels that it creates a new tradition and is well in keeping the current American landscape.

“I do know that this cast represents the fabric of our country,” says Olivo, whose father is Puerto Rican and Native American and whose mother is Dominican and Chinese. “Whether or not we see people of color depicted as founding fathers is one thing, but the cast members are the people who make up our country today.”

On Stage

Hamilton opens for preview performances Sept. 27 at PrivateBank Theatre, 18 W. Monroe St., Chicago. Ticket prices run from $50 to $500 through various ticket brokers. Call the theater box office at 312-384-1500 for more information.