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Broadway's Karen Olivo steps away from 'Moulin Rouge,' says theater needs 'integrity'

The Latina actress said building a better industry "is more important than putting money in pockets," citing as "unacceptable" alleged reports of abusive behavior by a noted producer.
Karen Olivo at an event in New York in 2018.
Karen Olivo at an event in New York in 2018.Walter McBride / WireImage file

One of Broadway's top Latina actresses shocked New York City’s theater world by announcing that she will not be returning to a hit musical when Broadway performances resume. Karen Olivo, a Tony Award nominee for the role of Satine in “Moulin Rouge! The Musical” posted a five-minute Instagram video on Wednesday, explaining her decision not to come back to the show (performances of “Moulin Rouge” are currently suspended due to the pandemic). 

“I don’t need to be on stage, I need to be out here. People are more important than your pocketbook,” Olivo stated in the video. “That’s it, that’s all that needs to be said from here on out. I value humanity more...I want a theater industry that matches my integrity.” Olivo cited recent reports about producer Scott Rudin’s allegedly violent and abusive behavior towards his staff members as “unacceptable.”

Olivo won a 2009 Tony Award for a revival of “West Side Story,” and has appeared in Broadway shows like “In the Heights,” “Rent,” and “Brooklyn: The Musical.” She is currently living and teaching in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and their family.

Although Rudin is not a producer of “Moulin Rouge,” he is a major force on Broadway and has produced such shows as “To Kill A Mockingbird,” “Hello Dolly” and the upcoming revival of “The Music Man.”

“Social justice is actually more important than being the sparkling diamond,” Olivo declared in their video, referencing a song from “Moulin Rouge.” “Building a better industry is more important than putting money in my pockets.” She noted that many of their colleagues in the industry seem to be “scared” and are not speaking out about injustice. As of Thursday, less than 24 hours after it was posted, Olivo's video had racked up nearly 163,000 views.

Actor Mauricio Martinez, who has starred in “On Your Feet!” on Broadway, has also called out the theater industry on social media for its silence on Rudin’s behavior. “Disheartening to witness most of the entertainment industry be silent about a producer who was exposed for abusing & sometimes physically assaulting his employees. It’s almost as if assistants aren't worth anything in your estimation as long as you keep living your dreams,” he tweeted on April 8.

It is both unusual and bold for an actress of Olivo’s stature to voluntarily step away from commercial theater. According to a 2017 report from Actors Equity, the union for theater professionals, Latinos account for just 2.5 percent of the union’s membership.

Olivo is no stranger to activism. In 2020, she and fellow Broadway performer Eden Espinoza founded AFECT: Artists for Economic Transparency. Their mission is to educate audiences about the workings of the theater industry, to promote discussions of institutional biases within the industry, and to encourage diversity and inclusion in the industry. “I feel like (activism) is almost a calling,” Olivo told NBC News in 2020. “We are in this strange moment in the theater, and at least we should use this time to think about ways we can equalize the playing field for everybody. I now in my heart that an informed industry is the best way to combat racial and fiscal inequity.”

In a statement, the producers of Moulin Rouge said: “Moulin Rouge! The Musical is forever indebted to Karen Olivo’s artistry, passion, and craft in creating the role of Satine on stage. We applaud and support Karen’s advocacy work to create a safe, diverse, and equitable theater industry for all... We wish Karen great success, and above all, love.”

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