‘Bittersweet’: Broadway Latinos reflect on their Tony nominations amid shows’ shutdown

A report by Raul A. Reyes for NBC News.

“I usually do not lean too heavily into awards,” says “Moulin Rouge” star Karen Olivo, but she says attention to Broadway is important for all the artists who are struggling.

When actress Karen Olivo learned in mid-March that Broadway would be shutting down because of the coronavirus outbreak in New York City, she knew that she had to move fast.

“We were worried about not being able to get home to our family in Wisconsin,” the star of “Moulin Rouge! The Musical” recalled. “I grabbed a backpack, our dog, and we were heading out of the city in 30 minutes.” She had masks, because a friend had always urged her to have a ”go bag” ready if necessary. “He was right,” Olivo reflected.

Starting March 12, the show did not go on at “Moulin Rouge” or at any other productions — the coronavirus pandemic shut down Broadway.

Despite the uncertainty facing the industry, there was big news for Olivo on Oct.15: The Tony Award nominations were announced, and she was nominated for best performance by an actress in a leading role in a musical for her portrayal of Satine in “Moulin Rouge.”

Olivo is among an elite group of Latino Tony Award nominees, including scenic designer Riccardo Hernández (”Jagged Little Pill”), and playwright Matthew Lopez (“The Inheritance”).

This summer, both Olivo and her husband tested positive for the coronavirus and spent weeks in isolation recovering. “So getting this nomination is the definition of bittersweet,” Olivo said.

“I usually do not lean too heavily into awards. But I recognize that our industry is shut down and any kind of attention is important because there are so many artists who are struggling,” she told NBC News. “I am holding on to this recognition as an opportunity to bring more awareness to things that are often overlooked.”

Olivo is a previous Tony Award-winner for “West Side Story” (2009) and an original cast member of “In The Heights.” Olivo said she believes that people like her dresser, who helps her in and out of costume changes backstage; her standby Ashley Loren; and her hair and makeup team at the theater are the unsung heroes of Broadway.

Olivo said that she missed her “Moulin Rouge” colleagues. “When you are in a production, it becomes a surrogate family … Making art together is a beautiful experience, and our show, I realize more than ever, was part of something much bigger than just our company.”

Image: Riccardo Hernandez
Riccardo Hernandez is nominated for a Tony Award for his scenic work on Broadway’s “Jagged Little Pill.”

Olivo pointed out that arts and culture contribute $877 billionto the gross domestic product, accounting for 4.5 percent of GDP in 2017. She emphasized that Broadway’s impact reaches past performers to affect restaurants, hotels, bars and transportation services; the Broadway League estimatesthat the theater industry supports nearly 97,000 jobs.

While the 74th annual Tony Awards were scheduled to be broadcast on CBS in June, it has not yet been announced when or how the ceremony will be held. Due to the Covid-19 shutdown, some shows and performers will not be competing for the theater’s industry’s highest honor this season. The revival of “West Side Story,” with many Latinos in its diverse cast, opened in late February — a day after the cutoff for Tony Award eligibility.

In a typical Tony Awards season, nominees attend luncheons and press events. Not this year. “I am very grateful, but this is a very strange time,” Riccardo Hernández said. He was nominated, along with Lucy Mackinnon, for Best Scenic Design of a Musical for “Jagged Little Pill.”

“Instead of celebrating in person, this time has been about texting and phone calls,” he said, noting that he hasn’t seen his show’s director, lighting designer, costume designer or cast in person for months.

Born in Cuba and raised in Argentina, Hernández is an assistant adjunct professor of design at the Yale School of Drama. He has worked on Broadway, and with major opera and theater companies around the world. Acclaimed for his minimalist aesthetic, Hernández hopes that more Latinos will pursue careers in the theater, and not just on stage. “In my industry, I am the loneliest Cuban ever,” he joked.

Although Hernández is excited by his Tony nomination, he is keeping it in perspective. “It is like the critics; if I only pay attention to when others say I succeed, I am at their mercy. I do not want to be defined by critics. I’m human; if I win, I would be happy. But if I don’t win, I go on, I am still happy.”

self-described “gay Puerto Rican kid from the Florida panhandle,” Matthew Lopez was nominated for Best Play for “The Inheritance.” His epic, two-part play about the legacy of the AIDS epidemic received a total of 11 nominations.

In a statement to Playbill.com, Lopez said that the closing of Broadway theaters this year “has left us without a vital resource to gather together and examine ourselves and our nation and has reminded us just how important live theatre is to our personal and civil lives.”

Lopez stated he looked forward “to the day we can all return safely, joyfully to those sacred spaces and to tell each other stories of our lives and of our nation.”

Broadway shows are expected to be shuttered until May 2021. Yet during the pandemic, Latino artists and producers have come together in hopes of creating a more equitable theater landscape for people of color, and to use their voices for social change.

In June 2020, Olivo and fellow Broadway performer Eden Espinosafounded AFECT: Artists for Economic Transparency. Their mission is to educate people about the workings of the industry; to promote discussion of institutional biases within the industry, and to promote grassroots solutions to encourage equity and diversity in the industry. Such representation matters to Latino performers, who in 2017 accounted for just 2.5 percent of the members of the theatrical union Actors Equity.

“I feel like it is almost a calling,” Olivo said. “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 know in my heart that an informed industry is the best way to combat racial and fiscal inequity.” On social media, AFECT has explained the differences in how nonprofit and commercial theaters operate, and informed followers about proposed legislation to help artists.

Olivo is optimistic that Broadway and the theater industry will ultimately rebound. “There will be a renaissance, I believe. There are people working behind the scenes to make real change in our field, and I support that.”

“When theater returns, the way we view the art form will change,” she added. “There will be more opportunities for more people to tell their stories, and hopefully more people invited to the table. This foundational change is happening – and it might be the only good thing to come out of the pandemic.”

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