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Q & A: Caroline O’Connor

Published 27 September 2010

Globetrotting musical theatre star Caroline O’Connor has starred in shows in the West End, on Broadway and across the world. Now she is back in London with a special show celebrating her passion for musicals, she tells Matthew Amer…

CV in brief:

1994 Played Anita in West Side Story in Melbourne
1996 Played Mabel in Mack and Mabel at the Piccadilly theatre
1998 Played Velma Kelly in Australian production of Chicago
2001 Played Nini-Legs-In-The-Air in Moulin Rouge
2001 Starred in Melbourne Theatre Company production of Piaf
2002 Played Velma Kelly in Broadway production of Chicago
2005 Played Judy Garland in End Of The Rainbow
2005 & 2007 Played Hildy Esterhazy in English National Opera production of On The Town
2010 Stars in Caroline O’Connor: The Showgirl Within at the Garrick theatre

What can people expect from the show?
There are a lot of well-known musical theatre numbers. That’s my thing. I love those women. I’m inspired by those women – Shirley Maclaine and Chita Rivera and Debbie Reynolds – people who did their own shows and incorporated all of the elements into it rather than just singing with a band, although I do enjoy that. My agent and other friends and colleagues coerced me into doing something a little bit more, so I thought why not.

I do try, when I’m putting a show together, to think what the audience would like, not just what I would like to do, because I really want to make them happy. I choose material that I really enjoy performing. That way I feel like I can hopefully present it in the best way possible.

Where did the show’s name come from?
I actually didn’t name the show The Showgirl Within, it was named by my producers, but I suppose it’s true. That’s what’s within me, I suppose, a showgirl. I love shows. If you name a show I can probably sing the score and I’ll show you the choreography I did in my lounge room.

I love all the old divas. The funny thing is I suppose I want to bring them back to life because as a child I used to be totally in awe. I suppose other kids were listening to the album of Popcorn and Status Quo and the Beatles and I was listening to Ethel Merman doing Gypsy.

Growing up in Australia we were very lucky if we saw maybe two musicals a year. When I came to England I thought I’d landed in a sweet shop; I was walking down Shaftesbury Avenue with tears rolling down my face. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Do people know this is all here? My journey here was going to be an experimental learning couple of years and it’s ended up a lifetime.

You are more used to playing characters in a show, is it different being a headline act?
When I saw that poster I almost died. I never wanted to see my comedy face that big on a poster ever, because I’ve always played characters, I’ve never really wanted to play myself. I’m hired primarily as a character actress; I love doing accents and doing all the research into roles, what was it like living then, how did people behave and speak and dress. I just find the whole process really interesting. So the first time someone approached me about doing a show like this I thought ‘I don’t think so’ because I’d have to open up too much about myself. I think you do have to share a certain amount.

Do you enjoy chatting to the audience?
That’s been really interesting, not having the fourth wall. I really love it because, I must admit, I do prefer working in theatres where you feel their presence and you hear their reactions and you play with them in the dark. When you’re doing a show like this you can actually communicate with them, if they have something to say or if you feel the moment. It’s a bit freer and very, very interesting to me. At first it was terrifying and as time went by I thought ‘You know what, this is a lovely feeling, that all these people have come in, bought their tickets and now they can really get to know you.’

You have performed all over the world, do you have a favourite place to be?
I worked in Paris doing On The Town at the Châtelet theatre and I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. There was something about that place, being in Paris. Years ago I did Piaf and became quite obsessed with the research on that. Recently I went back to Paris again and finally got to go and see Piaf’s grave at Père Lachaise and went and did a tour of the Paris Opera House. I don’t know why I feel connected to the place, I just love it. I’ve only worked there once.

Where do you call home these days?
I have a home here in England, in Surrey, in Kenley. We’ve had that house probably since the mid to late 80s. I was doing Budgie at the time and my husband was doing a show. We thought ‘We’re laughing, let’s get a mortgage.’ They both closed within a week of each other and we thought ‘What the hell are we going to do now? We’re going to lose this house.’ Somehow we managed to maintain it and we still have that lovely home. And we have a place in Sydney. We live in Australia as well. They couldn’t be further apart. They could not be more different and I like it that way.

You originally trained as a dancer, why did you move into musical theatre?
Originally I wanted to be a really good classical dancer, but I just did not have the facility for it. I was actually in a ballet company in Australia, with the Australian Opera. I was working with another actor, a wonderful Australian actor, Anthony Warlow. We were doing The Bartered Bride and they were auditioning for a dancer/singer for Oklahoma! I said to him ‘I’m thinking of going to this audition,’ because I’d always had a love of musicals, that was my secret passion. He said to me ‘I reckon you should go to that audition, because I think you’ve got a bit too much personality for the ballet.’ I remember that line. He changed my life because I thought you know what, I do too.

They should never have let me in a musical. I have not shut up since. I just fell in love. This is where I belong. I really didn’t have any intention of being the big leading lady or anything, never thought I’d be in movies or anything like that. I always just loved being on the stage and singing and dancing and showing off.

What advice would you give to young performers?
If I’m asked to speak to young students – which I try not to do too often because I don’t want to act as if I know everything. I don’t, I don’t think you can plan anything about our industry – I say, ‘If you get offered something take it, learn from it, stand in the wings, watch everything, be interested.’ I’m still learning today. Every day you should continue to learn.

Also, everyone takes everything so personally and it’s not, it’s professional. Everybody goes ‘Oh, they didn’t like me’. No, it’s just on this particular occasion for this job, you weren’t right for it. I’ve had jobs where I wasn’t pretty enough, not tall enough, not young enough, not old enough… Go into class and when you’re criticised don’t get hurt, because it’s professional, they’re telling you because they want you to be better.

Do you have a highlight of your career?
Being cast in Moulin Rouge was a wonderful highlight. I’ve always loved musical films, but I never thought I’d be in one. I used to watch them and think wouldn’t it be wonderful to be Debbie Reynolds or Judy Garland, that’s their job, to go and do that all day every day. I thought that would never happen to me, I was born in the wrong era. I really was. Then that came along out of the blue.

Also I’ve been lucky enough to work in a room with Kander and Ebb, in a room with Jerry Herman, in a room with Ann Reinking, in a room with terrific directors and choreographers over the years. With people like Joel Grey.

Taking a bow in a line next to Chita Rivera [at the 10th anniversary concert of the Broadway production of Chicago] will be a highlight with me forever. Watching her come up out of that box and seeing an audience go nuts at the anniversary concert was, to me, one of the highlights of my whole life because I adore her and she’s been an incredible inspiration to many singers and dancers. She came up to me after I did my number – I did Velma Takes The Stand – she came up to me front of house and said ‘I would love to teach you the original choreography.’ I was like ‘Yes, what time? Let’s go!’

What’s the best thing about being on stage for you?
It’s a kind of a rush because of the music. When you hear a band with you and you’re moving and singing and there’s lights shining, it’s like my drug. It’s my drug of choice.

I also think it can be very difficult. The only way I can describe it is sometimes it’s like a really fabulous affair that you shouldn’t be having because you know you’re going to get hurt. The highs are really, really high, but then you might get hurt. So you take the risk by being in the business because of the wonderful love affair that it is. It sounds a bit soppy but it’s the only way I can describe it.

MA

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