Although born in the UK, actress-singer-dancer Caroline O'Connor was brought up in Sydney, Australia. She returned to the UK to complete her dance training at the Royal Ballet School.
O’Connor is a well-known theatre face in both the UK and Australia. Her previous UK credits have included: Romance Romance, Mack & Mabel (for which she was nominated for an Olivier Award), Me & My Girl, Cabaret, Is There Life After High School, The Rink, Lu-Lu, Matador, The Challenge, Talent, Hot Stuff, Street Scene, A Chorus Line, Showboat, West Side Story, Chicago and Salt of the Earth.
In 1994, O’Connor returned to Australia to play Anita in West Side Story, for which she won an MO Award and Melbourne's prestigious Green Room Award for outstanding performance in a musical. She reprised the role in 1996 and won the MO Award for a second time. Her performance as Velma Kelly in an Australian production of Chicago led to her reprising the role on Broadway. On screen, she’s been seen in Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge.
Last year, O’Connor returned to the UK with her Australian hit, Bombshells. Following a sell-out season at the Edinburgh Festival, where it won a Fringe First, Bombshells transferred to the West End’s Arts Theatre. For the one-woman play, a series of monologues written especially for her by Joanne Murray-Smith, O’Connor won this year’s Whatsonstage.com Theatregoers’ Choice Award for Best Solo Performance and was nominated for a Laurence Olivier Award.
O’Connor is currently appearing alongside Adam Garcia in the English National Opera revival of Leonard Bernstein’s classic Broadway musical On the Town. Directed by Jude Kelly and choreographed, the production continues in repertory until 28 May 2005.
Date & place of birth
Born 2 September 1962 in Oldham, Lancashire.
Lives now in...
We have a home here in Kenley, Surrey, that we’ve had for about 14 years. We keep threatening to sell it, but then I keep getting dragged back to London! We also have home in Woolahra in Sydney in Australia that we’ve had that for eight years, since I went back there to do Chicago. I thought I’d only be there for a year, but then Moulin Rouge happened, and I thought I should have a home there, too, again.
First big break
I was understudy to a lot of people. Just after I first arrived in London from Australia, I was second understudy for Emma Thompson in Me and My Girl and also dance captain, but I never got to go on, which was probably a good thing. Then I was in Cabaret that Gillian Lynne directed and choreographed, and I met my husband Barry Shaw whilst on tour with it – he was playing saxophone in the pit. We came to London with it, but I didn’t stay with the show for its entire run. When I was 25, I got the role of Cassie in a tour of A Chorus Line. It was amazing to work with Baayork Lee, who’d been in the original production, but the ten months we spent on the road was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done! But my big break was really Mack and Mabel. It was the first time I was offered a leading lady role as such in the West End. It was largely due to the fact that I’d worked previously with director Paul Kerryson a lot. He was a great teacher and mentor for me. He’d given me opportunities to do things at theatres he ran in Manchester and Leicester, and that’s half the battle - being given the chance in the first place, then you can see if you’re worthy of the challenge. If you don’t get that opportunity, it’s difficult to know what you’re capable of.
Mack and Mabel, of course. I loved the score so madly and getting to work with the composer of it, Jerry Herman, was a fantastic experience. I’d never seen Bernadette Peters play the role, though obviously I’d heard her on the cast album, so to be able to create that role from scratch was wonderful. Though the musical has its problems here and there, it was a terrifically entertaining show.
I also loved doing West Side Story in Australia with director Ian Judge – it was a magnificent production by IMG and Victoria State Opera, which was a bit like English National Opera putting on On the Town - it was my re-introduction to Australia after being in England for so many years. Anita is such an extraordinary role. You get to be funny, tragic, get to dance up a storm and get the great numbers in the show. I’d previously done it at Leicester, too, and had also worked with Ian Judge in Show Boat at Stratford-upon-Avon, where I took over the role of Ellie May Chipley at four days’ notice! I loved Show Boat so much, but left before it went to the West End, which was the biggest mistake of my life! I had been cast in a new stage musical, Gold Diggers, with Claire Moore and Catherine Zeta-Jones before I got Show Boat, so I felt obligated and left Show Boat, but then Gold Diggers got cancelled! I try to blank it out – it was more of a lowlight than a highlight!
The film Moulin Rouge was of course a highlight – an amazing new experience and I learnt a lot doing it. And Bombshells was very challenging thing to learn to execute eight times a week, though to have it written specially for me was a definite highlight! I was very chuffed to get the Laurence Olivier Award nomination for it and also to win the Whatsonstage.com Theatregoers’ Choice award was also very important to me, because it came from the theatregoers themselves. I’d been away from London theatre for a long time, and I felt I had to re-introduce myself to people again, so obviously I succeeded! Awards are important, because they’re a great way of raising the profile of the theatre. It doesn’t get nearly enough attention, considering it’s such a huge industry.
Favourite productions you've ever worked on
I wished that Australian production of West Side Story had come to England. It was out of this world. I’m loving doing On The Town now. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a production where there’s an orchestra and cast of that size and a role like this for me to play within it. It’s magic. I previously did Kurt Weill’s Street Scene at ENO, and working with opera companies like this is great because although I’ve been around for a long time, you learn a totally different way of working and you have to adapt.
I loved doing Piaf in Australia for the Melbourne Theatre Company. It was one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done. I had to learn to sing in French, which I didn’t know at all, so I went to a tutor for four months prior to rehearsals, and learnt 11 songs in French. Not that my French speaking has improved any, but I felt it was a huge mountain I had to climb. It was a wonderful feeling to get out on stage and be able to do that! I wanted to bring it here, but sadly Elaine Paige had already done it in the West End. I would like to return to it at some point in the future.
Then there was Chicago, which re-ignited everything for me. Occasionally in your career, you’re floating along and then something happens that makes a bang. Doing Chicago in Australia kicked off everything again for me there. I had played Roxie previously over here in productions at Leicester and in Oldham, but Ann Reinking said I was definitely a Velma, and though I was shocked when she said it, I loved the part when I did it. The demands of it physically are extraordinary, but all my life I wanted to do Fosse choreography, so I was in heaven. I just wished he were still alive – if only I could have had the chance to do a class or work with him in some way. I did it for a year in Australia, then left to do Moulin Rouge.
Then after that, I went to Broadway with Chicago. It was a great opportunity. I used to love it that every Saturday night when they did the calls they would announce, “It’s Saturday night on Broadway!” That was delightful. It was a great reminder of where I was, because when you work in a theatre, it could be a black box anywhere! And to be in a show that was that successful there, just as it was about to be released as a movie, was very exciting. I did it at the Shubert Theatre with Billy Zane for 12 weeks, then the show moved to the Ambassadors Theatre, and I carried on with Kevin Richardson for six weeks. It was a lovely long run for me. Some principals there go into it for just six weeks, so an 18-week run was fantastic. And now I have my Green Card, so if the opportunity arises to go back, I can do so!
It’s really hard – you want to say all of them! I loved working with Billy Zane. It was his first musical, and he had that wonderful, delighted excitement about being in a show for the first time. I am loving being with Adam Garcia in On the Town. He’s such a gentleman and a charming person to be around and he’s so funny! I can’t wait to see him doing a comedic role. I loved working with Charlotte d’Amboise on Broadway in Chicago. She was Roxie, and as a Roxie you don’t get much better than that. She was actually pregnant while she was doing the show and still gave a performance like you’ve never seen before. And Adam Marchant, who is a classically trained dancer from the Australian Ballet, was Bernardo opposite me in West Side Story in Australia. There’s nothing quite like dancing with a professional principal ballet dancer in that show. He also looked just like George Chakiris, so it was very easy to play opposite him!
Ian Judge, for sure. He’s tough, but I want to learn, and a director doesn’t have to be my best friend, though I do love him as a person, too. There’s nothing wrong with tough, as long as the work is good. Paul Kerryson, because he so believed in me early on, and is so generous. I did a lot of learning in those years, and I loved the way he directed. He lets you get on with it and play, and I loved his humour as well. Simon Phillips, who commissioned Bombshells to be done and directed it, and is the artistic director of Melbourne Theatre Company where we did it first. I laughed for five weeks rehearsing with him. We had so much fun in the rehearsal room, the atmosphere was perfect. And Baz Luhrmann, of course, who directed Moulin Rouge. It’s difficult to compare him to anyone, but he did such a brilliant job of bringing it to the screen. I love him for his generosity. He’s so personable and gets to know everyone, and his enthusiasm and energy is 150%.
Favourite musical writers
Kander and Ebb - I love all of their shows, but I’ve done Chicago, The Rink and Cabaret. Jerry Herman, who wrote Mack and Mabel. George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein – I’ve done concerts of both of their work with symphony orchestras in Australia. With Gershwin, it’s so hard to choose songs, there are just hundreds. And with Bernstein, he’s so dramatically and emotionally brilliant, he was a genius.
I have to say Joanna Murray-Smith, who wrote Bombshells, because of her generosity. Of playwrights whose work I’ve not done, I love Alan Bennett’s pieces – I hope to live long enough to do some of his things - and Tennessee Williams. I read a lot of plays, and it’s my fantasy that I’m going to do more in the future.
What roles would you most like to play still?
One of Alan Bennett’s monologues. I thought the Thora Hird piece was out of this world, but I’ll have to wait a bit for that one! Another play I’d love to do is The Lion in Winter. I’ve said to Simon Phillips at Melbourne Theatre Company that I’ll kill him if he doesn’t let me do that in the future. The writing is extraordinary. And I’d love to play Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire. What a challenge that would be to do.
Of musicals, I’d love to do Sweet Charity. It might be too late for me now but I would love to play Charity, a great dancing role. Charlotte d’Amboise is about to do her on Broadway now. I’d also like to play Miss Adelaide in Guys and Dolls. My timing’s crap, isn’t it? All these roles are happening now when I’m too busy! I’d like to do Fanny Brice in Funny Girl again. I’ve done it in a concert version in Australia, but would love to do it over here, maybe again as a concert, because it works very well as one. I still had 15 costume changes, but it wasn’t a full-blown production – the score stands up very well on its own. And of course Mama Rose in Gypsy when I get older, absolutely!
What is it that draws you primarily to musical theatre? Which do you find more difficult – plays or musicals?
I always felt that musical theatre was the most challenging thing to do, because you have to have all three elements to do it – you have to be a good dancer, singer and actor, and need to be equally strong in every discipline. Though I started as a professional dancer, I like the challenge of pushing myself in every way. I’ve also always loved playing characters, and creating someone that isn’t myself – that’s my job as an actor. Of course, there’s an element of yourself and your energy in there. Musicals are definitely harder – to be a great dancer and singer and actor is not easy at all. But I’d like to do more plays, too – they’re a different challenge. With a musical, you always know there’s a point at which the orchestra is going to start playing and you have a number to do. But in a play, often the most powerful moments are the quietest – it can be as simple as a pause, instead of the big note at the end of the song!
What's the best thing you've seen on stage recently?
I saw Dumb Show at the Royal Court. I thought it was a fantastic play and Rupert Graves and Douglas Hodge were so great. I really loved the play and the feeling of being transported was fantastic. I still haven’t seen Mary Poppins, The Woman in White or Acorn Antiques, but I want to.
What would you advise the government – or the industry - to secure the future of British theatre?
The press need to stop dismissing dancers by calling us hoofers! It’s insulting – I’ve been dancing since I was four. I’m surprised there aren’t more pages about the arts on a daily basis in the newspapers. And as far as magazines are concerned, it’s quite outrageous who they consider as stars and personalities! It used to be about people who had an enormous amount of talent, but it’s not anymore. As for the government, I’m not sure I could advise them – they’re not that interested! I felt it was different in New York, where the theatre seems to be a highly respected industry over there.
I love autobiographies. I read hundreds of them, because everybody’s own tale is so interesting. I love to read about performers and writers. One of my favourite books is Hermione Gingold’s How to Grow Old Disgracefully. I’m a big fan of her and her writing, and I memorise pieces and poems she’s written. I also loved the Marlon Brando book, Songs My Mother Taught Me. Of novels, I really love Perfume by Patrick Suskind. It’s quite terrifying and a brilliant read. I’ve always thought someone would turn that into a film, but it still hasn’t happened!
Favourite holiday destination
France. I’d love to own a house there one day. I did a gig in the Cote d’Azur a year and a half ago on Christina O’s yacht! I’ve also worked in Lille with the Lille Symphony Orchestra, and my husband took me to Paris for a romantic weekend. At some stage, I’d like to get to spend more time there. I also love Cyprus, we bought a couple of properties there. And I got married in Mauritius and that’s delicious, a fabulous place. And we went to Barbados last year, which is just gorgeous! We stayed in this fabulous house, the Landmark, where Pavarotti normally stays – we got lucky!
Favourite after-show haunts
In London, I like Number One Aldwych. It’s a really gorgeous room and they do great Cosmopolitans! I’m a real Sex and the City girl! When I’m in New York, I always go to Angus McIndoe’s, where they do these little individual Cosmos that are to die for. In Sydney, I love this little haunt called Tatlers that you have to knock at the door to get into. But quite often you just end up in the local pub at the end of the show. Because On the Town is in rep, you have to pack up your make-up and everything else at the end of every show, so by the time you get out of there, you’ve got 15 minutes to drink up in the Lemon Tree or the Marquis of Granby which are just around the corner from the stage door!
Why did you want to accept the part of Hildy in this production of On the Town?
It’s the best part and a great role! Quite often I read a script and know straight away if I’m right for something. I really enjoy this role – it’s right up my street. I’ve been listening to this score all of my life and to hear it being done on this scale - I can’t imagine it any other way now, with a 48-piece orchestra and the opera chorus. Having worked at ENO before, I knew how grand things can look on that stage, and Jude Kelly was so gung-ho about it and her energy came across when I met her to speak about it. I’d worked with Simon Lee, the musical director, before – we did a little show called Romance Romance together at the Gielgud Theare – and he’s one of the greatest conductors in the country. And I’ve always wanted to work with choreographer Stephen Mear. I’ve seen his work and he’s the ‘Big Thing’ right now. He gets people so excited about what they’re doing. It’s been a joy working with him. If he asked me to work in the desert for free and with no costumes, I’d say yes, because he’s so fantastic. The whole team here has been fantastic, and I think it would be a shame to do it in any other way than this. They’ve got the resources to do it properly.
How does it feel going from a one-woman play at the 340-seat Arts to a 55-strong musical at the 2,350+-seat Coliseum?
The thing I find most gratifying is to know that I can do both. I can go out and do something on my own and have to work extremely hard to make it successful, and I get as much delight out of being challenged in that way as I would be doing a big show like On the Town. Press night at the Coliseum was pretty great. At the preview, the car I have to drive across the stage broke down, so I was more than a bit disappointed. The only thing I was worrying about on press night was whether it would work or not! Luckily it did, and there was a wonderful buzz. The audience was very, very vocal and involved.
Some commentators have argued that a subsidised opera house should not be using its resources for a mainstream musical in this way. What do you think?
No commercial producer would have gone to these lengths to do it this way. People know that this is an extraordinary event, and why shouldn’t the ENO do extraordinary events? Bernstein didn’t write it to be done with a 12-piece band – that’s not the way he heard it in his head – so the only way to hear it properly is like this. It’s so exciting to see so many people storming down the front of the stage like this. It’s a one-off, a special event. If ENO do one musical a year, is it going to kill anyone? If the opera chorus are anything to go by, they’re having such fun doing it, and it’s a totally different release for them.
What’s your favourite number from On the Town?
I love my two numbers. I recorded one of them, “I Can Cook, Too”, on the first of my three solo CDs, What I Did For Love. But until I did the show, I wasn’t too familiar with “Some Other Time”, and it’s such a beautiful song and such a powerful moment in the show. The first time we sang it in rehearsal, the four of us started crying! It should be much more popular and well known than it is.
What's the most notable thing that’s happened during the run to date of On the Town?
At the open dress rehearsal, the car worked but the doors kept flying open on their own. The audience was full of theatre people, and they giggled each time it happened. I was going out of my mind. I couldn’t ignore it. I turned to Adam and said, “We’ll go to my place – but first we need to get these doors fixed!” Then when the car broke down at the preview, I got out and said, “I think we need to take a cab”.
What are your plans for the future?
We’ve got a three-week break in performances from On the Town in April so I’m taking Bombshells to the World Stage Festival at the Harbourfront Centre in Toronto. Then I’m coming back to finish On the Town, before I go back to Australia to do a play by Peter Quilter called End of the Rainbow, about the last year of Judy Garland’s life. It was done over here as Last Song of the Nightingale, and I’m doing it with Ensemble Theatre in Sydney before we take it to Melbourne Theatre Company. I’m also going to do a run of Bombshells in Adelaide. So I’m booked through to mid-December now. These are very busy times, or as Jerry Herman would say, The Best of Times!
- Caroline O'Connor was speaking to Mark Shenton
On the Town continues in repertory at the London Coliseum until 28 May 2005.