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She’s played everyone from Velma Kelly in Chicago to Judy Garland in The Boy from Oz, flawlessly channelling the great Piaf and Merman along the way. Now Caroline O’Connor takes the stage in her one-woman show, From Broadway with Love. For one night only, she’s looking forward to airing a repertoire of songs she knows as intimately as old friends. “I’m in love with this material; that’s why I’m doing it,” she says. “I’m just going to relax and enjoy the occasion.” By Sharon Bradley.

Caroline O’Connor’s high notes

Caroline O’Connor.
Credit: Darren Bell

There was a moment last July, standing on stage before an expectant audience under the sails of the Sydney Opera House, when Caroline O’Connor wondered if she was in the right place. In 34 years of live musical-theatre performance in fabled venues in London, New York and Paris, she’d never experienced an instant of indecision. But this night was different. Her 90-year-old mother, Maureen, lay dangerously ill in hospital. O’Connor, newly returned from New York, where she’d been on stage every night of the previous 12 months in the smash hit Anastasia, had spent the day with Maureen, singing and watching videos of past performances. As Maureen drifted in and out of consciousness, she smiled at her daughter and murmured, “It was money well spent.”

In a few hours, O’Connor, alongside a number of other leading ladies, would perform the Funny Girl songbook about the life and times of the 1920s’ Ziegfeld Follies star Fanny Brice. She would sing “My Man”, the show’s musical and emotional crescendo as Fanny learns that her marriage to the smooth gambler Nicky Arnstein is over, despite the towering love she still has for him.

Its opening lines, half-whispered through smothered sobs, tell of Fanny’s heartache before swelling into a rapturous reaffirmation of her love in a display of soaring vocal artistry: What’s the difference if I say I’ll go away / When I know I’ll come back on my knees some day? / For whatever my man is I am his forever more.

“I said to Mum, ‘What do you want me to do?’ because I knew it was bad,” says O’Connor quietly. “I said, ‘Do you want me to stay?’ – they had somebody on standby to do my numbers – ‘Or do you want me to go and do it?’ and she said, ‘I want you to go.’ ”

That night, O’Connor opened her throat to the ballad in a way she’d never done before. “It was catharsis,” she says. “I sang it for Mum.” Afterwards, she learnt the devastating news that Maureen had died.

Since that night, work has been O’Connor’s ally. After Funny Girl came The Boy from Oz at the Arts Centre Melbourne; then, last month, Candide, again at the Opera House. On October 26, at Sydney’s City Recital Hall, she’ll star in her own one-woman concert, From Broadway with Love. Directed by her long-time friend, Tyran Parke, O’Connor will perform upwards of 22 songs, many unfamiliar to an Australian audience. “A lot of the work I’ve done recently on Broadway and the West End – in Anastasia and The Rink, for example – hasn’t been heard here,” she says. “But there’ll be plenty of favourites, too – I mean, how can I not do ‘All That Jazz’?”

O’Connor, at 56, dances, sings and acts with the same precision and desire to delight she employed decades ago, a fact that doubtlessly explains why she’s still so in demand in the fickle world of stage musicals. “Is musical theatre less ageist than film?” she muses. “I think it probably is, but it depends on who you play. From an early age, I knew I was never going to be cast as the pretty blonde ingénue. I had the range of a soprano, but not a soprano’s looks. I always knew that I’d be the funny best friend.”

Growing up in Sydney’s Rockdale, she’d sing along to her parents’ 78s, copying the phrasing and pitch of performers such as the legendary singer-actress Ethel Merman. A “belter” of an alto, Merman always seemed to have an interesting story to tell, O’Connor noticed. Like “Rose’s Turn”, her famous second-act soliloquy in Gypsy when Mama Rose, showbiz’s first and most monstrous stage mother, reveals the wasteland of her bitterness at having made so many sacrifices for her daughters. “I was only 11 but I was fascinated not just by Merman’s technique – her breath control and her volume – but by the lyrics,” says O’Connor. “What did it get me? Scrapbooks full of me in the background … Thanks a lot and out with the garbage / They take bows and you’re battin’ zero. These songs weren’t just nice tunes: they were stories.”

We’re settled in armchairs in an elegantly wood-panelled corridor inside the City Recital Hall, a tall window beside us framing a view of the AWA Tower’s lacy edifice. O’Connor, I notice, has incredibly mobile features: her eyes, large and startlingly blue, are framed by a pair of delicately arched eyebrows; her grin, which is never far away, is winningly puckish. It’s a face that has served her well over the years, enabling her to move fluidly from one award-winning characterisation to the next: deli girl-turned-movie star Mabel Normand in Mack and Mabel (1996, London); villainous vaudevillian Velma Kelly in Chicago (1998-99, Australia, and 2002, Broadway); six different women in the one-woman show, Bombshells (2000s, everywhere); and, most recently, Countess Lily in Anastasia (which finished its rapturous run in April). And then there have been “channellings” of legends as diverse as Merman (in the Cole Porter biopic De-Lovely), Judy Garland (in End of the Rainbow and The Boy from Oz) and Edith Piaf (in Pam Gems’ prize-magnet of a play, Piaf). In 2011, the year he turned 80, composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, watching O’Connor in Sweeney Todd in Paris’s Théâtre du Châtelet, declared her Mrs Lovett, sinister accomplice to the demon barber, the best he’d seen. Not bad for a girl from Rockdale.

Actually, O’Connor was born in Oldham, Lancashire, the youngest of three children to Irish immigrants Maureen and James. When she was four, the family migrated to Australia. On arrival in Sydney, her parents started shift work at Qantas, Maureen in the staff canteen, James in cargo. “As soon as he came in from work, Dad would pour himself a drink and put on a record, usually Mario Lanza or [Irish tenor] Josef Locke,” says O’Connor. “He had a beautiful taste in singers.”

Secretly, when they were at work, Caroline would play their records over and over again, teaching herself to sing. She danced, too: at 15, she came third in a world Irish dancing competition and, at 17, was offered a place at the prestigious Royal Ballet School in London’s Covent Garden. Maureen and James scrimped and saved to send her back to the country they’d left 13 years earlier.

O’Connor fell in love with London and the rigour of classical ballet. “My teacher was the [former principal dancer] Maryon Lane, who understood me, my body and my passion. I loved being around her. And we could get into the Royal Opera House to watch all the ballets: it was the era of Baryshnikov, Gelsey Kirkland, Natalia Makarova.”

Two years later, her first job back in Sydney was with a small dance troupe at the Sydney Opera Ballet under Lois Strike-Bacon, a former principal with the Australian Ballet. It was here she met a young performer named Anthony Warlow. “He was really into musicals,” she says. “One day he told me that they were looking for a swing dancer for a production of Oklahoma! I went along to the audition and sang ‘I Got Rhythm’ – which just shows you how much I knew! – but as I was leaving, the stage manager said, ‘Hey, you’ve got a really good voice; work on it.’ ”

It was O’Connor’s first experience of being in a musical but, from that day on, she was hooked.

 

By the end of 1998 – after a decade of understudy roles followed by consecutive star turns in West Side Story and Mack and Mabel – O’Connor was sassing the bejesus out of theatregoers as Velma Kelly in Chicago. One night, a young film director with greying hair and a knack for making the quixotic bankable was in the audience.

The next morning, she received a fax from her then agent, Kevin Palmer, informing her that Baz Luhrmann was inviting her to a screen test: he was sending over a couple of scenes from Cabaret for her to prepare. “You know that scene when Sally [Bowles] says, ‘If I should paint my fingernails green and it just so happens I do paint them green, well, if anyone should ask me why, I say, “I think it’s pretty!” ’? – well, I’ve always loved it and knew it in my heart. He told me to bring a song, too.

“I had to wait for ages in [Luhrmann’s] beautiful home in Darlinghurst,” she continues, her eyes widening, “and it was absolutely terrifying – I didn’t know whether I should stay. But then he appeared, apologised for keeping me waiting, filmed the scene – I sang “Maybe This Time” – and I left. About a week later, I got the call.” The call that confirmed her casting as Nini Legs in the Air, in 2001’s Moulin Rouge!

The film went on to gross $179 million worldwide, bagged eight Oscar nominations, and became O’Connor’s passport to Broadway. The following year, she debuted in Chicago; she’s been a regular fixture on 44th Street since.

As well as the big musical numbers, From Broadway with Love will feature “appearances” by two of O’Connor’s favourite alter egos: Judy Garland and Edith Piaf. She doesn’t so much impersonate them, she explains, as capture their essence, which she achieves through endless reading of biographies and a near-forensic dissection of their vocal mannerisms: “Take Garland,” she says, “she’s across the bars, not necessarily in time, but you never feel that she’s out of time either.”

Suddenly, she expires a sustained “Nooonnnn”, its nasal vibrato so unmistakeably that of a certain crimp-haired chanteuse intoning the first line of her anthemic “Non, je ne regrette rien” that I look up in surprise. “I’m not going to lie. I practise a lot,” she says. “You’ll never get it quite right – there’ll never be another Piaf – but I am obsessed. And she deserves that.”

“Caroline dances as well as she sings as well as she acts,” says Tyran Parke, “and that’s rare. Above all, though, she’s a storyteller and she can break your heart and make you fall apart laughing depending on what that story demands. It’s why she’s never out of work.”

Back in the early 2000s, Simon Phillips, then artistic director of the Melbourne Theatre Company, was the midwife on a project that brought together O’Connor and Australian playwright Joanna Murray-Smith in a masterstroke of creative alchemy. In Bombshells, a one-woman play written specially for her, O’Connor plays six different women – from schoolgirl Mary O’Donnell, whose determination to shine at an approaching talent quest is frustrated by a rival, to Winsome Webster, a widow in the throes of a sexual renaissance. The monologues gave her the opportunity, for the first time in her career, to simply act.

“I think what Caroline brought fundamentally to those characters was a sense of great humanity,” says Murray-Smith. “She understands vulnerability, particularly female vulnerability, especially well. Like all good actresses, I think she feels things deeply and knows how to invest her emotional repertoire in her characters. She wants to connect with her audience and knows that the way to do that is to make her characters accessible; she does that in a very raw, emotional way.”

For Phillips, Murray-Smith’s inclusion of the widow’s monologue was “a terrific notion” from an artistic point of view, providing the show with emotional depth, but it was a surprise for him to discover that O’Connor’s portrayal of Winsome was consistently the audience’s favourite. “Caroline has energy coming out of her fingertips and this performance was about containing all that energy. It was an act of bravery on her part to not bring all the tools she’s known for to the table.”

O’Connor has been married to the English musician Barrie Shaw for 22 years. They met during the London revival of Cabaret in 1986: he was in the orchestra and she was playing a girl from the Kit Kat Klub while understudying Kelly Hunter as Sally Bowles. “One day, I was doing an understudy call while he was in the pit,” she says. “He could hear me rehearsing and he said to one of his mates, ‘Does anybody know who the understudy is? I really like the way she sounds.’ Meanwhile, back in the dressing room, I’m saying to my girlfriends, ‘Do you know who the guy is who’s got the saxophone solo in “Maybe This Time”? It’s beautiful.’ And they were, like, ‘Oh, that’s Barrie.’ And then some time later, we were both in Eastbourne at one of those Friends of the Theatre drinks and, honestly, it was just like that moment in West Side Story when Maria and Tony walk towards each other at the dance in the gym. We were both, like, ‘Is it you?’ ”

O’Connor and Shaw divide their time between Sydney, London and Cyprus, where they have homes, and New York, where they rent. “We’re self-employed,” says O’Connor. “We just go where the work is.”

For now, it seems, it’s Australia and she’s grateful to the Fates for bringing her home in time to spend precious last weeks with Maureen. (Her father died 10 years ago.) Next year, she’ll begin rehearsals for Kander and Ebb’s adaptation of Kiss of the Spiderwoman, in which she’ll play Aurora, at the Melbourne Theatre Company. In the meantime, for one night only under this very roof, she’s looking forward to airing a repertoire of songs she knows as intimately as old friends. “I’m in love with this material; that’s why I’m doing it,” she says. “I’m just going to relax and enjoy the occasion.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 20, 2018 as "Broadway baby".

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Sharon Bradley is a Sydney-based feature writer.