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Caroline O’Connor on musicals, dive bars, gay clubbing and life on the stage

Caroline O’Connor’s life is a whirlwind. The musical theatre star is in demand and her career sees her jetting between her home in Queensland to stints on Broadway and shows in London’s West End.

Having just finished performances of Candide in South Australia, next on her schedule is heading to the Perth International Cabaret Festival for her show My Musical Life, and it’s just been announced she’ll be starring in a new revival of Hello Dolly! in Paris this November.

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Chatting to OUTinPerth O’Connor says playing Dolly Gallagher Levi in the classic musical really is a dream come true.

It’s a role that defined Carol Channing’s career when she originated the role on Broadway. It was played by Barbra Streisand in the film version, and more recently saw Bette Midler getting rave reviews when the show returned to the New York stage.

Over the years theatre greats including Ethel Merman, Mary Martin and Ginger Rogers have all played the part.

“It’s nuts, isn’t it.” O’Connor said of the unpredictable life of an actor. “It’s nuts because it’s so unexpected. Of course, I’ve always wanted to do it, it’s a dream role for me because she’s so hilarious. She’s a great character and also gets to sing wonderful songs.”

Leading a new revival of the musical that made its debut in 1964 excites O’Connor because she says those older shows were so well written.

“It’s the golden age of musicals when the writers, the lyricists, and composers were so incredibly gifted, the music that they wrote is so memorable.”

“At the moment I’m completely engrossed in Dolly Gallagher Levi that’s ever existed.” O’Connor reveals, explaining that she studies what other actors have done with the role before finding her own take on the part.

“I’m YouTubing myself into a hole… just to see the kind of flavour that they each brought to it.

O’Connor also shares that she auditioned to be Bette Midler’s understudy when she took on the role on Broadway.

‘I happened to be in New York, and they were looking for someone to be the alternate, which is the world job in the universe.” O’Connor said, but to get to play the part just on Bette Midler’s night off was something she was willing to sign up for.

While she didn’t get the job, she did get to work with director Jerry Zaks, an experience she says will also contribute to her taking on the part in the new Paris production.

Over the years O’Connor has shown her amazing ability to adapt and take on a wide range of musical theatre’s great leading roles. She originally trained as a ballerina and spent time at the Australian Opera Ballet before shifting in the world of musicals.

She spent more than a decade in the UK working in the West End as part of the ensemble for many hit shows including Oklahoma! Me and My Girl, Show Boat, A Chorus Line, West Side Story, Cabaret, and Damn Yankees.

Later she progressed to being an understudy, and then began to land bigger parts. In 1998 she performed the role of Velma Kelly in the Australian production of Chicago. She made her Broadway debut with the show in 2003, and in 2010 it brought her to Perth for the first time.

O’Conner has also made her mark in films, memorably appearing as Nini Legs in Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge, and portraying Ethel Merman in the Cole Porter bio-pic De-Lovely.

In her upcoming show at the Perth International Cabaret Festival O’Connor will revisit all those classic songs that have made her career while sharing stories of her journey.

She jokes that she’s done so many shows now it’s getting really difficult to write the short bio that producers always want for the programs.

“Every time you do a show you can only have 200 words or so for your bio to list all the shows. For the young people in the show, it might just be their third show, but I’ve done like 40 or 45 productions now, it’s ridiculous, how do you put that into 200 words?” O’Connor laughs.

“I feel I should just write ‘Boy I’m tired.'”

O’Connor says fans can be assured her show is filled with songs they love, and it might also be a chance to hear some of the songs that are from show’s they’ve never gotten a chance to see on stage.

She says more than anything her fans anticipate her singing songs from Chicago, which will always be part of her story.

“I always have to do Chicago. Always. I suppose I should just open with it, and then go ‘Okay, everybody done it now.'” O’Connor said. “I love it, don’t get me wrong.”

She revealed she’s recently experienced the song in a while new way when she made a surprise appearance at Club Broadway, the club night where everyone sings show tunes. She was introduced to the phenomenon by faux-German cabaret performer Hans.

O’Connor said the night reminded her of a night out at Marie’s Crisis in New York’s West Village.

“It’s this amazing dirty grimy bar, where you down these steps. It’s stinky and sticky, but when you get down there, there are hundreds of gay men and women, and there’s one piano and everyone’s singing show tunes. It was like being in a movie.”

How did one of the world’s leading ladies of musical theatre find herself descending the stairs to a New York dive bar?

“Hugh Sheridan and Rebel Wilson took me there.” O’Connor shared. “I was doing Anastasia on Broadway, and they came to see it and we went out afterwards. She and I both got up on stage and sang, it was thrilling! The vibe was so beautiful and so positive, and everybody knew every line of every song.”

O’Connor also confesses a love of Musical Mondays at New York’s legendary, but now defunct, Chelsea nightclub Spash.

The club was famous for its ability to transform its vibe from one night to the next, and over its 22-year run everyone from Madonna to Kylie Minogue, Britney Spears to Patti Labelle and Patti LuPone patronised it, or performed on its tiny stage.

Thursday might have been hip-hop night, Tuesday might have been classic pop, but Monday nights were all about the musicals. Screens were filled with hard to find Broadways clips, and musical theatre performers on their off night would pop up to do spots. The club was also famous for having the most attractive men to ever walk this earth as podium dancers.

“I remember walking in, and it was I felt like I was in the movie Sweet Charity, because as I’ve walked in the all the music from Sweet Charity was playing, just like when she walks into the club in the movie.

“I look at all these screens, and I’m like, ‘Oh, my God, I’m home’, because I was a gay man in a previous life.

“We’re ordering drinks, and everybody’s gorgeous looking, and then up on the screen comes David Campbell singing a song from Miss Saigon, so we texted him a photo of it. It was just heaven. I mean, if that’s your bag, it was the most wonderful experience!”

Join Caroline O’Connor at His Majesty’s Theatre on 14th June for My Musical Life as she recounts her journey from being a schoolgirl obsessed with Ethel Merman’s performance in Gypsy, to working her way up through the ranks of musical theatre and becoming one of musicals most sought after leading ladies.

She also promises to belt out songs from ChicagoWest Side StoryFunny GirlSweeney ToddFolliesMack and MabelAnastasiaAnything GoesMan of La ManchaThe Boy from OzMoulin Rouge and many more.

The Perth International Cabaret Festival runs from June 10-23. Tickets are on sale now.

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