Inspired by Chita Rivera and advised by Bill Kenwright to stop ‘wasting her time’ in Australia, Caroline O’Connor became a musical star in the UK and around the world. Her next move takes her from Broadway to Southwark Playhouse. She tells Mark Shenton why her latest role in The Rink was one she couldn’t turn away
For Caroline O’Connor, there’s not a lot of difference between working on Broadway or at Southwark Playhouse. “It’s still a black box with an audience,” she says.
So she is as happy to return to the UK in a new production of Tony award-winning musical The Rink, in the south-east London venue as she was playing a featured role in Anastasia on Broadway for the past year.
Born in Oldham and brought up in Australia, she has homes in Surrey and Sydney. However, she regards herself as a theatrical nomad, going wherever the work takes her. Over the past 35 years, it has taken her from London to New York via Leicester, and from Paris to Sydney.
O’Connor returns to The Rink after 30 years, when she was “a walking cover” in the British premiere of John Kander and Fred Ebb’s 1984 Broadway musical. She understudied Diane Langton as Angel, the daughter of a roller-skating rink owner, in the production that transferred from the Forum Theatre in Manchester to the West End’s Cambridge Theatre. “I ended up doing one show a week and then a charity reunion benefit after it closed,” she says.
Three decades on, she is playing Anna, Angel’s mother who is preparing to sell the rink, a role originated on Broadway by Chita Rivera. As a neat aside, Langton has also returned to the show as Anna in a 2004 revival at Coventry’s Belgrade.
“I adore anything that Chita Rivera has done,” says O’Connor today. “She’s been a mentor and inspiration to me always. I look at her work ethic and how passionate and generous she still is about it, and how she is always at the top of her game. She’s such a pro.”
The same thing could be said of O’Connor, who has also followed in Rivera’s footsteps to play Anita in West Side Story and Velma Kelly in Chicago, both of which Rivera originated, and have become important in her own career.
West Side Story helped change the course of her life. She had played Maria in an earlier production in Australia – “I was a soprano in my youth, but I didn’t want to be” – which was seen by Bill Kenwright. The next day she auditioned for the Liverpudlian producer for an Australian production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.
“He said: ‘Didn’t I see you last night as Maria?’ And he said to me: ‘You’re wasting your time here – you should move to England.’ All I needed was someone to say that they thought I might have a chance.” But Kenwright did not employ her straight away after she relocated.
“It was not until I did Hot Stuff at the Cambridge years later, and then he let me out of it for two days a week so I could do Kurt Weill’s Street Scene at the English National Opera . It was brilliant that he let me do two shows at the same time in the West End.”
Her first role on the British stage was in the ensemble of the original Leicester Haymarket production of Me and My Girl in 1984, which subsequently transferred to the Adelphi. Leicester would become an artistic home of sorts for O’Connor: “I sometimes wonder if I perhaps spent too much time there, but I was getting the opportunity to learn and do so many different things.”
There she worked regularly with former artistic director Paul Kerryson and at venues in Birmingham and her birthplace Oldham. It was in Oldham that she first played Roxie Hart in Chicago. Other significant roles included Mabel in Mack and Mabel at Leicester Haymarket – which transferred to the West End’s Piccadilly Theatre – and Momma Rose in Gypsy at Leicester’s Curve in 2012 .
Q&A: Caroline O’Connor
What was your first professional theatre job?
It was in the ensemble of Oklahoma! in Australia, with John Diedrich as Curly. Years later, when I was in Chicago, he played Billy Flynn.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
That there were going to be emotional times. I’ve now learned how to control my emotions, but when I was younger they sometimes got the better of me.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Originally it was Paul Kerryson – I’ve never known anyone to have such faith in me in that way, but as the years have gone by, I’d have to say that [New Zealand-Australian director] Simon Phillips has been a big influence too, because of the things he would let me try. It was like being thrown into a pool to learn to swim.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Be yourself, totally and utterly. In castings, they’re always more interested in people who are more individual and not like anyone else.
If you hadn’t been a actor, what would you have been?
An air steward – I love to travel so much.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I always bless myself. I started on one, but now it’s three. I always do one for my father since I lost him. I also run around backstage quite a lot to get rid of excess nervous energy that people bring on to the stage – it gets the heart rate into a nice place so you can be relaxed.
She was also asked to star in a production of Hello, Dolly! at Curve, but then she won a role in a new Broadway musical, A Christmas Story, with a score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul – before they composed for hit films La La Land and The Greatest Showman – so she dropped out. “I was so sorry, but I just had to. I wasn’t the first choice for Dolly anyway, and I knew that.”
More recently she got another call for Hello, Dolly! to audition to understudy Bette Midler in the current Broadway production . “It was one of the best auditions I have ever had, working with director Jerry Zaks and choreographer Warren Carlyle. Maybe one day I’ll get to do it – perhaps in Australia.”
At the start of her career, she understudied in the West End in Cabaret – “Kelly Hunter would go off a lot so I got to go on quite a bit, I was lucky” – and on tour in A Chorus Line. “All of us girls, that is what we did. Then suddenly you get a crack at something.”
Since taking lead roles she has not rested on her laurels. “I’ve always wanted to keep moving,” she says. “I didn’t want to just be sitting around waiting somewhere for something to come along, so I’d rather keep moving around, giving myself different opportunities.”
One such opportunity was returning to Australia in 1998 to appear in Chicago. “I was at the peak of my fitness. I was 38, crazy fit, and I loved it,” she says. And it led to her securing a featured role in Baz Luhrmann’s film Moulin Rouge – “I didn’t go to the auditions like many of the others in the cast of Chicago, I felt I was too old. But Baz called me in for a screen test after coming to the opening night.”
That, in turn, led to her first foray on Broadway for a stint in Chicago in 2003. “And when I did A Christmas Story, I got to perform at the Tony Awards, which was madness.”
Last year, she was back on Broadway for Anastasia. “I was going to New York to renew my green card, but the dates didn’t match for the auditions. So they let me put something on tape – a song and scene my husband and I recorded in our lounge.” The DIY-audition proved no impediment as O’Connor received a message several days later saying they wanted to cast her.
The Rink is the latest link in the chain of events leading from one production to the next. Producer Jack Maple and choreographer Fabian Aloise – with whom she had worked on that West Side Story production in Australia – were in New York “and I was wooed a little bit. They came to see the show and invited me to drinks after, and they asked me about The Rink”.
The dates were perfect, as she was coming to the end of her year’s contract with Anastasia. “It felt nice to have another thing ready to do immediately afterwards. It’s such a great role that I thought I’d be an idiot not to have a bash at it.”
O’Connor is much in demand and likes to keep herself busy. She will follow The Rink with four jobs this year. She’s doing a concert version of Funny Girl in Sydney, then a new Australian production of The Boy from Oz, playing Judy Garland – a part she also played in the original production of End of the Rainbow in Sydney. Candide with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra follows, then she will perform her own solo concerts.
As we wind up, she tells a revealing story about a conversation she had with her mother when she was young. “I asked her: ‘Am I pretty?’ And she said, ‘You’re unusual; there’s nobody like you.’ I was offended and hurt at the time, but as I got older, I’ve realised it is my originality that has got me employed.
CV: Caroline O’connor
Born: 1962, Oldham
Training: Royal Ballet School
• Me and My Girl, Adelphi Theatre, London (1986)
• West Side Story, tour of Australia (1994)
• Mack and Mabel, Piccadilly Theatre, London (1996)
• Chicago, tour of Australia/ Shubert Theatre, Broadway (1998/2003)
• Moulin Rouge, film (2001)
• De-lovely, film (2004)
• Bombshells, Edinburgh Fringe and tour (2004)
• End of the Rainbow, Sydney Opera House, Australia (2005)
• Sweeney Todd, Theatre du Chatelet, Paris (2009)
• A Christmas Story, Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, Broadway (2012)
• Anastasia, Broadhurst Theatre, Broadway (2017/18)
Green Room awards
• West Side Story (1994)
• Chicago (1998)
• Piaf (2000)
• Piaf (2001)
• End of the Rainbow (2006)
• Anything Goes (2015)
Agent: Stuart Piper at Cole Kitchenn (UK), Josh Pultz at Amplified Entertainment (US); Long-time manager: husband Barrie Shaw
The Rink is at Southwark Playhouse, London  from May 25 until June 23