Musical theatre legend Caroline O’Connor emerges from pandemic-related depression to triumph in 9 to 5 the Musical. But she reveals to editor-at-large Gary Nunn why she has still been feeling tearful and vulnerable.
Browsing Facebook one day, “geeking out” on musical theatre clips, Caroline O’Connor – already a leading lady of great renown – saw a notification in her Messenger inbox. It was a message that would very rapidly change her life.
“Where are you?” read the message, from the director of a production of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. The actor playing the show’s female lead, Mrs Lovett, needed replacing at very short notice. When O’Connor responded that she was in Australia, a message instantly zipped back. “Can you get on a plane tomorrow?” The show was in Paris. She gulped down the moment of excitement – then packed her bags.
“It was like one of those crazy things you read in a book,” O’Connor tells The Sentinel.
But she had to learn the role’s notoriously verbose score – one of the most demanding and coveted in musical theatre – in just two weeks. “I knew it’d be incredibly challenging,” she says. “I also knew I absolutely couldn’t say no.” The next day, she was on the flight to France.
O’Connor performed to rapturous standing ovations in Paris
“It was the most challenging role of my career – and one of the greatest moments of my life,” she says.
That was back in 2011, and one of the memories that sustained O’Connor through one of the darkest periods in her life: the Covid shutdown of the arts.
“I burst into tears the minute I walked back into that foyer.”
O’Connor was born in the UK to Irish parents who emigrated to Sydney when she was young.
She was schooled in Sydney and has spent most of her life in Australia, with overseas stints in the US and UK to perform on Broadway and in the West End.
In 2020 she was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) for her extraordinary service to theatre.
But such a career highlight was followed by a crushing low. It was the same year her industry was to be changed dramatically.
O’Connor says she “didn’t cope well at all” with the lockdowns and their impact on the arts.
“It’s probably because I love my work a little too much – I’m a bit of a workaholic,” she says.
“I was terribly depressed. Even now I feel very emotional all the time. I really thought it was gone forever – and that feeling totally overwhelmed me.”
It was the younger generation of artists and performers O’Connor felt the most for.
“They were just trying to survive. Some who’d been trying [to crack the industry] for a while didn’t have anything. At least I’ve had some experience and done some lovely things over the years,” she says. “I really felt for them.”
Nevertheless, there were many, many tears – including tears of relief, the first time she walked back into the Capitol Theatre to rehearse for 9 to 5, in which she’s now performing.
“I burst into tears the minute I walked back into that foyer. Memories just came flooding back,” she says.
“I felt very vulnerable. I questioned my stamina.”
In the show, O’Connor plays Roz Keith, an officious administration assistant secretly in love with her sexist boss.
The unrequited love in the show has afforded O’Connor the opportunity for a scene-stealing number in which she confesses her crush to the audience. On the night, it brings the house down.
“It actually wasn’t meant to be hilarious!” she says. “It was a clever idea for them to install this fantasy sequence. I don’t get to be on all night – but I do get this fantastically cheeky number which allows you to see what’d happen if this very uptight character let it go.”
The comic role is very physical, which led O’Connor to worry about her return after the enforced hiatus.
“I felt very vulnerable, actually,” she says. “I questioned my stamina.” This was partly because of the punishing schedule, including a four-show weekend (matinee and evening performances on both days).
“Then I come back to the fact I’ve been singing and dancing all my life. It’s all I know how to do. People always call me the Energiser Bunny!”
It’s also a departure from more serious roles she’s played, such as Edith Piaf and Judy Garland. “Comedy is much harder,” she says. “ I have to listen to the audience. They tell me how to deliver the line.”
But some of that vulnerability lingers.
“I know it’s not going to last forever. There will come a time, which is going to be very sad, when I won’t be able to do this kind of role any more. So I feel very fortunate that I’m still getting hired to do this kind of work,” she says.
There’s a big birthday coming up for O’Connor this year: she turns 60. She’s looking forward to it. “After the pandemic, I’m ready to blow off the cobwebs and have fun – and this show has kickstarted that!” she says.
A run of successes in O’Connor’s career – including playing the role of Nini Legs-in-the-Air in Baz Luhrmann’s film Moulin Rouge! – led her to secure a special American Green Card for being a person of ‘extraordinary ability’.
“Suddenly I got a call from the American producers of Chicago after the film had come out to say we would like to bring you over to America to play Velma Kelly on Broadway,” she says.
Whilst never moving there for a protracted stretch, she has since returned for work.
“It keeps me on my toes,” she says. “I could be a big fish in a small sea here, but I prefer to go over there and see what else is happening; put myself up against other people.”
One of the bars she adores as a self-confessed musical theatre nerd is Marie’s Crisis.
“I love it when their pianists, Kenney and Adam, come here for their yearly show-tunes singalong event,” she says, recalling one particular “wild” night when the duo brought a slice of New York to Australia.
In fact, the one thing in her career she would’ve done differently is to have gone to America sooner.
“I wanted to go there when I was young but knew I couldn’t work there legally,” she says.
One particular composer influenced the latter half of her career: Stephen Sondheim, who died late last year.
From playing Rose in Gypsy in Melbourne to Mrs Lovett in Paris, and singing for the lyricist himself when she was living in the UK, O’Connor was clearly one of his leading lady darlings, at one point doing three of his shows in a single year.
“When I was younger, I didn’t click with his work, because I wasn’t as knowledgeable. That’s why I went to England – I learnt from so many great actors there,” she says.
There is a role of his she hasn’t yet played and would love to. “The role Patti [LuPone] has recently been playing in Company,” she says. “There are a few Sondheim shows I’d still love to do – he has great roles for ladies.”
Such work would return her to the leading lady position for which she has become known.
“In my current role [in 9 to 5], because I’m not playing a lead, you don’t feel quite as important. You wonder if people are noticing,” she says.
“But musical theatre has to have those great numbers in a show. That’s more important. And I feel like I’ve got a corker.”
9 to 5 the Musical is now playing at the Capitol Theatre, 13 Campbell Street, Haymarket, with dates currently scheduled through to Sunday, 8 May. Visit https://9to5themusical.com.au for tickets and information.