Although British-born Australian musical theatre star Caroline O'Connor previously appeared on Broadway in the Tony-winning revival of Chicago, A Christmas Story, The Musical — now playing the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre — marks the first time the singing actress has created a role on The Great White Way. The triple threat portrays Ralphie's strict grade-school teacher Miss Shields in the musical based on the beloved holiday film of the same name, and her performance is a showstoppingly winning one. Powerhouse may be the best term to describe O'Connor — an Olivier nominee for her work in Bombshells — whose delivery of the thrilling tap dance production number "You'll Shoot Your Eye Out" is a knockout. Last week I had the great pleasure of catching up with the multitalented O'Connor, who recently received a Jeff Award for her performance as Phyllis in the Chicago Shakespeare Theater production of Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman's Follies; that interview follows.
Question: How did this role come about for you?
Caroline O'Connor: Well, I was in Milwaukee, actually, doing Assassins with Mark Clements, and I got a phone call through from the [Christmas Story] team [asking] could I get in touch with Stephanie Klapper, who was doing the casting. My name had come up in a conversation… Primarily, they'd written a new number for the show called "You'll Shoot Your Eye Out," where they envisioned having a big tap number. A few of them had seen my work. I think [director] John Rando and [choreographer] Warren Carlyle and [associate choreographer] James Gray had all come to see Follies that I had done the previous year [for director] Gary Griffin at Chicago Shakes, so they knew that I was a dancer — a mature dancer. [Laughs.] And, James Gray I had worked with many, many years ago in Mack and Mabel in London, so they knew that I was a tapper… So I rang, and we had to talk about dates, etc. Unfortunately, I did have something else that I had to put off. I had an offer of something else, but it just seemed like such a wonderful opportunity to come and work with this team, primarily John Rando and Warren, as I said, and the writers Pasek and Paul. They're just so brilliant. So I got to create this little character that has a slightly different edge than she has in previous incarnations.
|photo by Michael Brosilow|
Question: Were you familiar with the movie? It's become a bit of a classic here, but overseas, I'm not sure if people know it or not.
O'Connor: I'll be honest — no, we don't. We don't know it. It's really interesting to me because it's such a popular film here in the States. It's iconic, you know? And, I've been told it runs for 24 hours a day. I cannot believe we get every other Christmas movie in Australia and in England, I'd swear, but for some reason, that one hasn't gotten through the radar. I actually watched it after I'd started rehearsals. What I did was I watched some clips on YouTube, and I got a sense of what it was about and, certainly, who Miss Shields was because there's a lot up there on the YouTube site. But then a friend of mine got me a copy of the film, and I think I watched it about the second week of rehearsal, and I could see the attraction of it. It's quite a lovely tale, and, obviously, Jean Shepherd is a fantastic storyteller.
Question: How would you describe Miss Shields as you're playing her?
O'Connor: Well, she is quite a strict school teacher, I'd say. As [Dan Lauria's Jean Shepherd] character says… She's sort of formidable…quite strict in class, but I remember one day in rehearsals, saying to John Rando, "Wouldn't it be interesting if she had this other side to her, like that she reads romance novels?" … So I think there is this sort of other side of her. I think she puts on a persona when she's at school, and then there's another side to her that the kids don't really know about. But then in the fantasy sequence, of course, you get to see her come out and be this sort of crazy, gangster's moll-type, sassy woman, which, I think, is the woman that is beneath Miss Shields — the alter ego, so to speak. So that's really fun — to get to play the two sides of her — and it kind of reminded me a little bit of when I was doing Follies, to be honest with you. The Lucy and Jessie-type idea, which is really fun to play. If things had been different — maybe if she hadn't become a school teacher, she might have been a different person.
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