DIVA TALK: A Chat with Chicago's Caroline O'Connor Plus Divas in Concert

Diva Talk   DIVA TALK: A Chat with Chicago's Caroline O'Connor Plus Divas in Concert
Hello, diva lovers! Hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday . . . Well, I booked my seats earlier this week to catch Alice Ripley in the Kennedy Center's upcoming mounting of Tell Me On a Sunday. I'm headed to D.C. the weekend of Dec. 20 and can't wait to hear Ripley belt out the wonderful Andrew Lloyd Webber score. It looks like this production will include the lovely ballad "Nothing Like You've Ever Known," which was cut from the Broadway production prior to opening, although Bernadette Peters did get to preserve the song on the RCA cast recording. The Ripley version begins performances Dec. 17 and runs through Jan. 12, 2003. Hope to see some of you there!

Hello, diva lovers! Hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday . . . Well, I booked my seats earlier this week to catch Alice Ripley in the Kennedy Center's upcoming mounting of Tell Me On a Sunday. I'm headed to D.C. the weekend of Dec. 20 and can't wait to hear Ripley belt out the wonderful Andrew Lloyd Webber score. It looks like this production will include the lovely ballad "Nothing Like You've Ever Known," which was cut from the Broadway production prior to opening, although Bernadette Peters did get to preserve the song on the RCA cast recording. The Ripley version begins performances Dec. 17 and runs through Jan. 12, 2003. Hope to see some of you there!


The Broadway company of Chicago is currently in tip-top shape, thanks in large part to the thrilling performance of Caroline O'Connor, who is making her long-awaited Broadway debut as Velma Kelly. O'Connor has played the role of the merry murderess before, in her native Australia, winning an MO Award and the Green Room Award for Best Actress in a Musical. She also received an Olivier Award nomination for her performance as Mabel Normand in the West End production of Jerry Herman's Mack and Mabel, and her many other theatrical credits include roles in West Side Story, Piaf and Bombshells. The actress-singer-dancer portrayed Nini Legs in acclaimed film "Moulin Rouge," and her solo recordings include "What I Did for Love," "A Tribute to Piaf" and "Stage to Screen." I recently had the chance to chat with the talented actress, who spoke about her triumphant Broadway debut, her theatrical past and her desire to continue working on the New York stage.

Q: Are you enjoying your Broadway debut?
Caroline O'Connor: I'm loving it! I'm loving it, really, because I love the show anyway, plus it's a fantastic cast. They're great fun. I couldn't be happier.

Q: Is Broadway something you've dreamed of for a long time?
CO: Absolutely. Ever since I was very young, from the first musical I ever did, I thought, 'Gee, I would love to work on Broadway.' That would be the ultimate goal. Coming from — I studied in Australia, obviously — from the age of four-and-a-half, I started with Irish dancing, and then got involved with ballet and tap, etc., and pursued it in a big way and went to the Royal Ballet School in London, and that's when I became introduced to London for the first time. That's what took me to London, when I had to make that decision whether I'd stay in Australia . . . Going to America then seemed impossible. Everyone said that you can't work there unless you've got the right paperwork, so London became the goal, and I ended up working there for 14 years, which was great. Q: Tell me about your first night on Broadway.
CO: Oh, wow, I only rehearsed the show for ten days, which is a really short rehearsal period, considering I hadn't done the show for almost three-and-a-half years. The Australian production was incredibly successful — Australia totally embraced the show. They loved it. I did the show in Melbourne and then Adelaide and Sydney and then left to do 'Moulin.' So, it'd been some time since I'd done [the show]. I arrived here, and it was a strange feeling to be joining a company I didn't know. And then, the first performance was [November] 7th, my first preview. That was pretty exciting in itself, hitting the Shubert stage. But that gala performance was out of this world. . . I'm so thrilled that everybody's accepted my portrayal. We couldn't have asked for a nicer audience . . . It was great to go [into the show] with someone else, to be going in with Billy [Zane], rather than doing it alone, having another comrade there. But I couldn't have been happier with how it went — because once I walked down the stairs safely and got to the bottom, I thought, 'Right, I'm okay now. My legs are there!' But it was awesome. I really enjoyed myself. Sometimes at an opening you can actually pull it to pieces and do the post-mortem the next day, but I actually had a ball out there on the stage . . . Especially at this stage of my career, to come to Broadway now, and after all that I've been doing, it is the ultimate goal. You sort of build it up in your heart, hoping that it will go well and praying that it will go well, and that's why I'm just totally enjoying myself now. Every performance is great fun, and I know I'm working with a great bunch of people.

Q: How long will you stay with the Broadway company?
CO: I'm here until the 19th of January. I'm booked till then. I think most of, if not all of the cast, it seems is booked up until the end of the Shubert period, and what they'll do after that I'm not sure because, obviously, it's moving to the Ambassadors, so they'll be a big change of some sort happening when it moves. But I'm delighted to have had this opportunity, and, of course, there are other things I'd very much like to pursue while I'm working here.

Q: What type of projects?
CO: There are a couple of pieces that I've been doing in Australia that I really love doing. There's an original play that was written for me called Bombshells, a one-woman play about six different female characters. It's a fantastic piece of writing, and I'd love to get someone interested in doing that here, maybe Off-Broadway, to show another side of what I've been doing over these last, gosh, 20 years . . . It's written by a playwright called Joanna Murray-Smith, a Melbourne playwright. She's already had a play here on Broadway called Honour, and this piece of work that she wrote for me is totally different from anything she's ever done before. She normally writes things that are quite deep and meaningful and kind of heavy, really, but this is incredibly comedic, and even the critics in Australia were quite surprised by her writing because they'd never seen her write in that style before. That was a blast. I loved it!

Q: Is there singing as well in that?
CO: There is a little. There's a mother character, there's a woman that's been dumped, there's a young bride, there's a young girl that wants to be a star, there's a widow and a diva, a B-grade cabaret diva [Laughs.] So they are all really diverse and great fun and with totally different accents. They all come from different parts of the world, so it's a great showcase piece, so I'd love to get someone interested in that. And, also, I remember the last trip I took over here, probably about six months prior to doing [Chicago], just to meet some people, I talked to them about Piaf. I know it hasn't been done here for awhile, and it was rumored that Elaine Paige was going to come and do it . . . I think it has to be [done with] somebody who really is a lover of [Piaf's] work, which is I am.

Q: Have you been able to enjoy the city at all?
CO: Not much! [Laughs.] I've been so focused on the show, but I have been to some lovely restaurants. Actually, some people from overseas have been to visit and see the show. And, so it's mostly been socializing. I haven't been to see any productions yet. I'm hoping. I will be going to see Hairspray very shortly. I'd love to see Metamorphoses. I would love to see The Producers or Urinetown. So there are several things I would love to go see, but our schedule is really heavy at the moment . . . It's a really heavy schedule, so you have to kind of get the energy back, and I do that with sleep and rest. That's the only way I know how. I think that once I've really settled in, I'll be able to maybe be game enough to do other things.

Q: It's such a demanding role.
CO: And that is a priority for me, the show, always. I'm totally dedicated to it, and I love the show, and I think unless you can perform it at that max, it doesn't really work because it is all about the performance, really, isn't it? There's nothing else to sort of distract. [Laughs.]

Q: Having done the show both here and in Australia, do you notice any difference in audience reaction?
CO: Certainly do, yeah, really do. That sort of threw me a little bit at first because I wasn't quite sure. I thought, 'Oh, maybe I don't quite . . . maybe because I haven't done it for awhile, I didn't quite retain things.' But then I've noticed — even with lot of other things that I'm not involved with — that they get different reactions. One of the things that specifically jumps to mind is in Australia whenever Mama would announce, 'Miss Hunyack and her Amazing Hungarian Ropetrick,' the audience would burst into hysterical laughter, but here it's silence. And I thought, 'Ooh, isn't that funny?' Obviously the Australian audience had a very warped sense of humor. [Laughs.] But, you know, there are differences. But, I think what's lovely about it is that the show has a lot of great comedy in it, but it also touches some nerves. . . Also, having spent, albeit a very short time, with [director] Walter [Bobbie], when he came in — thank God he was able to come in and spend a little time with me — he sort of sat me down and said, 'Now you're in New York, honey [laughs], and it's gonna be a little bit different, and the reaction's gonna be different, and I just want you to be aware of that. And you mustn't even think about it. You're just going to stay true to whatever it is you're doing, the way that you're doing it.' And that was great. It really put my mind at rest.

Q: I know at one point, you played Roxie in a U.K. production.
CO: That was up in the north of England. It wasn't in London, but it was a repertory production, and I played Roxie.

Q: Which character — Roxie or Velma — do you prefer playing?
CO: Do you know, it's funny, when I was asked to do that production, that was some time ago. The director, who I've known for some years, I did The Rink with him, and I've done Mack and Mabel with him, several shows. And he said, 'Which role do you want to play because I think you can do either?' And I said, 'I think I'd like to play Roxie because I consider it more of an acting role, so that would be more of a challenge for me right now.' And I thought it was so beautifully written. They are both fabulous roles. I think I wanted the challenge more than anything. I knew that I could dance. And when I auditioned for Annie [Reinking] and Walter, I actually auditioned for them in London. Annie said, 'You're definitely a Velma,' [Laughs], and I was reading for Roxie for them because I had done it before. . . It's wonderful to have gotten to play both roles.

Q: Do you come from a show-business family or are you the first . . .
CO: First to be a professional performer, but my family have always been really seriously involved in music. It's such a huge part of our lives. My father's the oldest of 11 children, and they formed their own band, including the six sisters who were singers. My father played sax, and my uncle played keyboards, and another uncle played drums, and another one played trumpet. So, they kind of formed their own amateur band and would do gigs at weekends and things but never on a professional basis. And, my parents have always been great supporters of dance, and they're very excited about the prospect of coming over here. They're coming in January.

Q: You were also in the film 'Moulin Rouge.' Can you talk a bit about that experience?
CO: That was extraordinary, and a lot of things have come from that — actually from Chicago, to be honest with you. Baz Luhrmann came to see Chicago; he was in the audience, and that's how I got my screen test. I got a fax the next day saying, 'Will you come and do a test for me?,' which was really exciting. I found out very quickly — I think it was within two weeks — that I had the film, and working with him was amazing. He's such an incredible force, totally into what he does, works 24-hour days, is very interested in what everybody wants to contribute. I just loved every moment of it. I worked on it for over a year 'cause I was involved with the workshops at the beginning, with a lot of the dance work, readings with Ewan [McGregor] and Nicole [Kidman]. The whole team actually would all come over — John Leguizamo, Jim Broadbent, etc. — and do these sort of workshop, two-week sessions, just having a play, apart from the filming, which was really interesting. Sometimes they just send you your little bit, and that's it, that's all you do. But we all felt very involved as a family. . .

Q: Are you planning to catch the 'Chicago' film?
CO: Oh, yeah, I'm seeing it on Tuesday. I'm going to a screening on Tuesday afternoon. I can't wait. I think it's gonna be wonderful, just from little tiny moments I've seen. Great cast. . . The one thing that everyone said after 'Moulin' was, 'Please, God, let this make the producers brave enough to do more of this.' Let's face it, that's how movies became so successful in the first place, all those great Hollywood musicals, they were addictive. There were so many of them being made, too — that was a wonderful thing. Music is such an integral part of people's lives; rather than it just be underscoring, why not make it at a performance level? And there are so many great artists out there just dying to do something like that. Rob Marshall, obviously, he's a brilliant choreographer and director. I just can't wait to see his work on the screen. I think it's great that he's made that move because it's probably not since Fosse that that's happened.

Q: One last question. When people hear the name Caroline O'Connor, what would you like them to think?
CO: I would really like them to enjoy my work, first and foremost, and to know that I put my heart and soul into my work.

IN OTHER DIVA NEWS OF THE WEEK The one-and-only Betty Buckley offers two concerts tonight (Dec. 6) at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Buckley will perform at the Center's Terrace Theatre at 7:30 and 9:30 PM. The multi-talented artist will feature songs from her eclectic repertoire, including many selections from her recent, critically hailed "Deep in the Heart" program at Feinstein's at the Regency. Tickets are priced at $45 and are available by calling (800) 444-1324 . . . Lauren Kennedy, who is currently starring as Fantine in the Broadway production of Les Misérables, will go it solo on Monday, Jan. 13, 2003, at the Ars Nova Theatre. And, former Cyrano star Anne Runolfsson will also offer a one-woman concert at the Ars Nova, on Feb. 3. Kennedy and Runolfsson are the latest offerings in the Broadway Spotlight Series, which presents concert evenings with stars of the Broadway stage. The Ars Nova Theater is located at 511 W. 54th Street in New York City. Tickets are priced at $12 and may be purchased through SmartTix (www.smarttix.com) and by phone at (212) 206-1515 . . . Darlene Love, who will star in the upcoming 20th anniversary tour of Nunsense, brings her annual Christmas concert to New York's Symphony Space on Dec. 20 and 21. "Darlene Love's Christmas in New York" will feature a rock-and-roll band and a full choir as well as a host of classic and not-so-classic holiday tunes. Concertgoers can expect Love to belt her signature holiday tune, "Christmas Baby Please Come Home," which she will also perform on "The David Letterman Show" later this month. Tickets for Love's 8 PM holiday concert, priced between $28 and $55, can be obtained by calling the Symphony Space box office at (212) 864-5400 or by logging on to www.symphonyspace.org. Symphony Space is located in New York City at Broadway and 95th Street . . . Renowned vocalist Maureen McGovern, who starred on Broadway in The Pirates of Penzance, Nine and 3 Penny Opera, will headline Feinstein's at the Regency from March 4-15. The posh nightspot is located at 540 Park Avenue at 61 Street; for more information, call (212) 339 4095.


Betty Buckley in Concert:

Dec. 6 at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC
Dec. 20 at the Sunoco Performance Theater in Harrisburg, PA
May 31, 2003 at Benaroya Hall in Seattle, WA

Liz Callaway in Concert: May 16, 2003 Broadway Showstoppers in Philadelphia, PA

Barbara Cook in Concert:

Now through Dec. 16 at the Royal Poinciana Playhouse in Palm Beach, FL
Dec. 20 at the Robert Ferst Center for the Arts at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, GA
Jan. 31, 2003 at the Tilles Center for the Performing Arts in Long Island, NY
Feb. 14-16 at the Byham Theater in Pittsburgh, PA

Linda Eder in Concert:

Dec. 12 at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Center in Sarasota, FL
Dec. 16 at the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts in West Palm Beach, FL
Dec. 17 at the Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater, FL
Dec. 18 at the Philharmonic Center for the Arts in Naples, FL
Dec. 20 and 21 with the Atlanta Symphony at the Woodruff Arts Center in Atlanta, GA
Jan. 3 and 4, 2003 with the Baltimore Symphony in Baltimore, MD
Jan. 25 at Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, CT
Jan. 30 at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza in Thousand Oaks, CA
Feb. 1 at the Vilar Center for the Arts in Beaver Creek, CO
Feb. 14 at the Proctor's Theatre in Albany, NY

Patti LuPone in Concert

March 27, 2003 at the East County Performing Arts Center in Cajon, CA ("Matters of the Heart")
March 28-29 at the McCallum Theatre in Palm Desert, CA ("Matters of the Heart")
March 30 at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, NV ("Matters of the Heart")
April 5 at the State Theater in New Brunswick, NJ ("Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda")

Maureen McGovern in Concert:

Dec. 6 at Pepperdine University in Malibu, CA
Dec. 8 at the Poway Center for the Performing Arts in Poway, CA
Dec. 9 Laurie Strauss Leukemia Benefit at Carnegie Hall in New York, NY
Dec. 14 at the Boca Pops Big Band Series in Boca Raton, FL

Well, that’s all for now. Happy diva-watching!

—By Andrew Gans

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