DIVA TALK: Catching Up With A Christmas Story, The Musical Star Caroline O'Connor
By Andrew Gans
December 7, 2012
News, views and reviews about the women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
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.
O'Connor in Assassins.
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.
O'Connor in A Christmas Story, The Musical.
Photo by Carol Rosegg
Question: The night I saw it, you stopped the show with that number. What's it like for you doing that big number each night? O'Connor: It's incredible, you know. I [remember] when they called me, actually — when I was speaking to them on the phone in Milwaukee — saying, "This number's great. It's really great, I promise you. It's wonderful." And, they're talking about it, and you think, "Maybe they're just excited," but actually it is. It's one of those numbers, I swear, every show it gets this incredible response. I mean, it's a fantastic number. It's wonderful to sing and to dance to. And, I haven't tap danced since 1984! [Laughs.] In Me and My Girl… I'm so glad that I had learned to tap because it just shows you these other things that you can do sometimes, many years later, come in handy. And so, when I was in Milwaukee, I asked the prop guy to give me a tap board, and I started practicing before I arrived for rehearsals here. But it is — it's really wonderful to be on stage every night and get that response, especially here in New York with a brand-new show. And, I'm so proud. I'm so relieved that it's everything that they sort of hoped it would be, and I just love it. And, I love performing with those kids. They're just something else!
Question: I know it's limited, but is there any talk of extending at this point? O'Connor: I don't think there is any chance of that, actually, because there's another show that's coming in, so that's it. We finish on [Dec. 30], and I've been told, even from the management now, they said, "Look, if you're looking for tickets, the closer it gets to Christmas, it's getting really, really tight" because the show is doing really well. It's a wonderful response — every performance. Isn't that lovely? Because it's so iconic, that movie, you think, "Oh, would you dare turn it into a musical?" And, I just think it works brilliantly. The music that those guys have written is so appropriate for every number. I just love it. I sit in the dressing room — because I'm not on stage all the time — and I just really enjoy the music. It's very clever, and it's perfect for a children's story.
Johnny Rabe as Ralphie
photo by Carol Rosegg
Question: The audience that I was in seemed very familiar with the movie, and it was fun to hear them react even before something happens. They know what's coming. O'Connor: [Laughs.] Exactly! Night after night, they see that box come on, or they know when [Ralphie] pulls out that bunny suit, and I think to myself, "How incredible!" It sort of reminds me of something like The Rocky Horror Show, where they know what's coming, and they get so excited. I suppose there is a whole new generation now who are going to get to know that film. What I think is really interesting is you look out into the house, and there are a lot of adults. It's not just about kids coming to see the show. Obviously, it's adults who are reliving their childhood.
Question: You seem to work all over, and sometimes that's difficult, in terms of Equity. How does that work for you? O'Connor: Well, the thing is I have an American Green Card. I live here as much as I can. I mean, I try to be here as long and as much as I can, but, of course, my career is sort of international, really. I get offered work in Europe a lot because I've spent a lot of time there also and in Australia. So I suppose I'm in a very fortunate position to be able to do that because I just love working. I suppose I'm the epitome of the old-fashioned version of the word gypsy. I tend to be that person who just works where I'm drawn to work all over. And, I'm very fortunate that I'm able to do that because I grew up in Australia, and I was born in England… I look at some opera singers — I'm not saying that I'm an opera singer, [but] I'm comparing my career to where you have to travel all around the world to do that. I really love that because I learn so much all the time when I'm traveling. I come here, and I'm working around people and all of a sudden I'm inspired again, and I'm catching up on everything that's going on.
I could be here for some time because, fingers crossed, if Prince of Broadway gets the green light, they're talking about it possibly opening this coming August. We did a workshop during rehearsals. I worked with Hal Prince and Susan Stroman on that, and — I don't know if you know about that — but we did two presentations at the Westside Theatre, and that was amazing. That's the first time I'd worked with Susan Stroman and Hal Prince, and, oh, it's just heaven on a stick. It really was. It was just wonderful…
O'Connor in Sweeney Todd at the Chatelet Theatre in Paris.
In this version that we did, [there's a] kind of cute-like, animated vision of Hal — with his speaking voice… It's storytelling of how these shows came about. We just did a very condensed version of it, obviously, and I'll be honest with you — that job came about in the most unbelievable way because of Sweeney Todd. When I did Sweeney in Paris, Sondheim saw that, and when Hal Price was talking about Prince of Broadway, he recommended me to Hal. [Laughs.] Obviously, there's going to be Sweeney Todd material in the show, and I did some work from Cabaret — [Fraulein] Schneider work. And so I get this call — can you imagine — in my house in Australia, saying, "Hal Prince is going to call you at six o'clock." I'm like, "What?!" He rings me and was like, "Hi, Caroline, it's Hal." And, I was like, "Can you just hang on for one second?" And, I put the phone down, and I just started jumping up and down in the bedroom going, "Oh my God, is this really happening?" I said, "I'm so sorry. I had to just let that sink in for a minute that you called me at my house."
… And, he starts telling me about it and getting very excited about it. It could be incredible. To think of the amount of extraordinary material that the man has directed, created, produced over the years. Talk about getting your money's worth! Imagine sitting there one evening and just watching all of those shows — well, numbers from those shows — one after the other. I just think it would be an incredible evening at the theatre. What an extraordinary career he's had, and what an amazing gentleman. I learned a lot in that one week just being in the room with him, and I love that. And, then Susan Stroman — she's extraordinary — so I'm really keeping my fingers crossed that that happens because I think it would be a wonderful event here on Broadway.
Question: It sounds exciting. He also directed Evita, which is how I fell in love with musical theatre. O'Connor: I know! Obviously, at that event they couldn't do everything, because it was just a presentation — but there was an overture… Jason Robert Brown was the MD and played on the piano. I mean, my God, can he play the piano or what? Incredible. And, all of these titles were coming up on the screen one after the other — Fiddler on the Roof and Follies and Sweeney Todd. I mean, just so many shows, and you just look and go, "That's incredible." That's such a big chunk of Broadway history that he's been involved with — either as a director or a producer — just blows me away, and still as enthusiastic as ever. You can still see the love of it, still, in his eyes and the way he felt being in the room with everybody. That's the thing about our business. It's a real love affair. It truly is. I can't get over it, you know, that you can still feel this way. When I started rehearsals for this, it was so exciting to be doing a new piece and here on Broadway at this time of year.
O'Connor in Follies.
photo by Liz Lauren
Question: You mentioned before: playing Phyllis in Follies. What was that experience like for you? O'Connor: That was amazing because that came out of the blue, too. I got a call from Gary Griffin asking me if I would be interested in doing it, and, of course, I jumped at the chance. I don't know how that happened, to be honest with you… [Laughs.] But he brought something out of me, actually, in that production that I've never really done before. I'm known as quite an energetic, bit of an Eveready Bunny. I do have a lot of energy, but with Phyllis, it's not that appropriate, but I think he saw that he could do something with me that would be a bit different. I mean, Phyllis is very still — very still journey the entire show — and very in control. Well, in control [but] underneath it was this thing bubbling, obviously.
I just found the whole process with him very interesting because he kept saying to me, "That's it. Don't do anymore. Less, less, less." And, I kept thinking, "I'm not doing anything. I'm not doing anything!" And, of course, you really get the payoff in Act Two when the explosion happens — the arguments — and the number, so I learned a lot about graduating the performance. It was fascinating to me, and working on that material… It's complicated. The script is very complicated. It's not on the page. You really have to investigate what, actually, is going on because it's very personal, and it's very moving. The audience [is] watching this party, so to speak, but they're watching these people with their real lives and what's happened to them in the past…sort of what's become of them, which is, at times, quite devastating to see… I think it's an incredible piece of work. I was really honored to be part of that production. I mean, Susan Moniz was just stunning as Sally, and Brent Barrett was my husband — I mean, God, incredible — and Robert Petkoff was sensational. I just loved every minute. I wish we could have run longer. Business was great, and I think we could have run longer, but that was a fabulous experience. Also, the choreography — I'd never worked with Alex Sanchez before, and he was just wonderful. And then I got a lovely prize at the end, which was — I was just blown away — I got the Jeff Award, and I was like, "Oh my God!" [Laughs.] It was worth it, you know, to go through that whole process. It's difficult. Follies is a difficult show, for all of us. We had a wonderful time.
O'Connor in A Christmas Story, The Musical.
Photo by Carol Rosegg
Question: Is there any dream role that you'd like to do on Broadway? O'Connor: It's tricky, you know. I would love to create something from scratch — that would be pretty exciting. I just did Gypsy last year in England, which I absolutely loved. That was amazing. Over the last few years, I'll be honest with you, I've started to do some of those dream roles, and I can't believe it's happening — like Mrs. Lovett, like Mama Rose and Phyllis. I'm at that age now and that stage. And, I love them. People suggest things to me, like Mame would be a good idea. I always had an inkling that I'd like to do a production of Kiss of the Spider Woman. I'm a big Kander and Ebb fan, and I think it would be something to really look at again. I think there's a wonderful play in there, and also the music I really like. Gosh, it's so hard. I kind of leave it in the lap of the gods of theatre… I believe in fate, and sometimes I think these things come about because they're meant to. There's a chance I might be doing Gypsy in Australia, which would be fun — that's maybe on the cards. Yeah, I don't know. They say you should throw it out there and maybe it will happen. Anything that you might suggest? [Laughs.]
Question: I would have loved to see your Phyllis in Follies, and your Rose. O'Connor: I love Rose. I've been singing Rose [since I was] a kid. My mother has a tape recording of me singing Rose when I was 11 because I was so in love with Ethel Merman when I was growing up in Australia. I remember the Gypsy album was one of the first albums I was ever given — the LP — and I used to listen to it and just imagine… Because I didn't know what Broadway was. When you're nine or ten growing up in Australia, you're like, "Broadway? What does that mean? What is that?" And, when I heard her voice, I thought, "That must be what Broadway is. That's it." Because of this power, and I felt like I could imagine and see her performance in front of my eyes, even though I didn't know — apart from pictures on the album — what was happening because I was a kid. And then I got the Chorus Line album, and I went through the same process with that, and then they started buying me things like Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and My Fair Lady and all these albums because I really loved it… I'm surprised there is no Ethel Merman Theatre, actually.
O'Connor as Mama Rose
Question: It is long overdue. O'Connor: Yeah, because, gosh, what a record she had of performances and also creating roles. She was in Call Me Madam. It's just incredible. And, I got to play her in "De-Lovely," the film — just for a split second I got to do her. I thought, "Isn't that weird?" Because I loved her so much as a child, and I got to do Ethel Merman singing "Anything Goes" on film. That was spooky to me.
Question: One last question. Since it is holiday time, I'm wondering if you have any holiday traditions or how you will be spending the holidays this year. O'Connor: Well, we didn't really kind of celebrate Thanksgiving. Everybody at work was like, "What're you doing for Thanksgiving?" I'm like, "Well, we don't really celebrate it." I mean, we were invited to a couple of friends' places, but we had a show that night, so it would have meant going in the afternoon… I went to the Westway Diner, and I had some turkey bacon. And, I felt like I contributed a little bit to the day with a couple of friends. That was fun. And then Christmas, I've got a really good friend here in New York, and we're going to spend that with his family, but I will miss my family. My mum does a lovely Christmas with trees and lots of gifts, and it's always a nice Christmas dinner. So I shall miss that this year. I'm not always there, but she does a great Christmas, but at least I'll be around friends. I've got some friends flying in from London. Two friends from London, two friends from Australia and, as I say, my friend from New York and his family, so I think it's going to be a pretty fantastic day. We're getting the train out to Long Island because we have the day off, and we'll spend the holiday together there. Of course, I've got two shows the next day, so I've got to be a bit careful. [Laughs.]