Oh alright then, come on,” coos Caroline O’Connor, briefly disappearing out of view of the Zoom screen and popping up a second later with a little white dog in her arms. “This is Lola,” she announces and, satisfied enough to stop barking, Lola is happy to be returned to the floor.
The miniature poodle was a COVID purchase, bought to give O’Connor something else to think about other than the fact that the work she has done for 40 years, becoming one of the most well-known and respected musical theatre stars in the country, was no more. And who knew when it would be back?
“It was really scary, I have to say I didn’t cope with it very well at all,” she says. “It made me realise how much I identify myself with what I do. Which is a bit scary, because you think, gosh can’t I just enjoy my life without having to do what I do? But I think after 40 years of doing it, I just felt like I was missing a limb. Emotionally I felt very strange not being able to express myself. So I really did struggle with it.”
In addition, she and her husband Barrie Shaw had just moved to their new home in Noosa, selling the Sydney home they had been based in for 20 years. O’Connor, who exudes energy and charm, had not yet had the chance to make friends and connections in the community. “It felt lonely, and also (without) my family – my parents are gone now – and Barrie’s family is in England”.
She suspects she was a little depressed.“Yes, that’s exactly how I was feeling,” she says, and once the pandemic entered its second year, she started to worry when – if – it would end. “Oh my goodness, this could go on for a long time … what am I going to do with myself?”
So that’s when Lola came along. “She’s just changed everything, because I had something else to think about, worry about and care about other than myself.”
Mercifully, while the pandemic is still going, life has been able to return more or less to normal, and theatre is back up and running. So two years after it was originally meant to open, O’Connor is playing the role of Roz Keith in 9 to 5, a musical version of the smash hit 1980 film that starred Dolly Parton, Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin – and featuring, of course, the eponymous song that once in your head, will have trouble seeing itself out again.
She is part of a stellar cast that includes Marina Prior, Casey Donovan, Eddie Perfect and Erin Clare, with a tour that began in Sydney, moved to Brisbane and is now in Melbourne.
While the cultural gap between 1980 and 2022 is a wide one, especially in terms of sexual politics, O’Connor agrees that one of the things that resonates with audiences about the show is women struggling to be treated with respect and paid equally for their work and talents. It is, of course, a struggle that continues more than 40 years down the track.
“People are still fighting to get that opportunity and position. And I think that’s why it has such a resonance with people,” O’Connor says. During certain parts of the musical, she can hear audible groans from the (usually mostly female) audience, because it’s tapping into an all-too-real experience.
Then there is the music of the legendary Parton, which she wrote especially for the stage version of the film. Unsurprisingly, O’Connor is a huge fan: “Her songwriting has to be among the greatest of any songwriting in the world”. It’s not just the music she admires, but the woman herself.
“She’s very smart and she knows herself so well, and gosh, that’s one quality I wish I had – that sort of confidence in myself to be exactly who I am. I just look at her and go, that’s the way we should feel!”
And while the song 9 to 5 has a kind of anthemic feel to it and is so widely known, O’Connor says she never tires of it. “It’s not like James Blunt’s You’re Beautiful, when you go holey moley, make it stop,” she chuckles. “This is one of those songs that … we still jig about in the wings”
O’Connor has spent a great deal of her life not just in the wings, but firmly on centre stage, earning countless plaudits and awards along the way.
Born in Oldham, Lancashire, to Irish parents Maureen and James, the family emigrated to Adelaide in 1966, when Caroline was just four. With a sister 10 years older and two brothers, eight and nine years older than her, O’Connor spent a lot of time on her own as a child. Her music-loving parents were both shift workers with Qantas – her mum in the staff canteen and her dad in the cargo area – so young Caroline would make her way home from school and let herself in with the key she wore around her neck. She would then sing and perform, on her own, to her parents’ many musical theatre records: Gypsy, A Chorus Line, South Pacific. (She identifies strongly with the character LV in Little Voice, singing whole-heartedly, and taking on vocal characters, to no one in particular.)
“It was just a bit of an obsession,” she says with her customary warmth, “but I didn’t think it would be a career”.
Showing early promise as a dancer, O’Connor excelled at Irish dancing – she was Australian champion and placed third at the world championships at just 15 – but it was ballet that captured her heart and, at 17, she moved to London to take up a place at the prestigious Royal Ballet School.
TAKE 7: THE ANSWERS ACCORDING TO CAROLINE O’CONNOR
- Worst habit? Perfectionism.
- Greatest fear? Loneliness.
- The line that stayed with you? “It seems to me that life is the long process of surviving the defeat of expectations. What pleasures life delivers are never the expected ones.” (From Joanna Murray-Smith’s play Bombshells)
- Biggest regret? I wish I had gone to New York in my 20s.
- Favourite room? Bedroom.
- Artwork you wish was yours? Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss.
- If you could solve one thing… Mental health problems.
However, she soon realised that she didn’t have exactly the right body type for ballet’s rigid demands, and she would never be a star in its ranks. But the London sojourn provided her with one bit of serendipity: the only musical she could afford to see there was Oklahoma, so she bought herself a “nose bleed” ticket for £5 and had the time of her life.
When she returned home to Sydney, not quite sure what to do with herself, she went back to Ransley studios to continue her dance training, and through connections landed a part as a ballet dancer with the Australian Opera. It was here that she met Anthony Warlow, who insisted she audition as a replacement “swing” performer in none other than Oklahoma – in fact, the same production she had seen in London.
She has barely paused since. She immediately realised, too, that musicals were where she wanted to be – she had found her “place”.
She and Barrie – a saxophone and clarinet player who is also in the 9 to 5 band – met when they were both in production of Cabaret in the West End in 1986, and married in 1996. Prior to COVID, they split their time between London, New York and Sydney, and now Noosa is their base. (Lola now travels around with them, too: “I need her with me,” O’Connor says seriously. “I would rather have Lola than take medication.“)
People sometimes assume, she says, that she has always been in lead roles. This is not the case: she paid her dues in the chorus for many years before finally, at 31, earning the role of Mabel in Mack & Mabel, for which she earned a Laurence Olivier nomination for Best Actress in a Musical.
She is perhaps most famous for her role as Velma Kelly in Chicago, which she has performed around the world, including on Broadway, and has had two plays written for her: Joanna Murray-Smith’s Bombshells and David Williamson’s Scarlett O’Hara and the Crimson Parrot. She has also recorded four solo albums, including tributes to Edith Piaf and Judy Garland.
O’Connor will turn 60 in September, and feels blessed to have had such longevity in a notoriously competitive and, especially for women, fickle industry. But clearly the combination of hard work, sublime talent and personal warmth have made her difficult for producers to go past.
While Roz is not a main role in 9 to 5, O’Connor says this is not in the least bit important to her – she just loves being on stage. “I’ve taken on this challenge and I just love it because it’s a great comedic role. It’s a terrific role, it’s a very physical role but the comedy is most important”.
She initially saw the show in London, and “the woman who plays it in London is absolutely extraordinary. She’s very bendy,” she says. “And I was a bit nervous about it because I thought oh god, I hope they don’t want me to be a gymnast because I can do a lot of things – but I can’t do that!”
One of the great things about the musical, O’Connor says, is that it is just pure, unabashed fun. “There’s a certain amount of depth to it, but not too much … it’s pure entertainment”
It’s an amazing opportunity in a small role, she says, before adding gleefully: “And we’re back! We’re back in the theatre, and it’s my therapy.”
9 to 5 The Musical is at the State Theatre, July 10-September 11. artscentremelbourne.com.au