Caroline O'Connor to perform My Musical Life in Perth.

Perth International Cabaret Festival presents Caroline O’Connor: My Musical Life at His Majesty’s Theatre

Main Image: Caroline O'Connor to perform My Musical Life in Perth. Credit: Supplied

Tanya MacNaughtonThe West Australian

Fans of musical theatre legend Caroline O’Connor would be surprised how much performing cabaret used to terrify her, given the Australia, West End and Broadway star’s triple-threat talents are made for the intimate theatrical art form.

“Cabaret is not just about singing, it’s sort of telling people about yourself a little bit, because not everybody that comes is going to know who you are,” the Helpmann Award winner and Olivier Award nominee explains.

“I used to write it all down, there was a script and everything, and then I realised that I’m just a chatterbox, I should just talk. It doesn’t matter if it’s not the same every night. You’re allowed to break the fourth wall and you’re allowed to have that connection with the audience, and if they respond to something, you can go with the flow.

“All of a sudden, I wasn’t scared of it anymore and really enjoyed it. I’ve also played a lot of characters, so I never knew what I sounded like because I do accents and character voices. When I realised that I could probably still do the same thing, I just had to talk as myself in between, it’s like a light was switched on and I thought ‘OK, I get it’.”

Perth International Cabaret Festival presents Caroline O’Connor: My Musical Life at His Majesty’s Theatre.
Camera IconPerth International Cabaret Festival presents Caroline O’Connor: My Musical Life at His Majesty’s Theatre. Credit: Supplied

The extensive list of roles O’Connor has played ranges from Velma Kelly in Chicago across multiple productions, Anita in West Side Story and Mrs Lovett in Sweeney Todd to Reno in Anything Goes, Nini Legs in the Air in Baz Luhrmann’s film Moulin Rouge! and Ethel Merman in the Cole Porter biopic De-Lovely.

She also received great acclaim for her portrayals of Edith Piaf and Judy Garland in plays Piaf and End Of The Rainbow.

Born in England to Irish parents, the family emigrated to Adelaide when O’Connor was four, before moving to Sydney five years later so their Irish dancing daughter could attend a better dance school, which turned out to also teach ballet, tap and jazz.

It led to O’Connor studying at the esteemed Royal Ballet School in London, remaining in England for 14 years when the work kept rolling in.

“I was getting so much experience working in the West End, just seeing all these amazing actors and working with amazing directors and choreographers and musical directors, so I was doing all my learning there because in my day, there was no musical theatre school,” she says.

“I didn’t know that I’d go from being a dancer to being regarded as a singer, to an actress. I didn’t plan it, but the dream was to be versatile, to be good at characters, and I thought I’d always be the ‘other girl’.

Music theatre legend Caroline O'Connor.
Camera IconMusic theatre legend Caroline O'Connor. Credit: Supplied

“So when I got Anita in West Side Story, I was like, ‘yeah, that makes sense’. It was Chicago that sort of changed everything, and I was no spring chicken the first time, never mind the second time. I was in my 30s the first time, I think I was 36, and the second time I was 46 when I did it in Australia.

“I was a mature dancer, but I think because I had Royal Ballet training, I was able to keep myself going for a longer period, and because of Chicago, I got Moulin Rouge! and because of Moulin Rouge!, I got to go to Broadway. After Broadway with Chicago, I got my green card, so then I was able to start working more in America. I’m so fortunate to have been able to do all these different roles and work with great people.”

It was while understudying the role of Sally Bowles in a London production of Cabaret that O’Connor met musician husband Barrie Shaw. The pair were attracted to each other before even meeting, back in the day when musicians were hidden away in the orchestra pit, rarely bumping into the onstage performers in the theatre hallways.

“I heard him playing these sexy saxophone solos in Maybe This Time, while sitting in my dressing room going, ‘oh my God, who’s that? It sounds so fabulous’,” O’Connor laughs.

Caroline O'Connor is heading to Perth International Cabaret Festival.
Camera IconCaroline O'Connor is heading to Perth International Cabaret Festival. Credit: Supplied

“And when he heard me singing Cabaret and Maybe This Time, and he said to his friends, ‘does anybody know who the girl is that’s understudying?’ because he liked the sound of my voice.”

The couple married in 1996 — with Shaw soon becoming O’Connor’s manager — and are now based in Noosa with their aptly named Miniature Poodle Lola, who is said to be every bit a showgirl.

Making her Perth International Cabaret Festival debut, O’Connor will showcase highlights from her career in the world premiere of My Musical Life, before her attention turns to the recent announcement of being cast in Hello, Dolly! at The Lido 2 Paris, opening in November.

“It’s a dream role for me,” she enthuses.

“For a musical theatre performer, it’s just a gift from heaven. I’m beside myself and am like an excited child.”

Caroline O’Connor: My Musical Life is at His Majesty’s Theatre, June 14. Perth International Cabaret Festival is on June 10 to 23. Tickets at perthcabaret.com.au.