Over coffee in the Qatar Airways MTC Lounge, Caroline O’Connor talks about her love of musical theatre, and of the importance of shows like Kiss of the Spider Woman.
‘I met this young girl the other day,’ says Caroline O’Connor, mid-conversation. ‘She just loves musical theatre and she was beside herself because she was like “I want to do what you do. I want to sing, I want to dance, I want to act.” That’s lovely, isn’t it? It’s almost like paying it forward.’
As someone who is continually generous with their thoughts, praise and time, ‘paying it forward’ is an apt term to describe O’Connor’s approach to her work. When asked what else she loves about her job, she doesn’t hesitate: ‘It’s always about the audience for me,’ she says. ‘I never think about how I’m feeling, I just keep hoping that the audience is enjoying it. And if I’m telling the story correctly so that they do enjoy it, to me that’s what it’s all about. It’s entertainment.’
When it comes to musical entertainment, O’Connor has done it all – from West Side Story, A Chorus Line and Oklahoma! to Funny Girl, Sweeny Todd and The Boy from Oz. And, of course, Cabaret and Chicago, John Kander and Fred Ebb’s two best-know smash hits. Kiss of the Spider Woman arguably rounds out their top three (certainly, in terms of Tony awards), and for O’Connor it felt like destiny.
‘I’m such a big Chita Rivera fan,’ she says, recalling the first star to play the role of Aurora/the Spider Woman. ‘I’ve played a few of her roles now and I saw her do this one in London, when it first opened – because it opened in London before Broadway – and I was fascinated with it. And Kander and Ebb, of course, I adore; and I got to meet them. And recently I worked with Terrence McNally: I just did Anastasia, which he wrote the book for as well. So I’ve been in a room with him and talked to him about these amazing shows that he’s written, including this one, and saying “oh my god, I'm going to get to do it!” So it just feels like it was maybe fate. That it was meant to happen.’
And yet, for a long time she thought she’d never get the chance, at least not in Australia. Referring to the work’s sensitive subject matter, she explains ‘I never thought anyone would do it, especially in this country, particularly.’ It is an unusual musical in many ways, she acknowledges – ‘I think a lot of audience members have come without knowing anything about it, and then just thought “oh my goodness!”’ – but she also recognises that ‘artistically it’s such a magnificent piece of work. I just love it because sometimes you don’t want to do musicals that always end in weddings; you know, frothy sort of shows. Sometimes you want to do things that are a little deeper, even if it’s not necessarily all for me. Just to be a part of something that’s a really important piece of work that people deserve to see.’
‘Audiences fall in love with the idea of people falling in love. And that’s sort of the end of it really. It doesn’t matter who they are, what they are. That’s what life’s all about. And I think this play really does prove that.’
And it couldn’t have come at a better time, she says, recognising the significance of a story like this at a time when it seems our hatreds and divisions are getting more powerful by the day, and we’re increasingly losing sight of the things that unite us. ‘Well anytime would have been a good time, to be honest with you, as far as the subject matter is concerned but it’s the fact that audiences fall in love with the idea of people falling in love. And that’s sort of the end of it really. It doesn’t matter who they are, what they are. That’s what life’s all about. And I think this play really does prove that.’
The power of kindness and trust
In particular, O’Connor appreciates the kindness inherent in the character of Molina. ‘You see someone who’s being so generous and so kind and so giving,’ she enthuses. ‘Because kindness is underestimated. And you see this character, played by Ainsley [Melham], and he’s got all his own issues and his own stuff going on but there he is being so incredibly generous. And it’s so beautifully written.’
Speaking of Melham, O’Connor has particular praise for him and Adam-Jon Fiorentino as Valentin. The whole cast and crew ‘is just so delightful’ she says before admitting that she loves ‘watching the boys’ in particular, ‘because of the trust they have with each other – it blows me away! It’s just heaven to watch, because it just seems like they are those people, they are those characters, and it’s so real.
‘I love the way they work,’ she continues. ‘I’ve watched them very carefully the whole rehearsal period, and trust is the word that keeps coming to mind for me with the two of them, because of the material and what they have to do. I’ve been so inspired by the two of them, and watching how easily they made it happen.’
Her name is Aurora
For her own part, O’Connor says she didn’t know what to expect. ‘I tried to arrive with a very open mind,’ she notes, as it’s not an easy role. As Aurora – a Hollywood Golden Age star beloved by Molina, coming to life in extravagant sequences existing only in his mind – she has to play a multitude of characters, each one very different to the last. ‘It’s a tricky role, I’m not gonna lie, because I don’t say much. It’s very hard to get a character like that across; it’s much easier when you get to sing and speak.’
In addition, she explains that in presenting these fantasy sequences ‘it can come across as just as sort of like a musical segment. And so it is hard, harder than I thought it would be actually, but that’s what I’m meant to do: I’m meant to be in [Molina’s] imagination, and perhaps his version of events might be slightly bigger or more fantastical than what really happened. So I have to portray whatever is in his head, and the way he saw it.’
But this aspect of the role is also what makes it so fun. ‘It’s lovely to be the soft feminine Aurora at the beginning, in the pretty little pink dress, and then the more sensual, caring Aurora in I Do Miracles, and then the very Chica Chica version, and the Russian of course! In that respect it kind of reminds me a bit of when I did Bombshells,’ she adds, ‘in how I have to come up with different energies for each person. I didn’t notice that until I got into rehearsals and suddenly I went “oh wow, this is hard”.’
Music to her ears
When it comes to the songs, she’s effusive. ‘Our orchestrations are so different to the original because they’ve been completely redone by [musical director & orchestrator] Jack Earle. I adore the original, but our version just makes it sound so authentic and just so original. That’s the beauty of doing this production with Dean and Andrew as well,’ she says, referring to director Dean Bryant and choreographer Andrew Hallsworth, ‘because they’re so creative so we’ve been able to recreate, or create, something of our own rather than just replicate what’s happened before.’
Asked if she has a favourite, she admits to especially loving She’s a Woman although it’s not one of the songs she herself sings. ‘I think it has to do with the way that Ainsley sings it, and I just think it’s one of the most beautiful songs [Kander & Ebb have] ever written. Also I love the mother’s song, You Could Never Shame Me. It’s completely heartbreaking. Especially I think for a lot of gay men, who’ve gone through that moment that they’ve had to come out to their family or parents; they must sit in the audience and hear that and it’s absolutely stunning. And so simple. It’s perfection.’
‘This is what theatre is. You should get goose bumps, you should laugh out loud, you should cry, you should be tense; that’s what live theatre is all about.’
Asked what her favourite thing about being on the Kiss of the Spider Woman stage, or any stage, is, O’Connor sings the praises of the whole experience – ‘it is just so delightful!’ – before elaborating on a particular moment in the play: ‘I stand on the balcony at that point and I can see the audience and so I see how so many of them have a visceral response, kind of hold their faces. And it makes me think: this is what theatre is. You should get goose bumps, you should laugh out loud, you should cry, you should be tense; that’s what live theatre is all about. And so I find it thrilling when you know that people are absolutely in the moment. That’s why I do what I do, that’s why I love my job!’
Kiss of the Spider Woman continues at Southbank Theatre until 28 December 2019.
Qatar Airways is an MTC Major Partner. Genovese is an MTC Production Partner (thanks for the coffee!)
Published on 9 December 2019