Caroline O’Connor knows a thing or two about dead divas. In fact, in recent years, O’Connor has been making a career out of playing them.
On stage, she has been Fanny Brice in Funny Girl and Edith Piaf in Piaf!, and last year in the movie De-Lovely she was Ethel Merman.
But now, the diminutive stage bombshell is about to tackle one of the greatest divas of the last century when she plays Judy Garland in the world premiere of the new play End Of The Rainbow, opening at The Playhouse at the Sydney Opera House on 4 August.
During a break in rehearsals, the effervescent O’Connor shakes her head in bemusement as she speaks about her latest career choice.
I really must be crazy doing another dead diva, she laughs. Someone recently sent me a script for a show on Nellie Melba, so maybe this is what my career is about to become -“ dead divas until I retire. Maria Callas in a revival of Master Class is probably just around the corner!
But playing Judy Garland was a role I just couldn’t resist. I had to do this. It is new and it is a different approach to the story.
End Of The Rainbow, written by English playwright Peter Quilter, tells the story of the final weeks of Garland’s life when she is living in a London hotel and about to embark on a series of shows at the famed Talk of the Town nightclub.
Engaged to Mickey Deans (Myles Pollard), who would become her fifth husband, Garland prepares for her concerts with her long-suffering accompanist Anthony (Paul Goddard). But as she attempts to build a new life with Deans, old tensions, a family rift and her past continue to haunt her.
End Of The Rainbow also features 10 Garland song standards, including Over The Rainbow, The Man That Got Away, The Trolley Song and Get Happy.
O’Connor, an award-winning musical theatre star in her own right, says taking on the icon of Garland for this play is the most daunting career choice she has ever made.
I am afraid of Judy Garland -“ really afraid, she admits. So many people said to me, -˜You have to do this,’ but my response was that I am not an impersonator, so why would I even try? I am too much of a fan.
I have been listening to all the recordings and watching the old performances, so I try to do justice to the phrasing, but I will never, ever touch that talent as it is too great.
But hers is a wonderful story which must be told. I just don’t want people to sit there and think about whether or not I am like Judy. I want them to get carried away with the story of this period of her life -“ and this is quite a fascinating time of her life.
The play also touches on Garland’s connection with her legion of gay fans. At one stage, she says to her gay pianist Anthony, You are going to be adored because of me -“ the queens will love you.
Garland was surrounded by gay men throughout her life. Her father Frank was bisexual, and three of her five husbands were either gay or bisexual, including Deans.
She had a tendency to pick them, O’Connor says. It was a pattern which kept repeating throughout her life and gay men were always around her.
But she had a genuine love for her gay fans. I often think it is a respect for them as gay audiences have great taste and it is why so many of the great stars have such a huge gay fan base. Gay audiences often understand the intricacies and are more in tune with what’s going on.
If I am with my gay friends and we’re talking about shows, they know as much as me, if not more. They suggest songs I should sing, and then tell me about all the different versions and how this one is from this show, and that one was cut before the show opened -“ all the ins and outs. I just look at them and wonder, -˜How do you know all of this?’ But bless them for knowing it as I take in every word.
O’Connor is now in demand as a performer on three continents, having earned her position as an above-the-title marquee star in Sydney, London and New York in such shows as Chicago, West Side Story, Mack And Mabel, and Man Of La Mancha. She also was also Nini in the movie Moulin Rouge.
Her one-woman show Bombshells, however, has proved to be one of her biggest hits, having played to packed houses in Australia before earning her an Olivier Award nomination as Best Actress in a play after its run in London’s West End last year.
She also appeared in a London revival of the musical On The Town alongside fellow Aussie, Adam Garcia.
While the self-proclaimed girl from Rockdale, who is married to musician Barrie Shaw, is happy to be back home in Sydney and working on End Of The Rainbow, she still has one eye on London.
If all goes well, I would love to take it to London, she admits. Then again, we might see how it goes and how I get through it first. I might end up like Judy myself!
Then with a shriek of laughter, she adds, So if the next time you see me and I am sitting down one end of a bar, unsteady and holding yet another drink to my lips, please be nice to me!
End Of The Rainbow opens Thursday 4 August at The Playhouse, Sydney Opera House. Bookings: 9929 0644, 9250 7777 or 132 849.