Growing up, Caroline O’Connor wanted to be Ethel Merman – the first lady of musical theatre in the world. She studied her roles, she watched everything she could, and dreamed of one day being that “absolute star of Broadway”. That dream came true for O’Connor, and then some – the diva has sung on Broadway, the West End, throughout Europe and on the silver screen. She even portrayed Merman herself in the Cole Porter biopic Delovely.
So when it came to casting the vivacious Reno Sweeney in Opera Australia and John Frost’s new production of Anything Goes, could there be anyone else? “Friends, colleagues, associates, agents – everyone’s always saying to me ‘When are you going to do Anything Goes?’,” O’Connor says, in her fast-talking, toffee-coloured, all show-business voice. “I always say, ‘I don’t know!’ In our business, you never know when shows are going to be created, and I just kept praying that somebody would do it before I miss out on the chance. It was such a thrill when I got the call! In Delovely, I sang as Merman at the opening night of Anything Goes – sometimes I think those things are spooky! I do believe in fate, and I think this was meant to be!”
O’Connor leads a cast of stars: Todd McKenney playing the pompous Lord Evelyn Oakley – “my character is so far removed from me it’s not funny,” McKenney quips, although the humour in his voice reveals it will be – and comic wonder Wayne Scott Kermond playing the failed gangster Moonface.
Alex Rathgeber lends his talent and good looks to the debonair Billy Crocker and Claire Lyon, a former Opera Australia performer, will sing the part of the débutante Hope Harcourt. Together with a brilliant creative team, including this year’s Helpmann Award winners for best director (Dean Bryant) and best choreographer (Andrew Hallsworth), the show promises to be a lot of fun.
“This show is pure, tap-dancing escapism,” says McKenney. “We’re not preaching at you, we just want you to sit back and we’ll take care of three hours of your life. No matter what kind of day you’ve had, you’ll get a huge laugh out of this show!”
It’s a bit of a change for Lyon, who has been singing the role of Christine Daae on the world tour of The Phantom of the Opera. “I’m looking forward to doing something that’s really upbeat,” she says. “Phantom I’m on stage constantly, singing top Es! This one I’ll get to relax into a bit, I think. And it has a happy ending!”
O’Connor says all of the songs in Anything Goes are tried and tested Broadway standards. “A lot of people don’t know they’re from a show. They know them as Ella Fitzgerald and all these fabulous people singing these songs, but then you hear them in the show, you think, oh, they make sense of the plot! The audience will just be able to sit there and tap along. When I say tap along, I mean tap their feet. They can’t get up on stage and tap – the stage is all about us! It’s a blockbuster of a musical and we’re doing it because it’s brilliant.”
The laughs won’t just be in the audience, McKenney reveals, with plenty of backstage antics in store. “Caroline O’Connor is not only incredibly talented but she’s one of the funniest people I’ve ever met in my life. The lengths she will go to for a gag are awe-inspiring and frankly … dangerous.”
Anything Goes is on in Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney in 2015. Tickets and more information at opera.org.au