Previews for Dream Lover: The Bobby Darin Musical have commenced this week and Caroline O’Connor took some time out of her busy schedule to introduce the new musical to AussieTheatre readers. Performing a double role within the show, she spoke to me about how she researches historical characters, why bio musicals function within the parameters of “new” musical theatre, and what happens when dramatic material intertwines with personal experience in the rehearsal room.
Why and how did you become involved in the show?
Well, number one, because I was asked if I would like to do it, and because of other jobs that were in the pipeline (particularly Anastasia, the show I’m doing next year in New York), […] I didn’t know if [Dream Lover] was going to work out. People might have thought I got on board quite late, but it was because I couldn’t give an answer. I’m a bit of a fatalist, so I thought, “if this is meant to be then it will happen, and things will fall into place,” and they did! I love working with Simon Phillips [director], this will be my third show with him – my first musical with him though because we did two plays together, Bombshells and Scarlett O’Hara at the Crimson Parrot. I’m a big fan of his work and it was an interesting project because I’m playing two different women, I thought that sounded like a lot of fun and a bit unusual. And of course, because it’s a brand new show, created from scratch, it’s pretty thrilling when you get the chance to create something. Just all the people involved, David [Campbell] and the entire creative team… You just look at it and go, “wow. That sounds like a magical project.” So I’m really chuffed and thrilled that I’m part of it, now.
What has it been like so far to work with cast mates and creatives for this show?
It’s pretty fabulous. You know, you get lucky sometimes when a beautiful family comes together and you feel like you’re all on the same page. It was thrilling around day three, we sat and read through the play and sang through the piece, and I was sitting next to David just listening to his voice. It was amazing to be in that close proximity to him and his voice that so suits this style of music, it’s like he was born to play it. It’s so fabulous when you sit next to someone and you go, “wow, just add water!” And of course, everybody else in the cast… You look around and go, “wow!” This feels really, really special.
You’ve originated two roles in musicals recently, and have a career that spans both new and very well-established roles. How have you prepared for this show, and is there a difference in your preparation process depending on whether you are creating or re-creating your role?
I love the research part of the project anyway, people who are alive or if they were real people, it just makes everything (I think) a little bit easier. Then there’s the other part, which is the director’s vision of how the characters are portrayed. […] For instance, it’s been difficult to find information about Polly, Bobby Darin’s mother, because she didn’t live to a ripe old age, so apart from his relationship with her, there’s not a lot of information about her. She was a single mum, she had a daughter and son and was very loyal, she seemed like a glass half full kind of person, and then of course [playing two roles] you want to have a completely different type of woman in the other direction, which luckily, Mary Douvan is. She was kind of an archetypal stage mother in a way, she was obsessed with her daughter and her career and it looked like in photographs they had a great relationship, but I think there was so much more to it.
They are very diverse [characters], and it’s been a very interesting process, because you are you and [actors] can only do so much as far as say, an accent is concerned – their accent will be different, so you try to perfect it and that’s your ground work, and then so much comes together through other elements, like costumes. A lot of the visual elements [of your character] when you walk on stage and the audience sees you is to do with costumes and the wig department. They have such an impact of your character, and […] the way you play your character. Once you get dressed, you feel so different… That’s kind of exciting, and also, that’s their vision too. You kind of have to collaborate, between the director, yourself, and the people that are designing the show, and you have to come up with a version of the character that you’re all happy with. It’s fun, but it’s also a slower process. I have my own ideas, but I don’t turn up on day one knowing exactly what I’m going to do, I gradually pay attention to what’s going on in the room and react.
Have you experienced an unexpected moment at Dream Lover? A realisation or moment of clarity brought about by the material or a cast mate?
I’ve had an absolutely huge one, on that read through on day three… Huge, it was. A couple of days before, my mother had gone into hospital, and it was very unexpected. In Act II I have to sing a song called ‘More Than the Greatest Love You’ll Ever Know’, an absolutely beautiful song, and I could not sing! I was sobbing, it was so embarrassing, but I felt such a connection to those lyrics, those words and the character that I was playing, because I was playing a mother who adored her son, and I was sitting there thinking about my own mother. I couldn’t stop worrying about her and the song suddenly took on such gravity. Also, David, sitting next to me, and knowing his life story and the Bobby Darin story, there are similarities there, so my mind was doing somersaults… And then of course I had Marney McQueen sitting next to me who is playing my daughter in the play as well, and they both had their arms around me… I was so embarrassed because everyone was there, all the creatives, everybody was watching this read through, and it was just absolutely genuine, guttural emotion coming out. If I never knew what this song was about, I certainly know now. It was an unbelievable moment, and I’ve never expressed anything quite like that before.
Why is 2016 Australia the right time for a musical about a 1950/60s American character?
I don’t think you can ever judge when the time is right. I think show business is a very risky thing to do, full stop… I love that line in The Producers where they say to never put your own money into a show… It’s such an interesting thing, show business. It’s a bit like fashion, you never know what’s going to become popular. I think that it is just osmosis, a show comes on, and if an audience love it it will take off, it just happens. I don’t think you can actually pinpoint it. All you can do is give the audience the best show you possibly can and just hope that it’s going to be something that they love.
What place do you think bio-musicals have in the landscape of new musical theatre?
I’m a fan of them, because I love a true story. I’m mad about biographies and autobiographies. I love hearing people’s life stories, so I am biased, actually. Also, I’ve done Piaf and Judy Garland, so I’ve experience playing two extraordinary women, legends of the theatre, and I had some of the best times I’ve had working during that.
I know that audiences are always shocked by what they hear, they know the music is fabulous, because of course they know all the songs, but then they go, “wow, oh my god, I didn’t know their life was like that…” and I think that’s the wonderful thing about these types of shows, is that you get a surprise. You just assume that [the subjects of the show] had a happy life and were successful, but there’s always a reason that these people were successful, and it’s because they really had to work bloody hard, they had to struggle. There’s a fighting spirit to these people that keeps them going, so I personally think that there is a place for these shows because entertainers are interesting. And somebody like Bobby Darin, who was so crazy talented to be able to perform and to write like that, and then to have done so much in such a short period of time … He died at 37, which is madness to me, and he was ill most of his life, which nobody would have known if you watch him perform. What a wonderful human spirit he had. It’s fabulous to watch someone like that defying the odds and triumphing. I’m a fan [of bio musicals] as long as they are done really well.
What reaction do you expect from audiences, and what feedback would you need from Dream Lover audiences to convince you of a job well done?
I don’t think I have any expectations of the audience, to be honest. I don’t think about it. I mean, I always think about entertaining the audience, but I know that on a nightly basis the audience response is always different, there’s no question. One thing I have noticed in rehearsal for Dream Lover is the response of the people watching scenes and numbers, it’s always so uplifting and everyone seems so excited by what’s happening. So, if the reaction in the rehearsal room is anything to go by, I think the audience are just going to have the most brilliant evening, I do. I wish I could predict things, if I could I would be the most successful producer in Australia. I bet John Frost wishes he could do that… Could you imagine?
Dream Lover begins preview performances in Sydney tomorrow night, with no current touring plans. Tickets can be purchased at this link.