The future is always uncertain in show business.  Until the phone rings, a performer never knows what she will be doing after the current show.
    Someone as famous and in demand as Caroline O'Connor has bookings until February, but even for her, there are big question marks both before and after.
    Tomorrow night, she takes centre stage in the musical Mack and Mabel, for the Production Company this month, with John Diedrich and Leonie Page.  But she does not know if negotiations to take the show to Sydney after its short Melbourne season at the Victorian Arts Centre will succeed.
    The other question mark comes from the desire of the show's writer, Jerry Herman -- the man behind such Broadway hits as Hello Dolly and Mame -- to have her play Mabel in New York next year.
    O'Connor is cautious about such a glamourous possibility.  "There is talk about a Broadway show, but I'll believe it when I see it," she says.  "Too many things can go wrong all too easily."
    She first performed the role of Mabel in London where she met Herman, as well as earning an Olivier nomination for best actress in a musical in 1996.
    The show is based on the silent-movie director, Mack Sennett, and the Brooklyn waitress, Mabel Normand, he made a star.
    O'Connor obviously has abilities to sing, dance and act that are not easily forgotten.  After returning to Australia to play such polished and scene-stealing roles as Anita in West Side Story and Velma Kelly in Chicago, she broke through as a solo performer last year in the play, Piaf.
    "At first I thought there was no way the show could succeed," she says.  "I thought no one either knew who Piaf was or would want to know.  Boy, was I wrong."
    Piaf was part of the Melbourne Theatre Company's season and packed out the Playhouse theatre for five weeks before O'Connor took the show to Sydney.
    "Robyn Nevin at the Sydney Theatre Company didn't want the show but it went so well that I won a Green Room award and Robyn didn't."
    O'Connor is slight and wiry, with energy to burn.  On stage, that energy turns into charisma.  Since Piaf, she has taken her one-woman show, From Stage to Screen, to Sydney and Adelaide and is booked to perform again next summer.
    "I'd like to bring it to Melbourne, if anyone's listening," she says.  The show's premiere was at Ruyton Girls School but O'Connor thinks it deserves a larger audience.
    "I can't do eight performances a week with it because it's made up of 22 show-stoppers and it's too draining."
    The director of Moulin Rouge, Baz Luhrmann, offered O'Connor her first film role after seeing her perform in Chicago.  "All my friends said I would go crazy sitting around a set all day but I just soaked up the atmosphere like a sponge."
    She went on to perform cancan and tango routines at the opening night parties for Moulin Rouge in Sydney, Cannes and New York.  "There were 3000 people screaming at the top of their lungs in Sydney -- that was a high point in my life."
    She says the shooting had a "family atmosphere" and that the film's stars, Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor, came to see her perform in Chicago.  "It was absolutely fantastic."
    O'Connor seems surprised that big-name stars should be impressed by her talents, but these have attracted attention since she was a child.  Her family migrated to Adelaide's Elizabeth Park when she was four but moved to Sydney five years later so she could attend the country's best Irish-dancing school.
    "The school taught other sorts of dancing and I started to think I was going to be a great classical dancer."  These dreams persisted even after she came third in the Irish-dancing championships in Dublin when she was 15.
    "My mum told me never to give up Irish dancing but I left school to enrol in the Royal Ballet School in London.  Then Riverdance happened all around the world," O'Connor laughs.
    She returned to Sydney after realising she was unlikely to become a principal dancer and found work with the Australian Opera's small ballet group.  There she met Anthony Warlow, who told her she had "too much personality" for a ballet dancer.
    "He introduced me to the songs of Stephen Sondheim and encouraged me to sing.  Everything that's happened since is all his fault," she grins.
    O'Connor went to London in 1984 for more experience and over the next eight years became the "queen of understudies".
    She was the stand-in for Emma Thompson in Me and My Girl and "never got on stage", but later did about half the performances as the backup for the Sally Bowles character in Cabaret.
    O'Connor won't mention the name of the star, but has little respect for performers who cannot carry the responsibilities demanded by a popular musical.
    "It can be very hard and people who haven't done musicals don't realise just what eight shows a week demands from them.  But they are being paid big money so it is up to them to get their stamina up to speed," she says.
    "I don't agree with people who leave it to the understudy to pick up the pieces."
    But O'Connor found it difficult to break through in London and began taking roles in shows touring the rest of England.  "I couldn't get a role in the Cameron Mackintosh musicals (such as Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables).
    "They tended to regard you as a second-class citizen if you were a dancer.  But I'm glad in a way -- I didn't want to be part of a factory," she says dismissively.
    But O'Connor was performing on the West End stage when she received the invitation to come back to Australia to play Puerto Rican fireball Anita in West Side Story.
    She had to wriggle out of her contract with the London '70s musical Hotstuff.  Since then, O'Connor has not looked back.
    She has many hopes for the future, including the chance to play the lead in an all-Australian show.  "We have to stop just copying hits from overseas," she says.
    When it is suggested that she contact John Frost, the producer of such shows as The Sound of Music and Annie, she remains quiet for a moment before breaking into a smile.  "I have," she says.  O'Connor's booming career in Australia might just be beginning.


Caroline O'Connor rehearsing for Mack and Mabel.