Turning Pages with Elaine Paige
By Ellis Nassour
Memories, Celebrating 40 Years in the Theatre, a sort of career memoir, not autobiography, by the U.K.’s First Lady of Musical Theater, is keeping Elaine Paige busy on these shores with the U.S. publication. Celebrating more than 40 years in show business, Paige on Wednesday sat with theater’s most knowledgeable host, Peter Felichia [author of the new book Broadway Musicals, critic, and TM contributor], at B&N Lincoln Square to expand on what’s in the book.
[Memories, Oberon Books/Theater Communication Group (TCG), hardcover, 160 pages, Foreword by Andrew Lloyd Webber; 222 color and B&W photos and illustrations, Stageography; alas, no Index, but the book is divided into a chronological order of Paige’s shows; SRP $42.] [Some autographed copies are in stock at B&N, Lincoln Square.]
She reminisced of her accidential path into theater, her appearance as an extra in the film of Oliver!, her many roles that provided her stage education [including Billy, where she played opposite Michael Crawford, whom she speaks of quite frankly in the book], to her eight auditions for Evita, the aftermath of fame she hated and wasn’t prepared for, getting to know Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, and roles in some of theater’s most iconic and successful shows Hair, Cats [when Judi Dench became indisposed, Paige received a desperate call from Lloyd Webber and was persuaded to take what was considered a cameo role, but with an important song: Grizabella], Chess, and Sunset Boulevard.
Paige, who always regretted not going after a career here, is one of the UK’s most successful theatrical recording artists with multiple Gold and Platinum discs lining her walls. She’s done over 20 solo albums, performed in concert throughout the world and in TV specials, finally made her Bway debut, and is celebrating the sixth season of her weekly BBC Radio 2 program Elaine Paige on Sunday, which reaches over two million listeners in U.K. and via the internet.
Paige’s still radiant beauty – almost like the cutest girl next door or Homecoming Queen just a bit dolled up but sans tons of make-up – is an ice breaker. The overflow crowd quicky warms to her winning smile and self-depreciation. Right off the bat she states that for the longest time she was stuck playing urchins "because, as you may have noticed, I’m short." Even in what appeared to be really rigid, solid steel six inch heels, she’s short.
The road to "first lady" was a long one. Soon tiring of chorus roles and always being hired to u/s, she swore off musicals. It was to the point that her beloved agent Libby Glen, a Canadian who spoke in a slow drawl, had to plead with her to audition for the role of Eva Peron, "someone I’d never heard of. I didn’t even know where Argentina was!" How Glen announced to her she got the part is hilariously recounted.
Paige was thrown into another stratasphere. She soon began to regret the months of calls backs. "I went out for other shows but never got the roles," she relates. "But my beloved Dad kept saying, ‘Not to worry, Elaine, there’s always going to be Evita.’ I don’t know how, but he knew." And that came to be, and her life was forever changed.
She’s high-flying adored at home and thought of as one of Britain’s theatrical treasures. In 1995 Paige received the Order of the British Empire for services to Musical Theatre.
As a performer, Paige has been at the forefront of the emergence of the British musicals that would rival those by some of Broadway’s master talents. She worked with key figures Andrew Lloyd Webber [who wrote the book’s Foreword]; Tim Rice, with whom Paige had a long-time intimate relationship; Hal Prince; Abba; and Trevor Nunn. You can add Cole Porter, since she starred in the much-acclaimed Lincoln Center production of Anything Goes on the West End.
In our own sit-down interview, Paige was brutally honest telling of her 40 + years of joys and regrets.
Regarding her "First Lady" title, she says, "That’s something I’ve been given, but I’d like to think I have many years to go. I love what I do. When I’m not doing it, I miss it. I can’t imagine doing anything else. In fact, I don’t know how to do anything else."
She admits that her lack of height affected her early career. "Until Evita came along, I really struggled to get work." Laughing heartily, she adds, "If Eva had been 5′ 10", I don’t know where I’d be today!"
Following her 2000 King and I, there was a "big gap" in her English stage work. Then, after a world-wide concert tour, she returned to the West End in 2007 in the title role of The Drowsy Chaperone, "which, sadly, didn’t run. We thought it would be a big success. It’s the funniest, most wicked and cleverest piece. They changed a lot of the writing to accommodate the fact that I’m not exactly the tallest person on the planet, and that led to a lot of gags and comedy by putting me next to long-legged chorus girls."
Until Drowsy Chaperone, "Nothing came up that I particularly wanted to do, and I’d been doing concerts worldwide. I enjoyed the idea of being in complete control, how much I would do, when I would do it. And I was able to travel the world. Only here [the U.S.], I haven’t worked as much as I’d like. I’d love to do more."
She would love to be back on Bway. The NY City Opera, where she did an acclaimed production of Sweeney Todd, has given her an open invitation to return. "They keep saying, ‘Come back, come back’ but we’re just trying to find the right project."
During theatrical off time, Paige says, "After nearly 40 years, I discovered real life and that there were other things in life other than the dressing room and stage."
Lloyd Webber calls Paige "the consummate professional" who "possesses a belt in areas where no self-respecting angel will ever dare to tread, and the heart to use this God-given voice in a way that imbues it with true emotion."
He made her Bway debut late in the run of Sunset Boulevard an event. "It was a magnificent experience and opened so many doors for me here," Paige enthuses. "The reviews were amazing but, more than that, the company was so welcoming. Alan Campbell, especially."
However, she says she waited much too long. "It was a late personal success and sad I wasn’t able to stay and build on it. There were offers to return to Broadway. It wasn’t that I wasn’t interested. There were personal reasons why I couldn’t. Life interrupted. I had to deal with my parents’ health issues. That was also why I had a long absence onstage at home. Family must take precedence."
Considering the acclaim she received playing Piaf in the U.K in 1993, it was puzzling to her that there weren’t offers to bring the show to Bway. "It didn’t happen," sighs Paige. "It’s still something I want to do, but I worry about going back when you’ve done it. Now, there’s been the film, which was a worldwide success."
Paige says she prefers moving ahead. "There may be another time to reconsider it, but it’s a very demanding role and I’m not 25 anymore!"
She feels live performance is "magic, a life-giving experience. In England, we say ‘Doctor theater.’ No matter how bad you feel, you step onstage, the lights hit you and you’re transported."
Paige states she’s very fulfilled "knowing I was part of a new era in musical theater in Britain with Tim and Andrew. Their shows changed everything – not only in British musical theater but worldwide."