The West End musical theatre has produced many stars, but for this writer none more talented than Elaine Paige. Paige, of course, was the first actress ever to play the roles of Eva (in Evita), Grizabella (in Cats) and Florence (in Chess) onstage. She later scored with the West End revivals of Cole Porter's Anything Goes and Rodgers and Hammerstein's The King and I as well as Andrew Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard and the musical drama Piaf. I've been lucky enough to catch three of Paige's London performances — a riveting Edith Piaf in Piaf, a humorous yet touching Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard and a fiery and beautifully sung Anna Leonowens in The King and I — and they remain highlights of my theatregoing experiences. I can still vividly recall the power of Paige's voice, belting "Mon Dieu" on a bare stage in Piaf and the beauty of her tones as she began singing Andrew Lloyd Webber's "With One Look" in Sunset. And, what a thrill it was to hear her unexpectedly hold the word "home" in the line "I've come hoooooooome at last" during Lloyd Webber's "As If We Never Said Goodbye." Paige also found the most humor of any actress who played the faded silent screen star, and I can hardly wait to see what she'll bring to the role of the pie-baking Mrs. Lovett in the New York City Opera's production of Sweeney Todd, which begins performances tonight. I recently had the chance to chat with the multi-talented Paige during Sweeney rehearsals. We spoke about her first Sondheim role as well as her upcoming concert tour and her new CD. That interview follows:
Question: How does it feel to be back in New York?
Elaine Paige: It's wonderful to be back! I've missed it.
Q: Have you had the chance to see any theatre while you've been here?
EP: Not enough I'm afraid because I'm too busy rehearsing. I did see The Boy From Oz, and I thought Hugh Jackman was just extraordinary. What a talent! Q: How did you get involved with this production of Sweeney Todd?
EP: Just before Christmas, my agent called and said that the New York City Opera was going to be doing this production, and did I fancy playing Mrs. Lovett. And, of course, the answer was most definitely yes! [Laughs.] I couldn't turn a role like this down in a million years because it's just the best part in the world.
Q: Have you ever seen a production of the musical?
EP: Oh yes, many years ago I saw it in England with Sheila Hancock, but I had never seen Angela Lansbury do it. And, also, I have to admit, as soon as this came up, or around the same time, it transpired that they were going to be doing it at the Royal Opera House in London, so I went to see it to remind myself, because obviously my interest was up [laughs]. But it was a different production to the one we're doing. We're doing the original Hal Prince production, which is fantastic.
Q: Has Prince been involved at all?
EP: Yes, he came by on Friday and was jumping up and down, very excited about what he'd seen, which was rather nice to have Mr. Prince's feedback on it. So that was lovely. And, of course, for me it was the first time I had seen — well, not the first time, I had bumped into him once in the interim — but it just happened that it was 25 years ago, last year actually, that he and I worked together on Evita. We both looked at one another and thought, "Where did a quarter of a century go?" [Laughs.] But it was wonderful to see him again, and he really hasn't changed much at all, and we were reminiscing for a bit, so it was rather nice.
Q: How are rehearsals going so far?
EP: Fantastically well. Artie Masella, Hal's assistant, has been getting it up on its feet, and we're having a little bit of fun as well as a lot of hard work.
Q: I know you'll be playing opposite two Sweeneys. How does that work in rehearsal? Do you rehearse with both?
EP: Well, I have been, yes — obviously more with Mark Delavan, who is the baritone from the opera world, than with Tim Nolen. Also, I think, primarily because neither Mark nor myself have done it before, whereas the other Mrs. Lovett and the other Sweeney have both performed before. I suspect they think we're in more need than they are! [Laughs.] But we have been sort of cross-collateralizing, as you might say.
Q: This is your first time in a Sondheim show.
EP: Absolutely. I've always wanted to perform a Sondheim score, so for Sweeney Todd to be the first and to be playing Mrs. Lovett, I couldn't have asked for more really.
Q: How are you finding the score?
EP: It's challenging. It's very tricky, I have to say, probably more so than anything else I've done prior. Both musically and lyrically — I've never sung so many words in all my life! [Laughs.] The fact that a lot of them are wonderfully sardonic — this black humor, particularly in songs like "A Little Priest," the gastronomic merits of their victims. I think it's just too funny for words — it's brilliant. That's what makes it for me — the challenge both musically and the comedy, the humor coming through this very dark, these really rather disgusting people who don't seem to have a scruple in sight, do they? [Laughs.] I just think it's brilliant and so wonderful to be part of it.
Q: What do you think of the character of Mrs. Lovett?
I think she's wonderful. She's the most cheerful, isn't she? — chatty, cozy kind of woman without a single scruple. Obviously, [she's] the worst pastry cook in town, the most unsuccessful, has no business when she starts, hasn't seen a customer for weeks. And then she gets that one sensible thought at the end of Act One, where she discusses with [Sweeney] that all the corpses he's going to lay waste — what a terrible waste it would be! And, the marvelous humor of the fiddle player and the British sailor — I just think it's brilliant. She really is the most dreadful person, not a single redeeming feature. It's amazing, though, how you can warm to the character. That's what's so extraordinary about it. She's one of the great women's roles in musical theatre.
Q: Do you think it's a role you would want to do again?
EP: Oh yes. [Laughs.] I'm only going to get 14 chances here. I should probably just be getting to really find her when it's time to finish because things sort of evolve and grow — being somebody from the musical theatre world and having been fortunate enough to be in long runs. I tell you something else, though, I won't have to bother about going to the gym. It's an absolute workout playing this woman, so perhaps 14 performance is just as well for the moment.
Q: At least there's no staircase, right?
EP: Well, there is a little one. Oh, yes. We were laughing about it yesterday. I said, "I thought my days of staircases were over!" [Laughs.]
Q: Is there any talk of recording this performance?
EP: No, it's just part of the Opera House's season . . . It seems to me in rehearsal that we're all having great fun, and there's the most wonderful voices and wonderful performances beginning to emerge that I see from others. I just feel like I'm part of something special; I hope I am. Mark Delavan, all of them, I've never heard such beautiful singing in all my life. They produce the most amazing sound and the most amazing volume these people. I thought I had a loud voice, but geez! [Laughs.] The singing is just phenomenal.
Q: I know after this engagement you're planning to do a concert tour in the U.K. called No Strings Attached. Tell me a bit about that.
EP: That is going to be something a bit different. In fact, I should have been working on it now, and then this came along. Having been with orchestras for the last several years, I felt that I wanted to change direction a bit musically and not sing with orchestras. So, I decided maybe to downsize everything and go out with a band. That's going to be quite a different thing for me and for my audiences. I'm going out with like six or seven of us and myself, and we're going to be doing Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington and Cole Porter, mixed in with, obviously, the ones that they want to hear me sing. I'm going to go down that avenue a bit and see how that works. Ella Fitzgerald was the music that I was brought up on — her and Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland, that ilk. And, I remember, as a child singing along with my mother's Ella Fitzgerald records. That really is the source of it. And, Duke Ellington I've always loved, because my father used to play Duke Ellington and Count Basie. It's just a bit different, something to refresh my musical repertoire. And, yet, something that I think my audience will enjoy. Great songs are great songs, and those old standards are fantastic.
Q: And you're also going to record a new album?
EP: I've started recording another album. In the meantime, with this tour, my record company wants to put out some stuff that's already known, so we're going to put on some of the ones that people know. I'm going to put on some live performances, which may not have been heard before. And, also, I'm recording maybe eight new tracks, so it'll be some old stuff and some new stuff combined.
Q: Any songs I would know?
EP: Hopefully! [Laughs.] There's a couple you won't know. There's one called "Something in Red," which I'm looking at at the moment, which is a lovely country song that I've found. And I've done a cover of Eric Clapton's "Change the World," so it's all a bit of a mixture, but hopefully we can make it feel right when we put it all together. That's my hope anyway. [Laughs.]
Q: How long will you be out touring?
EP: I think I'm doing about 14, 15 performances all over the country, all the major cities — Birmingham, Scotland, Wales, London Festival Hall. All the major venues in and around the U.K.
Q: Any other projects coming up?
EP: My next project, really, I want to seriously try to put together a complete new album, rather than just doing half-a-dozen tracks to facilitate this Greatest Hits type package. I want to get back in the studio, but it's tough because the record business is in a bit of a strange place at the moment. But that's the idea, and I also want to test the waters, if you like, with this new stuff that I'm going to be doing on tour, and see what the response is to it. If it's there, then that's what I'll do, but I really want to look at the marketplace first.
Q: I had been really looking forward to seeing you in the Singular Sensations series before that got canceled.
EP: Yes, what a shame that was. It got pulled, unfortunately, before I got here. [Laughs.] At least it galvanized me into sitting down and reminding myself and remembering my life, the earlier parts of my life. That's what that show was going to be about. And, so I'm sort of in the throes of — beginning to anyway — writing my memoirs. And, also, thinking about maybe developing that idea for a show.
Q: Would you like to come back to Broadway at some point?
EP: Of course, I would. I love New York! I love being here. I love the people, I love the energy. I love the weather [Laughs.] You've got bright, snappy cold days, and in England it's gray and wet. I just love being here, and I'm really happy to be here, and hope that something will crop up that I can come back soon.
Q: Would you do a long run in a musical?
EP: It depends really what it is. I love musical theatre, but I find the older I get, the harder it gets — the physical stamina and health to keep well. It's okay when you're 25. I'm not 25 anymore. [Laughs.] As I say, "Never, say never." It depends on what it is. If it's the most fantastic part, and someone comes along and says, 'Do you want to do this?' and I think, 'Yes.' So I never say never to anything. That's what's wonderful about Sweeney Todd for me is that I'm able to play this fantastic role, but I don't have to do it for a year. I don't know that I'd want to be playing Mrs. Lovett for a year, but we'll see. Who knows? But if someone suggested it to me, I would seriously consider it!
(Sweeney Todd plays the New York City Opera March 5-28. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit www.nycopera.com.)
IN OTHER DIVA NEWS OF THE WEEK: Two-time Tony Award winner Bernadette Peters — who stars as Momma Rose in the acclaimed Gypsy revival at the Shubert — will join several of her co-stars to autograph copies of the Grammy Award-winning Gypsy recording. On Wednesday, March 10 — from 5:15-6:15 PM — the Gypsy stars will sign copies of the Angel Records CD in the lobby of the Shubert Theatre, 225 West 44th Street. The disc will sell for $20; $5 from each sale will go directly to Broadway Barks, the charity founded by Peters and Mary Tyler Moore. Theatregoers who attend the March 10 matinee of Gypsy will also be able to purchase CDs at the signing. . . . Tony Award winner Sutton Foster will join Julia Murney, Lauren Kennedy, Jonathan Dokuchitz, Chad Kimball, Shelley Thomas, Anika Larsen and Amanda Ryan Paige for Seth Rudetsky's second-annual Purim celebration at the Manhattan Jewish Community Center. Last year, host Seth Rudetsky offered a comedic retelling of the Megillah with songs from Funny Girl. This season's celebration — Seth Rudetsky's Purim Story . . . Broadway Style! —will feature Haman, Mordechai and Esther singing tunes from Chess; Snoopy; Zanna, Don't!; Aspects of Love; Children of Eden; and The Last Five Years. The all-star concert will be held at the JCC, located in New York City at 334 Amsterdam Avenue at 76th Street. Tickets are priced at $20; call (646) 505-5708 for reservations. Visit www.jccmanhattan.org for more information. . . . Tony-nominated sisters Liz and Ann Hampton Callaway will premiere their newest sister act next month at Feinstein's at the Regency. After receiving much acclaim for their original program, Sibling Revelry, the Callaways will reteam for Relative Harmony, March 23-April 3 at the intimate cabaret. Their new act will feature songs from the theatre (Gypsy's "Some People") as well as tunes from the worlds of pop (Van Morrison's "Moondance") and jazz (Jon Hendricks' "Cloudburst") and a new song — "Perfect Harmony" — written for them by composer David Shire. After the New York run, the Callaways will bring Relative Harmony to Feinstein's at the Cinegrill in Los Angeles, April 12-24. The performance schedule at Feinstein's is Tuesday-Saturday evenings at 8:30 PM with late shows Friday and Saturday nights at 11 PM. There is a $60 cover and a $30 minimum for all shows. Feinstein's at the Regency is located at 540 Park Avenue at 61st Street in New York City. For reservations, call (212) 339-4095. . . . And, finally, congratulations to Hairspray's leading lady, Kathy Brier, who was among this year's Daytime Emmy Award nominees. Brier, who is making her Broadway debut in the Tony-winning Hairspray, was nominated for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series for her work as Marcie Walsh on "One Life to Live." Brier was nominated in a field that also includes Cady McClain ("As the World Turns"), Ilene Kristen ("One Life to Live"), Sharon Case ("The Young and the Restless") and Heather Tom ("The Young and the Restless"). The 31st Annual Daytime Emmy Awards will be held May 21 at Radio City Music Hall. NBC will broadcast the event live, 9-11 PM ET. For a complete list of this year's nominations, visit www.emmyonline.org.
Next week: Betty Buckley at the Café Carlyle.
Betty Buckley in Concert:
Now through March 27 at the Cafe Carlyle in New York, NY
Liz Callaway in Concert:
April 23 with Jason Graae in Sutter Creek, CA
April 24-25 with Jason Graae in San Rafael, CA
May 1 in Sibling Revelry in Orono, ME
May 8 in Sibling Revelry in Purchase, NY
Patti LuPone in Concert:
March 12, 2004 at the New Jersey PAC in Newark, NJ
March 13 at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, NJ
March 17-21 at the Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, CT
March 29-April 1 at Feinstein's at the Cinegrill in Hollywood, CA
April 3 at the Chattanooga Convention Center in Chattanooga, TN
April 6-24 at Feinstein's at the Regency in New York, NY
May 5-8 in Candide with the NY Philharmonic in New York, NY
Louise Pitre in Concert:
November 4 at the Brock Centre for the Arts in St. Catherines, ON
November 5 at the Oakville Centre for the Performing Arts in Oakville, ON
November 6 at the Dr. J.M. Ennis Auditorium in Welland, ON
November 11 at the Heritage Theatre in Brampton, ON
November 12 at the Imperial Oil Centre in Sarnia, ON
November 17 at the Markham Theatre in Markham, ON
November 20 at the Stockey Centre in Parry Sound, ON
November 21 at The Living Arts Centre in Mississauga, ON
Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching!