DIVA TALK: Meet Broadway's New Norma, Elaine Paige

DIVA TALK: Meet Broadway's New Norma, Elaine Paige Each night, when Elaine Paige descends the mammoth staircase onstage at the Minskoff Theatre, it is the fulfillment of, if not a lifelong dream, then an 18-year one. The award-winning English actress, who created the lead roles in Evita, Cats and Chess on the London stage, had hoped with each critically lauded performance to make the transatlantic leap to her New York debut, but she was foiled each time. It's probably for this reason that in an interview during her first week in New York, the charming and youthfully exuberant Paige exclaimed: "I really can't believe that I'm here! It's 18 years. When I'm up on that stage for the first time, then I will believe it."
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Each night, when Elaine Paige descends the mammoth staircase onstage at the Minskoff Theatre, it is the fulfillment of, if not a lifelong dream, then an 18-year one. The award-winning English actress, who created the lead roles in Evita, Cats and Chess on the London stage, had hoped with each critically lauded performance to make the transatlantic leap to her New York debut, but she was foiled each time. It's probably for this reason that in an interview during her first week in New York, the charming and youthfully exuberant Paige exclaimed: "I really can't believe that I'm here! It's 18 years. When I'm up on that stage for the first time, then I will believe it."

Her official opening in the role is Sept. 12.

And what a role for a Broadway debut: Norma Desmond, the egomaniacal silent screen star of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard, a part that won Paige an Olivier Award nomination when she replaced another Norma Desmond legend, Betty Buckley, in the London production. Paige first stepped into the role briefly -- and on very short notice -- when Buckley underwent an emergency appendectomy. Paige confesses that when she saw Glenn Close perform the role in New York just as she was to begin her own rehearsals, she thought, "Oh yikes. . . I've only got two-and-a-half weeks [to rehearse], and this is really a massive undertaking.' I suddenly panicked a bit and thought, 'Crikey, I don't know if I'll be able to do this.' "

Paige needn't have worried: She received glowing reviews from the London critics for her multi-textured portrayal, an interpretation that not only wrings out every ounce of dramatic action but delivers some unexpected humor as well. "[Norma] has many facets to her," Paige explains, "and I think she did have a sense of humor. I think, also, she could be very vulnerable as well as being demonstrative and overpowering, a general bossy boots, and appalling and hurtful and dreadful. There are all these elements to her, and I wanted to try to bring as much fullness to this woman within the text and the boundaries that you're working in."

Paige's gift is to dissect a role and determine what phrasing, gesture or emotion can bring a scene to its fullest dramatic potential. Fittingly, she concedes that she is happiest during the rehearsal process when "you're experimenting; you can make a bit of a fool of yourself and nobody sees; it's being able to delve and discover." And, like a small handful of her American contemporaries, Paige is an artist of tremendous talent, combining a chameleonlike acting ability with one of the most powerful and moving voices in the musical theatre today. Just watch as the diminutive powerhouse pours out her heart and voice in "As If We Never Said Goodbye," her second act show-stopper in Sunset. The song -- set in a movie studio at Paramount, where Norma Desmond once acted in the films that made her a star -- is at once a recollection of Desmond's glorious past and a deluded belief that she will return to the screen. The climax of the song comes in the lyric "This world's waited long enough. I've come home at last." Not to fault Lloyd Webber's writing, but when Paige arrived on the scene, she felt that the phrase was just not given the musical emphasis it deserved. She decided to hold the word "home" in an explosion of voice that nearly takes the roof off the theatre.

"Andrew can be rather particular about how his melodies are sung, and he likes it absolutely note value," Paige relates, "but I did say to [musical director] David Caddick that I was concerned about that lyric, because it seems to be to me the moment of the song, really where everything comes together. I said to David, 'Would Andrew mind if I did that?' because it felt rather important to me." Caddick gave her the green light, and on a recent "South Bank Show" Lloyd Webber admitted that her rendition of the song was "as good, if not the best, of anything I've ever heard. . .the most extraordinary mastery of what the song is about. It's probably one of the most gratifying moments I can remember in the theatre."

Born Elaine Mary Bickerstaff in 1949, Paige was surrounded by music, especially jazz, in her home in North London. Her mother had been a singer in her younger days, and her father is still an amateur drummer, but Paige credits Ann Hill, an intermediate school music teacher, for challenging her musically, casting her in such works as Handel's Messiah and The Boy Mozart. "Ann opened me up to the classics," says Paige, "and it was from performing in these shows that my parents saw [that] my father spoke to Ann [and] suggested to me if I would like to go to drama school. I had never imagined that one could do this for a living."

Paige's professional debut came in 1964 in the Anthony Newley/Leslie Bricusse musical The Roar of the Greasepaint, the Smell of the Crowd, and then she spent a decade hopping from show to show, making appearances in Roar Like a Dove, Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar, Grease and creating the role of Rita in Billy. However, it was the title role in Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's Evita that catapulted the former chorus girl to "overnight" fame, and it was an experience that Paige was not prepared for: "It was very difficult for me to deal with because I'm rather shy, and I don't like being in the public eye too much. I mean, I've learned how to deal with it, but then all I wanted to be was a good working actress and have some marvelous parts to play."

The marvelous parts came quickly: Paige was called in as a last-minute replacement for an ailing Judi Dench, and was given the chance to introduce a hitherto unknown song called "Memory" in Lloyd Webber's upcoming musical Cats. Paige's performance, particularly her wrenching rendition of the instant classic, sent her star soaring even further. She then followed Cats with the lead female role of Florence Vassey in the ABBA/Tim Rice musical Chess, the staged version of the concept album, which had given her a #1 position on the British charts, a duet with Barbara Dickson called "I Know Him So Well."

Donning a producer's cap during her next theatrical venture, Paige brought the Lincoln Center revival of Cole Porter's Anything Goes to London. Not only a co-producer, Paige starred as night-club evangelist Reno Sweeney, her first go at an American musical comedy. Assuming roles as both producer and star was draining; however, playing in a musical comedy was a joy for the heretofore drama queen: "I loved it. Aside from playing Madcap Maisie in The Boy Friend in Leicester, this is really one of the only other comic roles I ever played. It made me realize I'd like to do more. It's great fun and not as easy as everyone thinks, quite challenging."

On the tail of Anything Goes was another success for Paige, the starring role in the Pam Gems opus that examined both the public and private life of the legendary Edith Piaf. Paige toured Britain with Piaf before bringing the show into the West End, again delivering a powerful performance and garnering glowing notices; in fact, London's Guardian called Paige "a magnificent, perfect Piaf."

The show, however, was vocally demanding, and "I went through a bit of a crisis with my voice after Piaf. I found that very taxing; it was all in the middle range." Despite the challenges of the role, Paige is hopeful that she might perform the role for New York audiences sometime after her run in Sunset. But, for now, Paige is happy to inhabit Norma Desmond's mansion on Sunset Boulevard and make a name for herself in the States. "It's rather funny you know," Paige laughs, "because I am completely anonymous at the moment, and I haven't known that for years in England. . .and I [recently] thought to myself, 'If there's anything really bad I want to do, I'd better do it in the next few weeks.'" . . . Brits beware: It may have taken Paige 18 years to get to Broadway, but now that she's here, we Americans just might try to keep her for ourselves.

-- By Andrew Gans
E-mail me at andrew_gans@playbill.com