DIVA TALK: Catching Up With Follies Star Elaine Paige, Plus Karen Akers Sings Sondheim

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21 Oct 2011

Elaine Paige
Elaine Paige

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Those walking in Times Square at 9 PM each night might just see Broadway's Marquis Theatre tremble, for that is about the time Olivier winner Elaine Paige finishes belting out with volcanic force a thrilling, emotionally powerful version of the Stephen Sondheim survival anthem "I'm Still Here" in the critically acclaimed revival of Follies, which also boasts a cast led by two-time Tony winner Bernadette Peters. Follies marks The First Lady of British Musical Theatre's third New York outing, following her critically acclaimed performances as the deluded silent-screen star Norma Desmond in Andrew Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard and the meat-pie-making Mrs. Lovett in Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd. I recently had the great pleasure of once again chatting with the gifted singing actress, who created the roles of Eva Peron, Grizabella and Florence in the London world-premiere productions of, respectively, Evita, Cats and Chess. Paige spoke about her Follies experiences in Washington, DC, at the Kennedy Center and now, on Broadway, at the Marquis Theatre, her rendition of "I'm Still Here" and more; that interview follows.

Question: Welcome back to Broadway!
Elaine Paige: Thank you so much. [Laughs.] Great to be back!

Question: Before we get to New York, tell me about your Kennedy Center experience. What stands out in your mind about DC?
Paige: Well, gosh, Crikey. It all seems like a million miles away, DC, now. [Laughs.] Well, I arrived in Washington, where I've never [lived] before, and felt almost as if I was still in England, really. To be honest, it was so similar. There are lots of little houses, and the architecture is so much lower. You can see the sky, and a lot of the little houses, terrace properties, are very similar to that of Chelsea. So, that was my first impression of the place. And, of course, the Kennedy Center itself is magnificent, and the most wonderful piece of architecture, standing on the river there. So, I thought, "Wow, is that where I'm going to be working? How good can it get?" And, it was an absolute pleasure and a joy.

We all arrived for the first day of rehearsal — such a huge company of people, none of whom I knew. Although, I think I had shared a dressing room at some point, some years ago, at the theatre in England when Bernadette Peters came over to sing for Cameron Mackintosh's 50th birthday. [Laughs.] So, I had met Bernadette before, as I say, briefly, so that was nice to see her again. And, then we were all introduced to each other, and we kicked off the read-through, the read-sing-through. The thing that stands out for me is how, rather like the opera world, a lot of the artists already knew the songs and the material really, really well, whereas I didn't know the piece prior to having been asked to do it. So, that was quite an interesting thing to observe.

Paige in Follies.
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: Tell me about the evolution of doing "I'm Still Here," which has changed from DC to New York.
Paige: Yes, well like anything, there's a process that you have to go through to get to where you think you want to be, and I found it tricky, to be honest, this song. In essence, it appears to be very simple. The tune is repetitive, and on paper it doesn’t look so tricky, so difficult.

First of all, before I came out to Washington, of course, I started my research and did a lot of research—googling all those American references, which I knew nothing [about]. [Laughs.]… Like "Five Dionne babies" and "Beebe's Bathysphere" and "Amos 'n' Andy" and "sleeping in shanties" and all of these different things. I just didn't know what any of it was about, so I had to Google all that, and then, of course, I had to make a decision as to how I felt about those various things that I'm saying. There was a lot of reading involved about J. Edgar Hoover—Herbert and J. Edgar, I beg your pardon. [Laughs.] So, that's how I started, and then, of course, [director] Eric Schaeffer and I discussed the song, and I felt that very much with the little script there is, that clearly this is a woman who's had men come and go in her life either with marriages and/or boyfriends. As she says, "There's the guy I'm with now. He's just a thing, but he's 26," so she clearly, you know, has men in her life, but, of course, says again in the script that she never gets to talk, so I thought that that was relevant and that she should be telling somebody this first part of the song… Well, in this production, I'm telling the young waiters. They're hanging on her every word because she, for a moment in her life, is holding court, and so, that worked rather well for me. And, then as the song progresses—this is the thing I found difficult. In fact, I didn't find it until I got to New York and spoke to Sondheim, himself, because there were various questions I had about the lyrics. One lyric, in particular… I have to say it all or else I can't remember it! [Laughs.] This is a long song. [Laughs.] When I say, "Been called a 'Pinko, commie tool,' got through it stinko by my pool"… This is the lyric that I didn't understand: "I should've gone to an acting school, that seems clear. Still someone said, 'She's sincere,' so I'm here"… and I thought that that was a new thought. The thought that "I should've gone to an acting school, that seems clear." I said to Stephen Sondheim, "Does she think she's a bad actress to make that comment?" And, he said, "No, no, no. It's not a new thought. It's connected to what you've just said about 'Been called a Pinko, commie tool, got through it stinko by my pool.'"… Stephen said that that line relates to [the McCarthy trials]. He said he wrote the song about Joan Crawford, which I didn't know, and he said that she was an actress both on and off the stage, and came to the McCarthy trials. She was holed up like a lot of other people, and he said that she was such a good actress that it left enough room for the fact that she might have been innocent. So, someone said, "She's sincere," so she responds, "So, I'm here… That's how I come to be here."

Paige on opening night
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

It's interesting, I don't think anybody would know that unless you got it from the horse's mouth. I think anybody listening to the song would not know that. You would automatically, I think, think that it was a new thought, but according to the author-composer himself, that's not the case, and that line, "I should've gone to an acting school, that seems clear. Still someone said, 'She's sincere' so I'm here" is connected to the earlier line of being called a "Pinko commie tool." So, that, I thought, was absolutely fascinating. So this song has evolved very much so, for me, through understanding of it, really, and playing it as well. And, I think having spoken to Stephen, himself, about it as well, that has been one of the great joys working on this, that we had the author-composer there to ask, to talk to, should we need, and it's proved absolutely invaluable, really.

I think now, the song for me now, is much more introspective, as if I am thinking of it as my memories, and I'm going through it…I'm now singing it as a memory, something that I am remembering for myself, rather than a performance, that's how I'm trying to do it anyway… There are so many different interpretations I imagine one could put on it, but there is so little in the text for you to be able to discover who this character is—who she is—so, for me to be told from Stephen Sondheim that he wrote it about Joan Crawford [was helpful].

It was interesting because when I went back to England between Washington and New York, I was invited to Kensington Palace for a summer garden party by Princess Michael of Kent, and there, at the party, was Joan Collins. Not Joan Crawford. [Laughs.] That would be a worry. I would've had too much to drink if I thought it was Joan Crawford. [Laughs.] But, it was Joan Collins, and she was standing at the other end of the garden and I could see her… She's not quite from the same era as Joan Crawford, but there is a demeanor about Collins that is of the old school, the old movie school, if you see what I mean. When I looked at her standing miles away, standing quite proudly, surveying the scene, I thought, "Ah!" Something clicked in my head, and I thought that Carlotta would have had that kind of assured demeanor, even though possibly that isn't true, she would give off that aura of the old-movie Hollywood days of glamour, and that's also why we changed the costume somewhat and the wig. In Washington my hair was down, and I didn't feel right — I felt too young and girly. So, I said to the costume designer, Gregg Barnes, that I wanted to up the ante with the costume because in the first scene Ron Raines as Ben says to me, "It's not much of a ball to be the belle of, but congratulations anyway, that outfit is a triumph of restraint." So, I wanted to add to the character something to make it a bit more over the top, so we added a slit in the skirt up to my thigh, and we added a fur collar and cuffs because I thought that was rather starry and rather grand and Hollywood of that era. It's very of that period… And, also, I discussed the fact that I wanted my hair — the wig — to be up, so I looked to old photographs of Brigitte Bardot, who I've always admired, [laughs] and saw a wonderfully, glamorous shot in her youth with her hair all piled up on top. So, we went with that idea — that whole costume change is very relevant because it makes me feel as if I have more gravitas than I did in Washington, so there's been a huge evolution in this character for me.


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