DIVA TALK: Paige's "Memory" Lives Again


16 Oct 1998

ELAINE PAIGE & CATS



ELAINE PAIGE & CATS

The marketing team for Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats wasn't joking when it originally dubbed the feline extravaganza the "now and forever" musical. Last year, the Tony Award-winning musical phenomenon became the longest-running show in Broadway history --16 years and counting -- and earlier this year, an international cast assembled at London's Adelphi Theatre to preserve the musical on film for generations to come. Directed for television by David Mallet, the home video of Cats will be released by PolyGram on Oct. 27, and PBS's "Great Performances" series will present the world-premiere TV broadcast on Nov. 2. Heading the cast of the musical inspired by T.S. Eliot's "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats" are Ken Page, John Mills and Elaine Paige, the multi talented actress who opened the original London company of Cats in 1981 and who made her long-awaited, critically-hailed Broadway debut two years ago in Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard.

Paige's association with Andrew Lloyd Webber dates back to 1978 when she created the title role in the London production of another of his through-sung musicals, Evita. Speaking by phone from London -- where she recently completed a run in Molière's The Misanthrope, her first non-singing stage role -- Paige chats lovingly about the composer and his music. "There's just something about the way he writes, the structure of his songs," she explains, "and he does write emotionally charged melodies. That's probably the key as far as I'm concerned because I love to sing those kind of songs. I like to emote and get right deep down into the lyric of a song. . . His way of writing and my way of singing kind of work quite well together." And the award-winning composer concurs. "She's always been an enormously professional person and a delight to work with," says Lloyd Webber "[and] there is no question that Elaine has one of the most unique voices, and it was with great fortune that we found her for Evita , which she originated onstage. Subsequently, when we did Cats, she gave a superb performance as Grizabella -- that wonderful voice was there every performance, and also years later when she took over as Norma Desmond on Broadway."

Paige admits that she feels honored to have been asked to "put the old cats whiskers on" and re-create her portrayal of Grizabella, the faded glamour cat who is chosen to make the ascent to the Heaviside Layer, just after she belts out the show's world-famous anthem, "Memory." She also relates that she was a bit nervous heading back to a role she created nearly two decades ago. "It was an interesting exercise, actually, because I was terrified," Paige says. "I thought, 'Oh Lord, I hope I'm going to be able to delve back into the deepest resources of my memory. . .to try to dredge it up again.' The interesting thing is, obviously, now I'm that much older myself. Eighteen years have gone by, and in that time I've known some knocks and bumps and scrapes myself in my own life. So I suppose I'm older and wiser, and hopefully that will have made a difference to the performance." When asked how she keeps her performance of "Memory" fresh, after having sung the tune over 1,000 times, the award-winning actress relates, "It's very difficult, obviously, when you've been singing something for this long. Funny enough, quite recently, for Andrew [Lloyd Webber]'s 50th birthday celebration here at the Albert Hall, [director] Trevor [Nunn] asked -- for all the shows he's been involved with -- all the artists to go and have a chat with him. Basically, we talked about the show again, and it refreshed one's memory of what we were trying to achieve in the first place all those years ago. It was amazing how just doing that, redefining it, can make it fresh again. That's really the best way to keep something fresh is to keep looking at it. But it's difficult to do alone; you need somebody else. You need a director to be observant."

A bit of Cats trivia: Paige was actually called in at the last moment to replace Judi Dench, who injured herself during the rehearsal period. It was, perhaps, fate, as Paige had heard the melody to "Memory" just the night before on her car radio. The song didn't have completed lyrics at that point, but Paige says, "It was such a fantastic, haunting tune, and I was obsessed with it the moment I heard it, and I knew I had to record it. And, of course, at that time I had nothing to do with the show, but I was going to ring Andrew [Lloyd Webber] and say, 'You've got to let me record this,' but I didn't have to because," she adds with a laugh, "they called me."

Although she initially wondered whether a musical featuring actors dressed as cats would find an audience, she did realize how innovative the show was. "Particularly with the song 'Memory,' " she elaborates, "I think I felt that the show was going to do something. I just had a sense about it, like a sixth sense, that this was something different." She also remembers her atypical opening night: "There was a bomb scare the first night. Luckily I had sung 'Memory' before we all had to leave the theatre. . . [I remember] standing on the street corner in all that costume and make-up. . .with the audience members who were so absolutely fascinated to come over and look at us and talk to us."

The dynamic performer, whose thrilling, full-voiced version of "Memory" is the highlight of the filmed production, also believes that the video charts new territory. "We did it as a theatrical performance, but then we did cutaway shots as you would in a film. So you have the subtleties of the close-ups and the cutaway shots, which I think in many respects have brought out the details of the story much more. Obviously," Paige adds, "it's people pretending to be cats, but because of the wonderful make-up and the lighting and the costumes and the fantastic set, it's hitting some new place between cartoon and reality. I think it's rather magical."

BETTY BUCKLEY

Still more raves continue to pour in for Betty Buckley's stellar performance in the Paper Mill Playhouse production of Gypsy, running through Oct. 25 in Millburn, New Jersey. Following are some excerpts from these reviews:

Clive Barnes in the "New York Post":
"It is one of the great moments of the Broadway musical. The finale of Gypsy. The stage is virtually bare. A solitary woman launches into 'Rose's Turn,' perhaps the greatest 11 o'clock number of them all, immortalized in the original production by Ethel Merman herself.
"Now, at the Paper Mill Playhouse, in its stylish new production, it is Betty Buckley's turn. And she faces the audience, prepared to let rip. But, wait a minute! What is she wearing?
"From Merman onward, every Rose in this scene has faced the audience wearing a poster-red dress. But Buckley is wearing a dowdy blue. What goes on? What goes on is Buckley's slight but crucial redefinition of a classic role. Buckley is a black Rose rather than a scarlet one -- and this is typified by that dowdy schmatta. . . What Buckley has done is to face the facts and cast Rose not as a laughable, even lovable fixer but as a cold eyed, hard-hearted schemer. It works . . . It is the image of the remarkable Buckley that you recall, as a Merman role perfectly reenvisioned, rethought and reshaped. At Paper Mill, yes, it really is Betty's turn!"

Donald Lyons in "The Wall Street Journal":
"Tall, lithe, attractive, Ms. Buckley is a superbly dramatic singer. . .her voice is lyrical, precise, ironic. . .when things turn bleak for Rose and she must summon the raw force of her mania -- at the end of the first act when June has deserted her, and at the finale when Louise has become a star stripper (Gypsy Rose Lee) and does not need her mother anymore -- then Ms. Buckley rises gloriously to the role's dark and fearsome demands. In the great closing number, 'Rose's Turn,' which is both a mocking collage of earlier songs and a psychotic eruption of Rose's simmering resentment at the glory her daughters have and she will never have, Ms. Buckley gives us a sputtering fury of a woman. When earlier Roses have insisted they could have been burlesque stars just like Louise and have grotesquely paraded their wares, we've merely cringed in embarrassment. When Betty Buckley does it, she's young and sexy enough to make Rose's display tragic. . ."

Ken Mandelbaum in "InTheater":
". . .So Buckley must find ways to make Rose her own, and she does. Her grandly florid gestures, auburn curls, and handsome face indicate that suitability for things theatrical that Rose was forced to suppress. And from the moment she takes the stage, her Rose is a strong, driven, possessed, sometimes scary lady. There are moments of charm, but they take a back seat to overriding obsession and determination. Her interruption of Herbie's 'Rose, what you want. . .' with a no-nonsense 'I'll get!'; her disturbingly unstoppable 'Everything's Coming Up Roses'; her seizing of the last chance to make Louise any kind of a star; the gum chewing, hard-bitten woman of the Rose-Louise dressing-room confrontation scene -- all have tremendous power.
"And, of course, Buckley's singing fills the huge house in a way that few could. It's colossal in 'Roses' and 'Rose's Turn,' beautifully shaped in 'Small World' and 'You'll Never Get Away from Me.' There's simply no getting away from that enormous voice, a force of nature comparable to Rose herself."

Terry Teachout in "The Daily News":
"Forget 'The Lion King.' Forget 'Chicago.' Drop everything, rent a car -- hell, buy a car -- and head straight for the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, N.J., where Betty Buckley is starring in Gypsy through Oct. 25. Backed by a first-rate supporting cast, Buckley is ripping the roof off as Rose, the stage mother to end all stage mothers, who'll do anything short of serial murder to make her Louise a star.
"It's a dream part, handmade for Ethel Merman by Jule Styne, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents in 1959, and Buckley strides through it like a cross between a growl trumpet and a hydrogen bomb. Her ferocious performance of the climactic `Rose's Turn' has the jagged, almost psychotic edge of a woman at the very end of a lifetime's rope. . ."

Continued...

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