In performance after performance, West End star Elaine Paige demonstrates why she was able to originate the leading roles in Evita, Cats, and Chess, triumph equally well with revivals of The King and I, Piaf, and Anything Goes, and even put her own stamp on Sweeney Todd's Nellie Lovett and Sunset Boulevard's Norma Desmond: pure talent mixed with a voice that soars like few others and a genuine joie de vivre that is completely contagious.
What's remarkable is not that such a powerful voice comes from the rather diminutive Paige, but that such power could come from any singer. When the award-winning artist opens up her belt in such tunes as "As If We Never Said Goodbye" or "If You Love Me," the sound flows from Paige in what can only be described as a volcanic eruption. But it's not only the power, it's the rounded tone and the beautiful, rippling vibrato that make the experience such a joy to the senses. When you add her innate lyrical interpretive sensibilities as well as her acting skills, it is no wonder why she has been dubbed The Leading Lady of the British Musical Theatre.
(Olivier winner Paige spoke to Playbill earlier this week via Zoom to talk about all things Cats ahead of the 1998 filmed stage production streaming on YouTube May 15–17. Watch that chat above.)
As Broadway remains temporarily closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, it seemed like a great time to look back at the career of this stellar artist. Enjoy these show-stopping performances while much of the country is asked to #StayatHome.
"Rainbow High" from Evita
Elaine Paige received a Society of West End Theatres Award (later renamed the Olivier) for her breakthrough performance in the original London cast of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's Evita. Here she is performing an especially fiery rendition of "Rainbow High" at the 1978 SWET Awards (beginning at the 1:30 mark). Just listen to the way she growls, "Look out mighty Europe!" If only her entire performance had been filmed…
"Don't Cry for Me Argentina" from Evita
Nearly 20 years after she opened the world premiere production of Evita, Paige performed with the Boston Pops for an evening that was subsequently televised on PBS. She offered highlights from her theatrical career, including the Evita anthem.
"Memory" from Cats
In 1981, Paige stepped in for an injured Judi Dench just as rehearsals were about to begin for what would become the global hit Cats. Paige took on the role of Grizabella, the faded glamour cat, and in the process gained her second signature tune, "Memory." Below, in one of the first televised performances of the Cats anthem, and accompanied by composer Andrew Lloyd Webber on the piano, Paige belts out the theatre classic at the 1981 Royal Variety Performance. The way her voice opens in the final verse is stunning—and must have been particularly thrilling for those in that audience who had never before heard the song or her rendition.
"I Know Him So Well" from Chess
In 1984 the world-premiere recording of a new musical titled Chess, penned by Benny Anderson, Tim Rice, and Björn Ulvaeus, was released as a two-LP set featuring Paige, Murray Head, Tommy Körberg, and Barbara Dickson. Paige, who would go on to star in the original London cast alongside Head and Körberg, reached No. 1 in the U.K. charts with her duet with Dickson on "I Know Him So Well," still the best-selling single by a female duo in the U.K. Here, the two artists celebrate their chart-topping success on Top of the Pops.
"You and I" from Chess
Years after receiving an Olivier nomination for her performance as Florence Vassey, Paige re-created one of the musical's duets with fellow Olivier winner Michael Ball on his U.K. TV program. Paige is in exceptional voice—just listen to her vocals soar in the final verses.
"Blow, Gabriel, Blow" from Anything Goes
In 1988, while in the U.S. to make her American TV debut singing at the White House, Paige also caught the Tony-winning revival of Anything Goes and realized if she wanted to play Reno Sweeney, she might have to produce the Cole Porter musical herself. The London production, which earned Paige another Olivier nomination, was featured on the 1990 Royal Variety Performance, where the powerhouse belted out the second act showstopper "Blow, Gabriel, Blow." Not only does she offer thrilling vocals, but her sense of joy is palpable.
"If You Love Me" from Piaf
In 1993 Paige portrayed another EP, Edith Piaf, in Pam Gems play Piaf, which toured prior to arriving at London's Piccadilly Theatre. Directed by Peter Hall, the play incorporated a dozen Piaf staples, including "If You Love Me," performed here on U.K. TV with a heart-piercing intensity by Paige, who was again Olivier-nominated. Has anyone but Piaf herself ever performed the aching love song so excitingly?
"As If We Never Said Goodbye" from Sunset Boulevard
In 1994 Paige stepped into the London production of Sunset Boulevard, temporarily replacing Tony winner Betty Buckley during her bout with appendicitis. Paige would subsequently return to the role in London (Olivier nomination) and would eventually make her long-awaited Broadway debut, succeeding Buckley at the Minskoff. Paige, who Lloyd Webber was originally skeptical of in this very American role, turned out to be an extraordinary Norma Desmond, combining her outstanding vocals with an eerily Gloria Swanson-like performance and a surprising amount of humor. For true Sunset fans, it’s interesting to note that Paige was the first to hold the word “home” in the “I’ve come home at last” section of “As If We Never Said Goodbye,” which sent the song soaring. Here, she demonstrates the mastery of her interpretation of the second act ballad on The Des O'Connor Show, which was filmed during her first takeover stint in London.
"With One Look" from Sunset Boulevard
Paige also delights with Norma Desmond's first aria, "With One Look," a perfect melding of actor and song, at a Royal Variety Performance.
"Cry Me a River" by Arthur Hamilton
Paige also enjoys a decades-long internationally successful concert career. In this TV appearance she performs one of her concert staples, the great torch song "Cry Me a River," which she imbues with a torrent of voice and emotion.
"From a Distance" by Julie Gold
Paige is equally adept at pop tunes. Here, she delivers a silky smooth rendition of the Bette Midler hit, "From a Distance." Just listen to her exquisite take on the pop hit.
"Getting to Know You" from The King and I
In 2000 Paige played Anna Leonowens opposite the King of Jason Scott Lee in a major West End revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I at the London Palladium. Here, she has some fun with the King's children in the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic "Getting to Know You."
"By the Sea" from Sweeney Todd
Following Sunset, Paige has returned to the New York stage twice, delivering a show-stopping performance of "I'm Still Here" as Carlotta in the 2011 Broadway revival of Follies and an equally terrific take on Mrs. Lovett in the 2004 New York City Opera production of another Stephen Sondheim musical, Sweeney Todd. Paige offers Lovett's "By the Sea" in a concert performance below.