DIVA TALK: A Conversation with Olivier Winner Elaine Paige, U.S.-Bound for Concert Tour

Diva Talk   DIVA TALK: A Conversation with Olivier Winner Elaine Paige, U.S.-Bound for Concert Tour
News, views and reviews about the women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.

Elaine Paige
Elaine Paige

Elaine Paige
Elaine Paige, the most exciting musical theatre star to emerge from the West End in this writer's lifetime, is heading back to the States for her first-ever U.S. concert tour, which will include a stop at New York's The Town Hall March 9. The gifted singing actress, last seen on this side of the Atlantic in a Drama Desk-nominated performance as Carlotta Campion in the Tony-nominated revival of Stephen Sondheim's Follies, will also share her theatrical journey in song with audiences in Arizona, California, Florida, Virginia, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. I rarely say readers of this column "must" attend a performance, but if you are a fan of the musical theatre or of tremendous singing, then, truly, do not miss the chance to see this Olivier-winning artist, who created leading roles in the world premieres of Evita, Cats and Chess and later triumphed in productions of Anything Goes, Piaf, The King and I and Sunset Boulevard, live.

I have had the great opportunity to catch the versatile performer in a full concert evening twice, and the best word to describe her performance is volcanic; when that golden voice opens, it pours out like rich lava, and the sound that envelops the entire concert hall is simply thrilling. She is also a spell-binding actress, who delves deeply into each and every song. On Valentine's Day, I again had the chance to chat with the witty, good-humored Paige, who had just returned to London following a Scandinavian concert tour. It's always a treat to catch up with the British star, who is as enjoyable offstage as she is on; our conversation, which was filled with much laughter, follows.

Question: Happy Valentine's Day! Any special plans?
Elaine Paige: Well, my chap and I are going out for dinner, after having seen Chess. There's a production of Chess being performed tonight here in Southwark in London. He has never seen it, so I'm taking him! [Laughs.] And then we're going out for dinner.

Question: Have you ever seen the musical from the audience?
Paige: I have! I've seen it in Sweden, actually—in Stockholm. Benny [Andersson] and Björn [Ulvaeus] invited me over to see a production that they had done of it, and they changed it around quite a bit… You saw more of the backstory of the people, particularly my character, Florence, and the [Russian] chess player. It was a good production, even though it was all in Swedish! Of course, I didn't understand a word they were singing, but since I knew it quite well—excuse the pun—knew the story quite well, it didn't matter that it was all in Swedish… I also saw it at the Albert Hall… It was a concert version with Idina Menzel singing my role and the wonderful Josh Groban… That was quite interesting as well to see it in concert with an orchestra. That's the best [format] I think.

Question: What's it like for you seeing someone else play a role that you created?
Paige: It's always weird, to be honest! I mean, I understand why Hal Prince never goes to see a production that he [previously] directed—probably for the same kind of reason. [Laughs.] It's always strange to see another production and see somebody else singing a role that you do know backwards, but, you know, I'm getting older now, so you have to let go! [Laughs.]

Paige in Follies.
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: The last time we spoke you were doing Follies on Broadway. What was the L.A. experience like for you when you took Follies there?
Paige: It was an interesting experience in that, having started the journey of Follies in Washington, and then bringing it to Broadway—which was such fun and amazing for me to be back on Broadway, just brilliant and thrilling—and then we took a break before doing it again in L.A. It was different, obviously, because we had a different leading lady—Bernadette [Peters] wasn't there… Vicki [Clark], who was wonderful and so very completely different from Bernadette, and it was interesting how that kind of changed the balance, I suppose you could say, a bit. And, we didn't have Rosalind [Elias] the opera singer—there was a new opera singer. As wonderful as all of these new faces were, it never is quite the same somehow, is it, when the company that rehearsed and grew together through rehearsal period is altered. But, nevertheless, having said that, I think the show was in great shape, and the audiences in L.A. lapped it up. I must say, they seemed to absolutely adore it, but, for me, the living in L.A.—I'm a city girl, so I found that quite difficult. I have a few friends in L.A., not a lot, but a few friends. But it's that awful thing of having to organize everything to the nth degree because you have to drive everywhere to see anybody. So it's quite a lonely existence, I found it to be.

Question: I've never really lived out there, but I don't think I would like it either. I like being able to walk out and have everything right there.
Paige: Me, too, and I like to do things off the cuff and spontaneously. You can't really do that so well in L.A. because of having to drive everywhere, so I found the living experience there was not as I had remembered it many years prior when I was there in 1991, I think, making an album—my pop album, as it were. I really had a great time, and I loved it, but then I wasn't living on my own out there at the time.… But [this recent stay] was great. I enjoyed going to the theatre and doing the show again every night… Also, everything was going on here, at home, in England. It was the Queen's Jubilee, and so I would wake up the morning of the extravaganza that they had down the River Thames here…and I was glued to the television—your television—at unearthly hours in the morning and Skyping England all the time so that I could feel part of this momentous occasion, and in turn, in doing that, made me feel terribly homesick! [Laughs.] … It was a big year last year for the Royal Family. I really felt like I was missing it all! [Laughs.] I mean, I'm jesting about that to some degree, but although I'm jesting about it, there's an element of truth in it. So I remember finding a most marvelous cake shop in Beverly Hills, and I ordered a huge tea, and one weekend when we were doing the back-to-back matinee scenario, I got them to deliver this fantastic spread of English tea, basically, for all my American pals in Follies. They all woofed it up—thought it was all wonderful! So that was fun—I brought a little bit of England to L.A. I took lots of pictures, and I put bunting up—red, white and blue bunting—all over my dressing room door and up the corridor, and they all thought I lost the plot completely and had gone mad, but it was good fun.

Question: Was performing in Follies in D.C., Broadway and L.A. the longest time you'd ever been away from London?
Paige: No, because when I came over to do Sunset on Broadway, I was in New York for a year at least then because I came out early. I think I played eight or nine months, so it was about the same kind of time. But it's interesting how after about a year, I start to feel, "Oh! I need to move again!" It must be the gypsy in me. [Laughs.]

Elaine Paige

Question: Also, while you were here this past time, you made your New York concert debut at the Allen Room…
Paige: Yeah! That was thrilling and very nerve-wracking and very exciting, yes. But, of course, in turn, has spawned the reason I am coming to do this tour because it was so well received.

Question: It was a thrilling concert.
Paige: Thank you, so it's really more of the same. I'm going to be doing sort of similar, if not practically the same, concert all over the country, which is thrilling because I've wanted to do this for so many years, and I don't know, somehow never kind of quite got around to it. Every time I leave the States, I always become embroiled in tours and work, commitments here and in Europe and in Asia and Australia. So Elaine Stritch, when I was there this time—as always, we get together because we're friends, and I was having tea with her at the Carlyle there, and I gave her the CD—"Elaine Paige Live"—and, of course, she then rang me up. She said, "You know… You've got to be doing this here." She banged on about how I really ought to be doing it in the States… She said, "You've got to sort your schedule out. You must do it. You must come and do it." So I thought after Follies and after the experience at the Lincoln Center, I thought she was probably right—I should try to really make an effort, more of an effort to make it happen, and so I have this time, and I am very excited about it.

Question: What kind of repertoire will you be doing here?
Paige: I'm going to be telling my story, rather as I did at the Lincoln Center, I'm going to pepper my theatrical journey, if you like, from my beginnings in Hair through working in Follies. I shall make reference to that because I've invited a lot of my Follies gang from the show, so we're going to have a proper reunion in New York I hope. [Laughs.] A lot of them are coming—those that aren't working are going to join me afterwards for a drink I hope. But basically I'm going to be telling my story—my theatrical story—from the beginning, and, as I say, tell stories and anecdotes in between the hits from all the musicals that I've been lucky enough to appear in like Evita and Chess and Cats.

Question: When you look back at your career, are you ever amazed by all that you have been able to do?
Paige: … Of course. You know, I don't know if I ever would have dreamt that I could have had this career…and this long! I mean, the fact that anybody still wants to come and listen to me sing is pretty amazing to me as well! [Laughs.] And, it truly is amazing. When I was putting the tour together, there's so much that I have done in various shows. It was quite difficult to work out what to keep in and what to throw out for this concert. That's the hard part, trying to work out what to tell and what to leave out… It's been truly amazing. Who could have predicted such a thing?

Question: Also, it's been such an international career, not just here, but you play all over Europe and Asia…
Paige: I could never have imagined. I mean, I was thinking the other day. Somebody asked me, "Which was the one that was most memorable and so on, and which would I like to revisit?" And, I was thinking about Evita and how that came along, and how I managed to land that role is still remarkable to me because that really did change everything for me. It gave me a career, really, in musical theatre. And, I still think, "If she hadn't have been 5'2'', I might never have…" It was luck! Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice had written that show about a small, blonde woman, and with that wonderful score, and that gave me a serious opportunity, and I grabbed it with everything. But had that not come along, who knows? I might never have had this career. Question: When did the recording career start?
Paige: Well, I always dabbled in studio work before Evita because I used to do doo-wops on other people's albums to make some money. And, I had a little band early on or during Hair days in the late '60s-early '70s called Sparrow. Of course, at the time, never connected the fact with Piaf or anything, but that was the name of the band, and we were trying to write a musical, and we recorded a few things, and so on and so forth, but I never really managed to get anything [to take off] because it was very difficult to get a recording contract in those days if you were nobody. It took Evita, really, to plop me on the map, and I think also due to the fact that it was Tim and Andrew—all of their musicals had always been recorded first on vinyl and released before they were mounted as theatrical shows… Because of that fact, Tim was instrumental in helping me put together an album on Warner Bros. Probably because of him and Andrew, they approached me to see if I ever wanted to do an album, but they wanted theatrical songs, obviously. But it was my idea for my first album, called "Stages," to be theatrical songs done [with] a modern take. So we used synthesizers, and I didn't sing them as great, big dramatic ballads. I tried to give them more of a pop twist. And, that album was a platinum-selling album, which was pretty extraordinary in those days because nobody in the theatre prior to that had ever had a recording career as well, so it was amazing.

Question: What's your take on the Internet and YouTube?
Paige: Well, today, funny enough, I've just hit 10,000 tweeting followers, which I'm surprised about! I know it's not that many, really, but that was pretty exciting—a momentous moment! [Laughs.] Mad fools that they are! But anyway, I quite like Twitter… On the one hand, I like this modern world we live in, in the fact that it's at your fingertips—you can find absolutely anything out about anything at all at the flick of a switch practically. I like that. But there's aspects of it as well, I think, that are not too good—people say the most dreadful things about people on Twitter… There are certain people I like to follow, but I'm not so immersed in it. Of course, I couldn't live without email now. It's the most marvelous way of staying in touch with people.

Paige in Sunset Boulevard.

Question: What are your thoughts these days about returning to the theatre?
Paige: Well… [Laughs.] I don't think about it too often to be honest. Oh, gosh, I don't know. I think certainly, at the moment anyway, having had my little foray again with Follies, which I thoroughly enjoyed, and somehow, when I'm doing it and I'm there, there's nothing to beat it really. It's just the best to be part of a company of people and working on character. There's nothing to beat it. It's still my favorite thing to do in the world, but the thing that nowadays I find a little more difficult is it takes up all of your life. Clearly, as I'm not getting younger, I find it tiring.

Question: Eight shows a week is a lot.
Paige: Eight shows a week—you've got to be devoted. And, again, when I look back on my career, I have been devoted for 40 years plus. And, I think it's got to be something that I really, really want to do to do it again. You know, I would never say never. I'm not giving up the theatre entirely, but I think, certainly, for this year anyway, I won't be thinking of looking to do anything in the theatre for the moment.

Question: It seems like you have a very full life, and I can really understand not wanting to be at the theatre eight nights a week.
Paige: As I say, I did it for really all my life. I've lived in the theatre. I mean, my dressing rooms, in each show I ever did, I made it like home. I would get furniture and drapes and sofas… It made it really comfortable because, for all of my life—or practically 40 years of my life—I've lived in the theatre, and I think, at the moment anyway, I've earned myself a little break from it. But, that's not to say that if somebody offered me something that I couldn't resist… Believe me, equally, it's the old drug—theatre. I would be right back in there like a shot, if it were something that really interested me. So I'm sitting on the fence a bit about it. But I think, for the rest of this year anyway—2013—I can't imagine I'm going to be in the theatre eight shows a week. I'm not looking for it anyway—let's put it that way.

Question: Do you have any new recordings in the works?
Paige: I'd been working terribly hard with Follies, came back from Follies, took a couple of months off, and then I had to fulfill a commitment that I had to postpone initially because of Follies, which was an Australasian tour. So I've just finished that, and then I took Christmas off, and I just completed another tour—Scandinavia. Literally, I got back Tuesday. I've been on a performing treadmill a bit, and what I feel I need to do—this happens to me every now and again, because I do love performing—but I feel that I need to take some time out to kind of fill up the cup again. I need to be re-inspired, and I need to step back for a minute and work out exactly what I think I want to do next. And, recording is certainly something I've been thinking of, and I make endless lists all the time for ideas of what I might want to record. I need time really to be able to sit and ponder…and work out what it is I want to do.

Question: And, you're also still doing your radio show …
Paige: I'm doing my radio show as well, and that's a weekly commitment and something I love doing. It's good fun. I've been doing that nine years this September, which is frightening! I don't know where nine years went. Oh my God! But I love doing that and doing the interviews with various people that pop by every year in London, so yes… I'm doing that as well. I haven't got much time for life! [Laughs.] Paige's U.S. concert dates follow:

Feb. 26 at the Mesa Arts Center in Mesa, AZ
Feb. 27 at the McCallum Theatre in Palm Desert, CA
March 1 at the Fairmont Hotel's Venetian Room in San Francisco, CA
March 4-5 at the Crest Theatre in Delray Beach, FL
March 7 at the Birchmere in Alexandria, VA
March 9 at The Town Hall in New York, NY
March 10 at Kean University in Union, NJ
March 12 at the Cabaret at Theater Square in Pittsburgh, PA

[The Town Hall is located in Manhattan at 123 W. 43rd St. For tickets visit Ticketmaster.com.]

Read my review of Elaine Paige's 2012 New York concert debut here.

Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.

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