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

News   DIVA TALK: Catching Up With Follies Star Elaine Paige, Plus Karen Akers Sings Sondheim
News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.

Elaine Paige
Elaine Paige

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.

Elaine Paige

Question: What is it like working with Sondheim? Is it intimidating?
Paige: Well, of course, it's pretty frightening. [Laughs.] It's Mr. Sondheim! Oh my gosh. He's a legend, isn't he? And, a genius to boot! And then, he sits, and when he sits, you can't see his eyes because they kind of screw up and you can't quite see into him. It's quite unnerving, but he's charming. When I worked with him on one particular occasion here in New York, we were going through the song, and I was discussing various lines and various things with him that I wanted to know, and he wanted to impart to me as well, and so I apologized because I was writing it all down in my notebook because I always do that. I said, "I'm so sorry, but this is going to take forever, but I have to write it all down because otherwise, I shall not remember it, and I want to remember every morsel of what you say to me," and he said to me, "Please don't apologize. I like actors who take notes," so that was a relief! [Laughs.] But, it's been invaluable working with him because, obviously, he wrote it, and he knows exactly what he was thinking of and who he based it on and so on and so forth. You couldn't have a better person to be there than the author. It's just brilliant to have that, and then it's an experience that I will never ever forget. It was, you know, life changing, really, because he was basically saying less is more, I think, as well as giving me these insights… Stephen, after we worked together, complimented me, so that was a great thrill to have pleased him. That's the thing that I wanted to be able to do was to please him, so hopefully the adjustments I made have, and that's fantastic to have been able to have done that.

Question: The night I went, the audience just erupted after your song. Is it like that every night?
Paige: I suppose that is a very good word to describe it. It's an absolute thrill to hear that because in England, which we have discussed many times before, it's so much different. It's so much more reserved and low-key just because of the nature of the people. We are much more reserved as a nation, so to hear this wonderful eruption, that's it. I never thought to say that, but you know, it's huge, and it's every night, and it's so exciting. I've never known anything quite like it to be honest. It's a thrill. It's an absolute thrill.

Question: It's like a rock concert in a way.
Paige: [Laughs.] I suppose so. Sometimes, I come off in the wings and my dresser, Kelly Saxon, says, "Oh, you rock star!" [Laughs.]

Question: I know when you're doing a role like Evita or Norma, there is such concern about your voice. Does this role let you have more of a life?
Paige: Absolutely. Of course. It does, indeed. Yes, because it is really a few scenes and that one song, to be honest it's very much a featured role or a cameo role. I'm not a leading player in this, but it's wonderful in the sense that it does afford me some free time to live a life as well. I still get tired by the end of the week and everything, but nothing like I know I would feel if I was playing Sally or Phyllis, so I'm rather glad I'm not! [Laughs.]

Paige in Sunset Boulevard.

Question: What does it make you think for the future? Do you like this size of a role or would you want to do larger parts again?
Paige: It's interesting. I love the idea with this that I am able to live a little life as well as being in the show. Never say never, you know. If something wonderful comes along that really appeals to me, then, of course, I would consider it. But, you know, I think I may have said it to you before, I'm very lucky, I think, to still be doing a job that I love and don't think of as a job, actually. I'm just doing something that I've wanted to do since the age of about 16. It's amazing that I'm able to still be doing it, really. If something wonderful comes along that interests me enough, then I would consider it, obviously. But, this, where I'm at right at the moment, is pure joy, and it's a thrill. I'm loving every minute of it. Question: Tell me about the night the lights went out.
Paige: Well, I was singing away "I'm Still Here," and I guess I was almost two-thirds of the way through the song, and I had gotten to the point where I sing, "I've gotten through 'Hey, lady, aren't you whoozis?'" It was all going swimmingly well, and then suddenly the lights went out and the sound went off for a moment, and then the sound came back on, but the lights did not, and I sang the whole of that verse in the dark, and it wasn't until I sang "I'm still here" that the lights came back on on the word "here." And, the audience… I don't know what they must've thought… I kept looking around the stage thinking I could see light, but it was all happening behind me. It was as if the lighting board had gone AWOL. It looked like a very 70s psychedelic light show was going on behind me! And, so I stood there in the dark and I kept on singing. I didn't stop. I belted it out. And, suddenly, as I say, as I got to "I'm still here" I went for that big note, and as I sang the word the lights came up, and the whole audience clapped and applauded and laughed, and it was brilliant because it just seemed so perfect timing for them to come back on when I'm singing "I'm still here," having not been there for nearly a whole verse in the dark. I later found out that How to Succeed in Business had to stop their show completely and wait. I think the whole of Broadway went out. It wasn't just us. It was whoever was on that particular bit of the grid went out. Anything that goes remotely wrong in theatre is always something that is remembered and enjoyed, but it was quite funny, I must admit.

Question: If they were to revive Follies in London, would you be interested in doing the show there?
Paige: I don't know. I've enjoyed it very, very much, but this thing of having to be in the theatre every night, it does curtail one's life. We'll see. Listen, who knows what can happen? You know me. I have never planned anything in my life, much. [Laughs.] It all just seems to happen to me, for which I am very grateful because "I am still here," but I think we have to wait and see. If it does go to London, I'll think about it then, but in the meantime I am very much enjoying being here in New York. It's great. And, if I don't do another musical, this will be a great way to bow out.

Question: I don't like to hear that you won't do another musical, but I definitely understand the demands of a show.
Paige: Well, we'll see. Like I say, never say never. [Laughs.]

Paige in Follies.
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: Any chance of a New York concert while you're here?
Paige: Well, there is the possibility that I might be doing Jazz at Lincoln Center. There's a possibility I might be doing that in February, at the end of this, so I'm looking at that now. I am looking forward to that very much, but I'm just trying to work out what [repertoire] I'm going to do.

Question: How did the Follies recording session go?
Paige: It went very well. We had a wonderful weekend last weekend recording the album at Avatar Studios, which, ironically, was where I recorded my "Elaine Paige and Friends" album last summer, which is where this whole story began, so in many respects I felt like that was sort of a recording conclusion. And, even more weird, was Phil Ramone was actually working in one of the studios upstairs on George Michael's new album, so I popped up to see him, which was wonderful because I haven't seen him since this time last year. That was great fun to see him again, and then we started talking about hoping to work together again on a new album, so I'm hoping I might be able to get that started while I'm here.

We were in the studio all day Monday, and some of the leading players had to go back Tuesday to do their big ballads and so on. We did it live with the orchestra. The orchestra was there just as we do it in the show really, only without the audience. I basically sang it through twice and hope that one or other of those takes will be good enough. God knows! I haven't heard it back, so I don't know. I hope it will be all right, but it was great fun. Everybody was there all day long, and the spirits were up and nobody got crotchety or so tired, although everybody was pretty knackered, you know. Without the day off, especially for the leads, it's difficult. But, no, it was great fun, and we got it all done in two days. That is amazing! I think it's coming out in November. I've never heard of such a thing ever before in all my years at the theatre… The quickest turn-around I've ever, ever known!

Question: What's the thought for the next solo CD for you?
Paige: Well, I'm thinking it might be "EP and Friends 2" if I can rustle up enough or find some more friends. [Laughs.] But, I'm hoping, this time as well, to do some more solos on it as well. It's very much in its early stages of development. It's going to be with EMI, so I'm just waiting for the deal to be absolutely signed and sealed, so, as I say, I hope by talking about it I'm not [jinxing] it, but the idea is that Phil and I will get together, and I've started kind of looking at material again. I just want it to be an album of fantastic songs, that's the best thing. And, that's what's so wonderful about Follies. You've got one song after another, after another, after another with brilliant lyrics, and that's what I want to find. I don't necessarily think this CD is going to be just taken from theatre or from the modern scene or from jazz. It's just going to be a collection of fantastic good songs, some with my friends and some on my own.

[For tickets to Follies, phone (877) 250-2929 or visit Ticketmaster.com.]

Karen Akers

Leave it to Karen Akers, who has previously transformed the work of Billy Joel and James Taylor into art songs, to turn "Water Under the Bridge" — a tune written for Barbra Streisand for an unproduced James Goldman film and later introduced to the world by Liza Minnelli and Billy Stritch in duet form at Stephen Sondheim's Carnegie Hall birthday salute — into a beguiling ballad. In fact, Akers' rendition was so transfixing one actually forgot she was singing and became completely involved in the story she was telling.

That was just one of the many highlights of the singing actress' generous evening of Stephen Sondheim tunes that is now playing the Oak Room of the Algonquin Hotel. Entitled Live, Laugh, Love: Akers Sings Sondheim, the performance features no less than six tunes from Sondheim and Goldman's Follies — her title tune, which served as the theme of the evening; a belty "Broadway Baby"; a heart-piercing "Losing My Mind"; and three songs written for the character of Phyllis Stone, "The Story of Lucy and Jessie," "Ah, But Underneath" and an especially trenchant "Could I Leave You?" — as well as songs from Passion, Sunday in the Park with George, Merrily We Roll Along, Into the Woods, A Little Night Music and more.

Akers' enunciation is so crystal clear that many of the evening's songs were heard in a new light. I was particularly taken with her rendition of "Moments in the Woods," where every "and" and "or" got their full due, and it made one hear and feel the song anew. The singer, who performs with a sense of freedom and emotional abandon like never before, also shone with a wonderfully comic version of "More" from "Dick Tracy" and a gorgeous pairing of Sunday in the Park with George's "Beautiful" and "I Remember" from TV's "Evening Primrose."

It may have been, however, the final section of the evening, the songs of love, where Akers was most powerful. In addition to the aforementioned "Water Under the Bridge" and "Losing My Mind," the Tony-nominated performer also delivered passionate versions of Passion's "Loving You" and "I Wish I Could Forget You," Merrily We Roll Along's "Good Thing Going" and "Not a Day Goes By" and A Little Night Music's "Send in the Clowns"; the latter was especially moving.

Akers concluded her Sondheim exploration with the master's ode to New York City, "What More Do I Need," before returning with an encore of "Goodbye for Now." (Prior to her encore one fan yelled out a request of "I'm Still Here," to which Akers responded, without missing a beat, "I'm glad," which drew one of the evening's biggest laughs.)

Mention must also be made of music director Don Rebic's masterful orchestrations, which beautifully surround Akers' dark, buzzing contralto. Her sound is so unique and haunting that it stays with you for days after the concert, and this show is a must for both her fans and Sondheim devotees.

Performances continue through Oct. 29. The Oak Room is located within the Algonquin Hotel at 59 W. 44th Street. For reservations call (212) 419-9331.

[To read my recent interview with Karen Akers, click here.]

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

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