DIVA TALK: A Conversation with Follies Star Elaine Paige

Diva Talk   DIVA TALK: A Conversation with Follies Star Elaine Paige
News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Elaine Paige
Elaine Paige

Everyone knows that Elaine Paige is a formidable actress, who slips into each role with a chameleonlike ease, and an artist who also boasts perhaps the greatest belt voice to ever come out of the British musical theatre — one that she uses with equal dexterity and power in both her award-winning theatrical career and her equally successful concert and recording endeavors. But what some may not know is that she also possesses one of the most contagious laughs around. In fact, during our recent interview we both laughed uncontrollably for several minutes after Paige accidentally hit the mute button on her phone. The conversation went something like this:

ME: Elaine? Elaine? [no response]
ELAINE: Hello? Did you hear any of that?
ME: No.
ELAINE: Oh my God — I have been gabbing away, and I thought it was awfully quiet. "Are you still there?" And, no reply! [Laughs.] I must have touched something. [Laughs.] That is funny. That is so typical. Jabbering away for half an hour! [Laughs.] That was brilliant!
ELAINE/ME: [Laughter and more laughter...]

Laughter aside, the Olivier Award winner is now about to begin rehearsals for the Kennedy Center's eagerly awaited mounting of the Stephen Sondheim-James Goldman musical Follies. Helmed by Signature Theatre artistic director Eric Schaeffer, the classic musical will run May 7-June 19 in the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater. The cast, it should be noted, is an embarrassment of riches: Not only will it feature The First Lady of British Musical Theatre, Paige, but it will also star two-time Tony winner Bernadette Peters as Sally Durant Plummer, multiple Tony nominee Jan Maxwell as Phyllis Rogers Stone, two-time Tony nominee Danny Burstein as Buddy Plummer and Ron Raines as Benjamin Stone. Last week I had the great pleasure of speaking with Paige about her recent concert tour, her new best-selling CD — the terrific "Elaine Paige and Friends," which includes duets with Paul Anka, John Barrowman, Barry Manilow, Johnny Mathis, Idina Menzel, Olivia Newton-John, Jon Secada, Neil Sedaka and Dionne Warwick, among others — and her upcoming role as Carlotta Campion, the "I'm Still Here" survivor of Sondheim's Follies; that interview follows.

Question: You're in New York now?
Paige: I am, yes. I am sitting here in my agent's very plush office, overlooking Times Square. I brought the weather with me — the sun is shining.

Question: It's been a busy few months for you.
Paige: It certainly has. It has been crazy. I've been doing the concert tour and promoting the album, which went gold, which I am thrilled about.

Question: What type of material did you perform in the recent concerts?
Paige: I did quite a few things from the new album. I did "Mi Morena," the duet. I had two people singing along with me. He was in Avenue Q in London, Jon Robyns, he did "Mi Morena" with me and he also sang "Sunset Boulevard," which kind of set up the Sunset number. So, it was a slightly different concert in that I had these two other assets with me, and they sang some duets. I also sang with Hermione Hennessy, "It's Only Life," which is the original track on the album. Have you heard it?

Question: Yes, I like that song a lot, actually.
Paige: The Tim Rice and Gary Barlow song.

Question: I really enjoyed the whole album. I loved "Where is the Love?"
Paige: Yeah, there are some good tracks on it. I just thought these are such wonderful songs that you don't hear anymore, only occasionally on the radio—which is what inspired me, really, to do the album in the first place.

Question: Did you record with the other artists in person or did they do their tracks elsewhere?
Paige: In some cases, I did. Dionne [Warwick] I did here in New York. Barry Manilow I didn't do obviously, he was in Palm Springs, so we did it down the line, which was very interesting. I have never recorded like that before. It was weird, but it worked. We'd do a take and then he'd hear it…we'd discuss it and we'd try other things, so it was quite interesting in that sense. But mostly, I would say that some I did with the people and some I didn't. Neil Sedaka I sang with in L.A. at Capitol Records, which was a fantastic thrill... You know, some of these people like Neil Sedaka and Johnny Mathis and Paul Anka are people I knew and admired when I was growing up, so it was a bit like a fan-fest. [Laughs.]

Question: Was there one recording session that really stands out for you?
Paige: Well, LeAnn Rimes was quite interesting because I sang along with her, again, at Capitol Records. We did "The Closest Thing to Crazy," which is by Mike Batt — he's a pal of mine. He wrote that song. He wrote it for a musical, actually, but in the end, the musical never happened. He gave it to Katie Melua for her debut album, and it was a big hit. And, it is a wonderful ballad. I think it is kind of a modern standard, and I wanted to do that. I guess, to work with Barry on the phone was… the one that stands out because it was so unusual. Of course, Johnny Mathis I met when I was interviewing him for my radio show some years ago. That is how I got to meet Johnny, and we had a conversation when I was out in L.A. doing the interview for the radio about singing together. When I decided I was going to do this album, I rang out and said, "What do you think? Did you mean it?" And he said, "Absolutely!" So it was brilliant to see him again.

Elaine Paige

Question: Do you ever get star-struck or have you been doing this too long for that?
Paige: Well, when you meet people that you admired as a young girl, yourself, long before I was ever involved in this crazy industry. To meet people like Paul Anka and Neil Sedaka and, indeed, when I first met Johnny Mathis, I was like, "Oh my God!" And I have to say, to meet and sing with Dionne Warwick — that was it, really! I remember her when I was a young girl. She'll hate me for saying it, but you know what I am saying. These are legends. These are legends in the music business. People that I had admired as a young girl long before I was ever involved in this industry. It was pretty amazing. That is why I say it was a bit of a fan-fest, for me. I guess you can say it was my Susan Boyle moment [laughs] because finally I get to meet — not just meet, but sing with — idols and people that I have admired for so long.

Question: It was fun hearing "Thank You For Being a Friend" because you don't really hear that outside of "The Golden Girls."
Paige: Well, no. And being a great admirer and lover of "The Golden Girls" — who wasn't? We all watched that show. I just suddenly thought, initially, the idea for that song was that everybody would sing something on it — all of the friends that I have known and met through the 45 years in the business. Oh my God, I can't believe I am admitting that! [Laughs.] I thought to myself, "Wouldn't it be good if everybody [sang on that track]?" But, as Phil Ramone pointed out to me, to get everybody to sing and work it in the right key [would be difficult]. Anyway, when we sent out the songs to different artists, Dionne picked up on that song and wanted to sing it. So, you don't say to Dionne, "No, you can't have the whole song. [Laughs.] We all want to sing it." So we just left it with Dionne and me. I think it works quite well. It is a great song. You don't hear these songs, do you? Hopefully that's why, or partly why, the album is such a success because they are great songs, and I have got some great artists singing with me on it. It's just a thrill.

Question: Getting back to the concerts, do you like the touring experience, going city to city?
Paige: I do. But, you know, it's tiring. I find the traveling so tiring. I love it, though! I had a great tour out in the U.K. We went from Scotland, to Wales, to the South Coast, London… everywhere. It was a big success, and it's always wonderful to go to all the cities that you don't do all the time. They let you know how they feel — which songs they like and which they don't. To be able to do some of the new stuff from this album was a joy for me. It is all very well, but everybody wants you to sing the same old songs all the time. As an artist, obviously, I am always going to sing "Memory" and "Argentina," "As if We Never Said Goodbye," "With One Look" and some of the Piaf things. I love to sing those — but, equally, artistically, I want to spread my wings a bit now and again. I think now that I have kind of earned the right to be able to do that. I wanted to sing some of the songs from this album, and indeed I did "Mi Morena" and "Take a Bow," which I love, that Madonna song. And I did "Closest Thing to Crazy," because I love that, and "It's Only Life." So I did, I should think, a good five or six numbers. "It Might Be You," I love that song from the Dustin Hoffman film, "Tootsie." The audience also loved to hear those songs, so it is not like you are trying to sell them something new. They already know the songs. But it just kind of lightened the [experience] for me because it gave me something else, some new stuff to learn and perform. It was fun.

Elaine Paige

Question: So, how did Follies come about for you?
Paige: Well, Follies is an interesting thing. I was here, obviously, last summer making the album and I met up with [my agents] Jim Wilhelm and Josh [Pultz] here, and we were talking about one thing and another and they said, "What did you want to do?" and "What was I doing here?" … Anyway, we were talking about one thing or another, and he asked if I was interested in doing Follies. I said, "I don't know. Where is it going to be?" And he said, "The Kennedy Center." And it was this spring. I said if I could get to play Carlotta and sing "I'm Still Here," I wouldn't mind that. So the next day he rings me up and says, "They want you to do it." They offered it to me. So I said, "Yes! I would love to do it." So here I am. And, I am thrilled because I am in illustrious company, obviously, with Bernadette Peters and Danny Burstein and Ron Raines. So I am really looking forward to it, and it is a great song. It is one of Sondheim's great classics, isn't it?

Question: It is. So you were familiar with the show when they approached you?
Paige: Well, I would say I don't know it well. I am familiar with it. I think it is a bit like Chess of its day. It's got a great score. I am probably more familiar with the score than I am the actual book and the story itself. Obviously, I mean now I've delved into it a bit and I am looking into it now. But I've never seen it. I've never ever seen it anywhere, so I am more familiar with the score, really. Question: It is a bit like Cats in that you come out and have this great big number, this showstopper.
Paige: Exactly. Well, hopefully! [Laughs.]

Question: Have you started working on the song?
Paige: I have. I thought I would debut it in England in my tour, so I did a cut-down version. I didn't do the whole song because there are so many social commentaries in the song — about "five Dionne babies," and there are various things in the lyrics that the English audience wouldn't have a clue about. They just about heard of Herbert and J. Edgar Hoover, and that was pushing it. [Laughs.] But I thought it would be an idea to just give it a shot and give me an airing and give me a chance as well to kind of play around a bit and discover what it's all about, and I did. I did it in the last third of the performance of the evening, and it went down very well. Considering they don't know what it is about or anything, it sort of took the roof off. I'm thinking that's an audience that doesn't know or understand the real detail and meaning of it, so hopefully that bodes well for Washington.

Question: How do you go about taking that song and learning the lyrics and figuring out what you want to do with it?
Paige: Well, I really haven't got that far yet. Other than knowing about who the character is, and that is really where it stems from. I think she says in the script that she was a movie star and now she's got her own TV series. She says that she's played Vegas. I think that she has probably had a wider career than the others in the Follies at this party. I think that only because she is still out there and still doing it, whereas a lot of them I don't think are. She is a survivor I think. She is a survivor and somebody that is not that dissimilar to me probably. [Laughs.] In the fact that she has been there, done it all, been around the block a few times. She's been there, seen it and got the T-shirt as it were. And, in many respects there are similarities. I'm not a movie star or anything, but I have been around a while. I've done theatre and done radio and done television and concerts and made albums, and I'm still surviving, and I'm here as well. [Laughs.]

Quite interestingly, when I was doing some PR in London for my concert tour, a journalist was talking to me and said that I am referred to as "The First Lady of British Musical Theatre." It always amuses me. The journalist said, "How do you feel about? That must be ghastly. It means you've been around forever. I'd steer clear of that if I were you." And I found myself feeling a bit uptight with him. I said, "You know what, being referred to as the First Lady of the British Musical, I am pleased about that. I take that as a compliment." Yes, I've been around a while, but that's fine, too. I'm experienced and I've done a lot of different things. I find that to be a compliment. It means "I'm still here." I laughed out loud. He didn't know why. I thought, "God. I've actually said the title of the song for real." There was a real reason for me to say it. So, that is how I feel about it really. She's got a lot of balls. I think she may be a little vulnerable, but she is not going to grow old in pastel colors, let's put it that way. She's still going to get her eyelashes on and do her hair and get out there. She is still doing it. It's gritty. I think she is a gritty person, and she's got energy and a zest for life and just loves what she does. And, yet it has not been easy. There have been good times and bad times and she has seen it all, but she is still here, and I can genuinely say that for myself.

Elaine Paige

Question: Was it appealing to you that you don't have to carry the show?
Paige: Yes, that's appealing, too. Like you say, with Cats, it was wonderful. I came on with that wonderful song and got off. [Laughs.] Yes, that appeals to me, too. I don't know that I want to carry the show, really. I want to sing the best song, and I think it is a great score. "Broadway Baby" I've sung in my time, and that is wonderful. I sang that in my last concert tour and in fact that is on my DVD, my 40th anniversary DVD, and it is a wonderful song. But this is one of his classics. So it was the character and the song, really, that meant I got the chance to play it, and that is what appeals.

Question: Any chance you might get to do a concert while you're out in DC?
Paige: Well, you never know. I'm talking to Jim and Josh, my agents here. I would love the idea of being able to do a concert, but I don't know. It is just a matter of will I have the time while I'm doing the show? Basically, we are doing eight shows a week, I think. Unless it's a Monday night. [Laughs.] We can find a venue and put it together for a Monday night. It would be great to think that we might. You never know. Never say never. We are looking at various things.

Question: Maybe at the Kennedy Center.
Paige: Yeah, exactly. It is something that we are looking at possibly.

Question: Have you ever gotten the chance to spend much time in DC?
Paige: Well, I was there in the '80s I suppose. I went to the White House, indeed, to sing for President Reagan and Nancy. Marvin Hamlisch invited me. It was to celebrate Broadway, and he asked me if I would like to come over and represent the Brits, and that seemed to make sense to me. I was on the bill with Mary Martin, Bea Arthur and Jennifer Holliday to perform at the White House, which is a great honor. I got the tour afterwards, which was great fun, and I was able to spend a couple of days, maybe, in Washington. So I saw a little of it, all the tourist sites, I suppose. But I never spent more than that time there. I am really rather excited. Rehearsals start the 5th of April and the festival starts — the Cherry Blossom Festival — on the 1st through the 10th. So I am looking forward to that. I think it will be so pretty. I am really excited about the whole thing, I must say.

Elaine Paige

Question: When you look back at singing for Reagan, was that an intimidating way to make your U.S. debut?
Paige: Oh, intimidating, indeed it was. I got terribly nervous, I remember that. And jet-lagged. The jetlag got me. That was the first time I realized that if I were doing any concerts or anything long distance, I would need two or three days up front first to adjust to the jetlag. And, it was an early afternoon performance, like a 5 o'clock performance at the White House, and of course, that was when the jetlag hit me. Nightmare. I remember going to stand at the front door of the White House with the two officers either side of the doorway, the military guys. … I was standing there thinking, "Oh my God, I am going to fall over." I feel really faint and peculiar. So it was a pretty stressful time because A.) the jetlag, and B.) the nerves. Here I was, the Brit, at the White House, it was extraordinary. So I remember it all very clearly. It was such a small room as well, and to be on the bill with Mary Martin and Bea Arthur was just like, "Wow!"… I sang "Argentina" and "Memory," and that's what Marvin wanted. I remember I was so nervous, my lips stuck to my teeth. [Laughs.] All the saliva in my mouth disappeared off the face of the planet. Oh my goodness. Luckily, I don't get in such a state these days. Question: That's interesting.
Paige: Well, I was younger then, you know.

Question: What is it like before you go on stage now?
Paige: Interestingly, this last tour I've done, I noticed for the first time probably in my entire career, that the nerves are less. I mean, I still get excited and I'm not complacent in any way, but I wasn't a basket case. So that is, thank God! I remember talking to Barbara Cook many years ago, probably 20 years ago, and I said to her about the nerves thing, because it has always been something that I've had to deal with. So I asked her if she still got nervous, and I think she must have been about 65 or 70 at the time. It had to be about 15 years ago. She told me that it took her to get to 60-years-old before she could go on and be relaxed and not be a nervous wreck, and I always remembered that and I thought, "Oh my God! I've got another 10 or 15 years to go." But now that I am actually there, I think she's right. The same thing has happened to me. I still get nervous and excited, but it doesn’t get in the way.

Question: Last question: Is there any talk of Follies moving to New York?
Paige: Well, I've heard whispers, but I think let's get the thing on first and see how it goes. I don't know. Every time it has ever been done, it costs a fortune. It is such a big production and so many people involved. I don't know if it is financially viable — this is just me wearing my producer's hat. It would be very nice to think so, but let's get it on in Washington first and hope that it works.

[Performances will take place Tuesday through Saturday evenings in the Eisenhower Theater at 7:30 PM. Beginning May 11, matinee performances on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday afternoons will run at 1:30 PM. Tickets are available at the Kennedy Center box office or by calling Instant Charge at (202) 467-4600. Patrons living outside the Washington metropolitan area may dial toll-free at (800) 444-1324 or visit www.kennedy-center.org.]

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

Today’s Most Popular News: