Elaine Paige, the leading lady of the British musical theatre, is happily back onstage in the West End production of the award-winning musical The Drowsy Chaperone, which is now in previews at the Novello Theatre. Paige's latest stage role casts her as Beatrice Stockwell, the fictional actress who stars in the title role of the show-within-a-show, The Drowsy Chaperone. And, what inspired casting! Who better to play a musical theatre star who requires a big ballad in every show — think "Memory" in Cats, "Don't Cry for Me Argentina" in Evita, "Heaven Help My Heart" in Chess — than Paige, who knows a thing or two about the art of belting out a powerful ballad. And, Paige — whose thrilling vocals and consistently impressive acting skills (she brings her characters to full, interesting life) have been enjoyed on this side of the Atlantic in Sunset Boulevard and the New York City Opera production of Sweeney Todd — has also triumphed with somewhat over-the-top characters (Norma Desmond, anyone?). It's quite a busy time for the celebrated actress, who also hosts a weekly radio program on BBC Radio 2 that features, appropriately, songs from the musical theatre. Last week I had the great pleasure of once again chatting with Paige, who is always a treat to interview: Her terrific sense of humor, enthusiasm for her work and all-around good spirits are contagious. That interview with my favorite Brit follows.
Question: How are Drowsy previews going?
Elaine Paige: It's fantastic. I'm loving every minute of it.
Question: How are audiences responding so far?
Paige: They are absolutely lapping it up. They love it. It's going down really well. It's so wonderful to be part of a comedy where you're onstage at night and just hear an entire audience [of] over 1,000 people just laughing, belly-laughing out loud. It's just so brilliant to hear people laugh like this.
Question: It's a great show. When I heard you were doing it, I thought, "Oh, that's the perfect part for her!"
Paige: [Laughs.] Well, I don't know, but I'm having a lot of fun!
Question: There's a little bit of Norma in Drowsy.
Paige: I suppose so — it could be a little bit. I kind of think to myself that it's Norma doing her comedy routine in jollier times. [Laughs.] Well, it isn't really, but I suppose in the sense that she's sort of the diva, isn't she? But it's quite funny for me to be doing this because I feel, in a way, I'm kind of sending myself up a bit — me, Elaine, as Beatrice Stockwell, as the Drowsy Chaperone. [Laughs.] Question: I know you saw Drowsy in New York, which started the ball rolling. Tell me about seeing it for the first time and what you thought.
Paige: As you probably know, [producer] Kevin McCollum invited me over to see the show with a view to me playing Beatrice Stockwell, the Drowsy Chaperone. I came just before Christmas — it was literally the week before Christmas. It was quite a fantastic time to be in New York and to see such a fun show. I sat there, and obviously I was pretty jetlagged, but even with jetlag, I just thought it was so clever and witty and totally original. I fell in love with it there and then, and when it was over I remember thinking, "Oh, I don't want it to be over. I want to sit through it all again!" So that, I thought, was a very good sign that I should think that. I think I knew then that I wanted to do it, so the only thing was to sort out my diary and to make sure I was going to be free. And, also, to go back to the theatre after a little absence, you know you have to make a commitment, so that was the biggest decision really. But I'm so glad that I have committed to it. It's absolutely fantastic, and I'm having an absolute ball.
Question: And, I would think it must be a little less demanding of a part than some of the huge roles that you've done.
Paige: Well, of course, it is indeed. And, on paper it looks very much like that, but I have to tell you, in reality, as all things, [they] are never quite as they appear. Whilst it looks like I basically have a cameo role and I have the one song, in truth, that isn't true at all. I seem to be on nearly every other scene in a different outfit. [Laughs.] So there's an awful lot of costume changes, and I'm being a chorine as well, which is rather wonderful. I'm singing and dancing my feet off in all the scenes, which I'm enjoying thoroughly. I can't remember the last time I danced like this. My knees don't like it too much, but it's really great fun to be able to be part of an ensemble piece that's fun and that one can sort of let oneself go in.
Question: Are you enjoying performing "As We Stumble Along"?
Paige: It's a great song. I am enjoying it very much. It's quite a big sing and it takes a lot of energy, and I'm glad that it's just the one song on that level, in fact. But it's fantastic — I'm loving it.
Question: When you saw Drowsy in New York, did you get to talk to the New York cast afterwards?
Paige: A friend of mine, Edward Hibbert, was in the show at the time playing the Underling, so I went backstage to see him and, in so doing, was introduced to several other members of the company — all who seemed to be very up and jolly and having a wonderful time. They were a very good advert[isement] for me to be in it! [Laughs.] And then I met Casey [Nicholaw], the director and choreographer, and I also met Kevin McCollum and Roy [Miller], the producers. We shared a drink and talked about it, and they were very keen for me to do it here. So that was the beginnings of it really.
Question: How long did it take you to decide that you were going to take the role?
Paige: At the time I was seeing the show and then meeting [the producers], I had just completed a concert tour here in the U.K. and China and Scandinavia. So I was pretty tired, and I said to them that I would consider it and think about it over the Christmas period, which is exactly what I did — and then we started negotiating.
Question: Tell me about working with Casey Nicholaw. You had never worked with him before, right?
Paige: No, I haven't worked with him before. It's quite interesting because it's quite a different way of working. We've all been ensconced in a rehearsal hall for really only a matter of a few weeks. I wish, in a way, we'd had a little longer. However, having said that, you never have enough time. It's been a fascinating process in the sense that we've all been gathered together in one room basically and been sort of rehearsing as an ensemble. So it's different, it's interesting. He's a very nice man and very creative and obviously a fantastic choreographer, and it's been a pleasure.
Question: Did you know [actor and Drowsy co-creator] Bob Martin before this experience?
Paige: No, not at all. I am so full of admiration for him. He's a wonderful talent, not only as an actor and a performer, which goes without saying — to hear him, listen to him every night. His wonderful comic timing and honesty and truth in his performance is quite amazing. But, of course, this wonderful writing. I mean, it is just so clever and witty. The premise — I just think the whole thing is an absolute delight, and I'm thrilled that I'm part of it.
Question: Has the show been changed at all for London audiences?
Paige: Yes, I think there are minor changes. Fundamentally, it remains the same. We've changed a few things regarding my character a bit, to make it sort of more for me, I suppose. They're harping on about my lack of inches, which seems to be delighting the audience [laughs]! And, some of the references Bob has changed just to make it more accessible to an English audience, but fundamentally it's pretty much the same.
Question: Do you think the show has a message? Does it say something to you?
Paige: I think it says what [Man in Chair] says in the piece really — that musical theatre is something that transports us and takes us to another place and gets us away from the drudgery and the serious business of real life. I think that's what it says, and that it's entertainment. It's pure entertainment. It seems that the audiences are ready for this kind of entertainment in musical theatre at the moment. I think life is difficult, and [with] the terrible things that happen in life today, it's just wonderful to be able to go and sit for an hour and 40 minutes, with no interval, and to be transported and laugh your head off with this wonderful piece of writing. And the fact that people can see themselves in it — they can identify in a way with a lot of what he says. I think that's rather wonderful, too, that you sit there in that darkened theatre at the beginning and think, "Oh, my God, I just thought that!" It's a wonderful way to be able to let go of the difficulties of real life for an hour and a half.
Question: And what's so nice about it is, as funny as the show is, at the end it's quite moving when all the characters come into his living room.
Paige: Yes, it is. It's very touching, and it makes you realize that the piece isn't just about fun and laughter. It is about the reality of life as well. . . . What I love about it is that it's so original. There's nothing else like it in the theatre at the moment. . . . It is a totally original source, and I think that is so very clever.
Question: How would you describe the character of Drowsy to someone?
Paige: I think she's just a woman who likes too much to drink and has been around the block a few times … She sort of amuses herself with wickedness. I don't think it's really malicious. It's just [that] she's got a wicked sense of humor, and that carries her through life, I think, and that's how she amuses herself. And, she is a grande dame, isn't she, of great achievement in her theatrical career and likes to be thought of in such terms probably? I think you know it's all pretty light-hearted stuff, but it's quite funny because of the way that [Man in Chair] goes on about the fact that she wants a serious dramatic ballad in every show she ever does. Well, it's not far short of the truth in my career actually! I've had many serious ballads in many shows that I've performed in. [Laughs.] So I think it's even funnier for me because there's quite a lot of it that I somehow identify with my career in a sense. I mean, not in a serious way, but it sort of amuses me.
Question: I love the scene where the cast is doing the wrong musical.
Paige: Isn't that great? The King and I, well, of course! And over here, you see, I played it as if it was Beatrice Stockwell being in The King and I, with an American accent, because he refers to her as the "late American lady." But [the audience] didn't seem to quite get it. My instinct at the beginning, in rehearsals, was to do it as if I was back in The King and I and doing it in a very British way, because the character initially was the British woman going to Asia. Casey wanted me to play it as Beatrice Stockwell, and we've now reverted to my original idea, which was to play it dead straight, dead English — they seem to get [it] more, which is even funnier somehow. There are all those wonderful moments — the needle getting stuck on the record, and the "while you can" with the cane dropping . . . . I [also] love the moment where I pull the screen in front of the young ingénue because I want to be the center of attention, not her. I just think it's so funny. It pokes such wonderful fun of musical theatre.
Question: You've also had a successful radio program the past few years. Will you be continuing with that while you're in Drowsy?
Paige: Yes, I am! I'm getting up on Sunday mornings to do that, live every Sunday. So I don't actually get a day off at the moment. I just hope I'm going to last the course. [Laughs.]
Question: Have you enjoyed the radio program?
Paige: It's wonderful, yes. It's great fun, and so very different from theatre in that it's quite small and intimate and quiet and gentle. It's just me and a microphone really, talking to the nation, as it were. Whereas this is so broad, isn't it? Particularly because it's that American, Marx Brothers kind of humor, it's even more broad than usual. So it's absolutely exhausting and, as I say, I just hope my legs will allow me. Question: Any chance you might bring your Drowsy to New York?
Paige: Well, wouldn't that be wonderful fun? I would very much like to think it's a possibility, but we'll just have to wait and see. . . . It would be great to be able to come back to New York and to play Broadway, which again would be fantastic all these years on. Let's keep our fingers crossed!
[The Drowsy Chaperone — starring Elaine Paige — will officially open at London's Novello Theatre June 6. For ticket information call 0870 950 0935.]
Four-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald — who is nominated this season for her performance in the acclaimed revival of 110 in the Shade — will perform Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt's "Raunchy" on the 61st Annual Tony Awards, which will be held June 10 at Radio City Music Hall. Tony Award winner Christine Ebersole, nominated for her work in Grey Gardens, will sing Michael Korie and Scott Frankel's "The Revolutionary Costume for Today." The cast of the Tony-nominated Best Musical Spring Awakening will perform a medley of tunes from the Duncan Sheik-Steven Sater score, and the new Kander-Ebb-Holmes-Stone musical Curtains will perform "Show People." The final Best Musical nominee, Mary Poppins, will offer a medley of "Step in Time" (from the Sherman Brothers portion of the score) and "Anything Can Happen" (one of the new songs penned by Anthony Drewe and George Stiles). The company of the hit revival of A Chorus Line will likely sing and dance their way through Marvin Hamlisch and Ed Kleban's "One," and Tony nominee Raul Esparza is expected to perform "Being Alive" from the Tony-nominated revival of Stephen Sondheim's Company. "American Idol" winner Fantasia, who is currently starring in The Color Purple, will also lend her powerful vocals to the Tony telecast. CBS-TV will broadcast the 2007 Tony Awards from 8-11 PM ET.
The world premiere recording of Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer's To Hell and Back — featuring Tony and Olivier Award winner Patti LuPone — is now available on the internet: the recording of the one-act opera is only available for on-line downloading (visit Magnatune.com). In addition to LuPone, the opera also features the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra (PBO) and soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian. The two-character drama is based on the Rape of Persephone Greek myth. LuPone debuted Heggie's work in November 2006 at the First United Methodist Church in Palo Alto, CA. She and Bayrakdarian will reunite for one performance of To Hell and Back at the Ravinia Festival on June 5. The Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra will be led by Nicholas McGegan. For more information about the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, visit www.philharmonia.org.
Casting has been announced for the upcoming production of It's a Bird. . . It's a Plane. . . It's Superman, part of the York Theatre Company's Musicals in Mufti series. Cheyenne Jackson will star as Superman/Clark Kent, a role he recently played in the Reprise! mounting of the musical. The cast of the June 15-17 staged concert performances will also feature Jean Louisa Kelly as Lois Lane, Shoshana Bean as Sydney and composer Charles Strouse as Perry White. Stuart Ross, who directed the Reprise! engagement, will direct here as well. The starry company will also boast Stan Chandler, Lea DeLaria, Scot Federly, Rachel Jones, Amy Ryder, Michael Winther and Katherine Von Till. The musical will play the Theatre at Saint Peter's, which is located at 54th Street, east of Lexington Avenue. For more information or to purchase tickets, call (212) 935-5820 or visit www.yorktheatre.org.
Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to [email protected]