Actress/singer Elaine Paige, having originated Evita, Chess, Piaf and Anything Goes in London, is unquestionably the queen of the West End, and with a Drama Desk nomination securely in place for her Broadway performance in the new Kennedy Center production of Stephen Sondheim's Follies, which opened at the Ahmanson May 9, Paige is fast becoming a theatrical sensation in the US as well. In our chat, she says what she thinks about Stephen Sondheim, Follies, Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, Barbara Cook, her favorite career highlights including her leading men, as well as her popular radio talk show for the BBC entitled Elaine Paige on Sunday.
I remember seeing you in a concert in Pasadena a decade ago and you spoke of your love for Barbara Cook. Tell me that story.
I've known her work for many, many years. As a young singer, someone that was starting out on the concert stage myself, she was quite an inspiration to me. We had a small club in London called Country Cousins...and they would get many American artists who would perform there. Barbara was one of them. I remember standing at the back of the...I couldn't afford to have a table up front, so I was hovering well at the back of this sort of long, narrow sort of smallish room, and listening to her singing. I couldn't really see much, because there were a lot of people standing in front of me, and being a shortie, that doesn't help either. I could hear that wonderful voice wafting across toward me. In fact, I got thrown out of the place. One of the chaps who worked there came over to me and he looked down on me and he said, "What do you think you're doing?" I was sort of singing quietly along with her. So they told me I would either have to shut up or leave. (she pauses) I guess I wasn't thrown out exactly, but she was very much somebody that I admired as a young concert artist myself.
Ah! You're in Follies! What is it like playing Carlotta and singing "I'm Still Here"?
Wonderful! It's a gift of a song for any actor in musical theatre. And of course it's known, isn't it, as one of the great anthems for a woman in the theatre? It's just a great part to play. As the song says, Carlotta's been around a bit. She's known the ups and downs of life and career, and she has a great sense of humor and must, to have survived. She's always ready and quick with a joke, ready to show humor. As she says, "plush velvet sometimes, sometimes just pretzels and beer". It's been all and everything in the sense that she's known the great times and 'bum' times. I think she's also had a few problems with alcohol. Her career's been on the skids a bit. She hasn't an ounce of self-pity about her at all. She can get over anything that's put in her way; she just pulls herself up by her boot straps and gets on with it. That's the kind of person she is. She never feels sorry for herself. She's always up, moving forward and onward. There's a lot about this character that I can identify with. She's no whimp. She's been through the movies, and then she went to Vegas when the movie roles went away, and she's now a TV star. She kind of reinvents herself, and she's got a great zest for life. So it's an uplifting role to play, full of oomph (she laughs).
Is this your first Sondheim show?
No, no. I played Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd with the New York City Opera. I love Sondheim. I mean he writes so beautifully for women particularly, and he always writes strong women...strong and gutsy and out there. Of course, they're always fun to play.
What else do you find unique about Stephen Sondheim?
He is the most gifted man in terms of lyric writing. His lyrics are justspot on. The rhyming is amazing. He never ever repeats himself. He writes haunting music; his music and lyrics portray character in a way that few other composers can...
What about Sir Andrew Lloyed Webber by comparison? You've done many of his shows.
Andrew is a wonderful melodist. He can write the most beautiful melodies. He doesn't write words as well. That's the thing that Sondheim is so marvelous at. He's in the old school of people like Cole Porter and so on, who wrote music and lyrics. His stuff is often very intricate unlike Andrew's that are very beautiful, sweeping melodies. Stephen's music often to the ear initially is not as melodic. It's very intricate, and yet at the same time, it can be dark and foreboding. Sweeney, for example, is very much like a musical thriller, and so is the music. I think what's great about him as a writer is that he's character-driven with the lyric writing. It's something that I really love, because as a singer, it's the lyrics that make it for me. I can't sing songs that are namby pamby. You want to get your teeth into something lyrically, and this song particularly ("I'm Still Here") is like a three-act play. You're able to move through the storytelling with the character.
Your Broadway debut was in Sunset Boulevard, but do you think that Follies is your greatest American triumph so far?
Sunset Boulevard has also been a musical written in the same kind of vein, because it was all sung, pretty much. Again a wonderful character, a wonderful role, a wonderfully layered character to play...tragic... (she laughs) They're all tragic women, but strong women again. Piaf was a play with music that gave me the opportunity as an actress to dig deep yet I was still able to sing as well and it gave my audiences what they wanted. Those three stand out, but I've been very fortunate because I've been able to play comedy in Anything Goes, which was great fun. It's always great to be able to flip the coin and mix and match what you do. It's been an amazing ride with all these musicals, and of course, Chess is a favorite too because it was an original original piece. It wasn't based on a film or a book, a person's life; it was a completely original musical written for me by Tim Rice, who had always wanted to write something for me. And it gave me a number one hit single ("I Know Him So Well"), so there's nothing to beat that either.Oh, it's difficult, that one, because you know in Sunset Boulevard I was playing the leading role, Norma Desmond. That was a different ballgame (laughs) altogether really. That was fulfilling in the sense that it was the leading role and that I was onstage all the time, and for me, it had a beginning, a middle and an end. It felt more of an achievement really by the end of an evening. But this role (Follies) is very much a featured performance. And with that it brings its own... not problems exactly, but it's something else I've had to learn to deal with. This is sporadic, filmactic in the sense that one has little tiny bursts of scenes with a matter of a few lines, then you're not involved for a half an hour or more. It's quite difficult that, because you have to just turn it off., and then come alive and get an awful lot of information over about who you are up there in a very short space of time, with very little dialogue. So, it's tricky.