by Ed Feldman
Most people know Paige O'Hara as the voice of "Belle" in Disney's animated film Beauty and the Beast. What they may not know is that Paige has everything, from Broadway (the 1983 revival of Showboat, Les Miserables and, The Mystery of Edwin Drood) to concerts and recordings. Internationally, Paige is known for her role of Venus in the BBC broadcast of Kurt Weill's One Touch of Venus in London, her Australian tour of South Pacific and her Japanese tour as guest vocalist with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra.
Her recording of Beauty and the Beast has gone Double Platinum and she's recently released a CD of Jerry Herman songs called Loving You.
Paige has spent the last two years working in Las Vegas as Special Guest Star of The Great Radio City Music Hall Spectacular at the Flamingo Hilton. She gave her last performance with that show on September 3rd. She is now taking a well earned rest at her home in Las Vegas where she resides with her husband, actor Michael Piontek (Phantom of the Opera, Beauty and the Beast, and currently, the MGM Grand production EFX). I caught up with Paige there, where she fills her time painting and preparing for her next project. Her favorite painter is the 19th Century landscapist, Joseph Mallord William Turner, and Paige is quite an accomplished painter herself. The Disney organization has acquired one of her paintings for a limited edition lithograph to be called "Belle by Belle".
CW Hello Paige, how are you?
Paige Fine. Everything is going great. Getting ready for the movie and learning my lines. Filming should start at the end of the month.
CW Oh, can you tell us about the movie?
Paige Yes, it's called Bankroll, with Jeff Bridges, and I get to play Jeff's kookie girlfriend. It's about two teenagers who find a million dollars and try to beat the system in Las Vegas. I play a Vegas performer who takes the boys under her wing. It should be great fun.
CW I understand you were contacted about the movie after you were seen in The Great Radio City Rockettes show? How lucky for you. Who would have thought that anyone could be "discovered" in a Las Vegas show?
Paige (laughing)Yeah, it's very exciting....
CW You grew up in Florida. It's very different here, yet you've bought a house and settled in. How did that happen?
Paige We've gotten hooked on Vegas. When we first came here we thought that Las Vegas was all about the strip. We realized very quickly that there's more (more laughter), a lot more to it.
CW Growing up in Florida, when did you know you wanted to be a performer?
Paige I knew from the time I was five what I wanted. I actually started acting when I was six, and have been doing it ever since. I grew up in Fort Lauderdale and attended a Performing Arts High School. My mom ran the school. Then, at the age of seventeen, I went to New York. Quite early actually. I was very lucky to know what I wanted to do and could pursue it.
CW It's good that you knew so early what you wanted and went after it. I've known actors and singers who have gotten much later starts.
Paige Yes, Michael, for instance, who was going to be a geneticist. He always loved acting and performing and dabbled with it in college. He realized then how much he loved it and went into the business later.
CW What's it like to have two performers in the same household?
Paige Oh, it's great! We've been married eight years. We're mature enough to understand the hazards. If we were twenty-one, it might have been harder. Being a little older, and being around, we made the decision not to be separated. A lot of people in the business do separate because of tours and contracts and that's when the marriages start to fall apart. We kind of take turns. When Michael got the part in Phantom in L.A., I said, "so let's just move out there." He did that role for almost three years. I painted and pretty much did what I wanted, then we moved again when I got Les Miz in New York in 1995. We came back to Los Angeles when he got the standby for Beast in Beauty and the Beast.
CW Did you ever think about playing Belle opposite Michael's Beast on stage? I think there are a lot of your fans who would enjoy seeing you in the role.
Paige Yes. When they originally did it, Disney's Katzenberg talked to me about it, but I had already signed a year's contract to tour South Pacific in Australia. Honestly, I felt I was too old for the part. Face it, Carolyn, I'm forty years old. The Broadway people know me and know how old I really am (laughter). I passed on it because I didn't want to set myself up for that. Maybe, if Michael were to go back to play Beast, I might like to do "Belle", perhaps as a very limited run.
CW Paige, before there was "Belle", there was Broadway and you've done some really exciting things. You played Ellie May Chipley in the 1983 revival of Showboat. What was it like to do that show with Donald O'Conner?
Paige That was such a wonderful break for me. I hate auditions; they always make me feel so insecure. But when I auditioned for that role, I knew it was mine. The only other time that happened was with Beauty and the Beast.
I have always loved comedy and it comes as a sort of second nature to me. There was a place in the opening scene where I just wasn't getting the laugh I wanted. Donald said, "you're doing it too much from 'method'. Just do it technically here, and you'll get your laugh." I followed what he said, one little technical trick, and darned if I didn't get that laugh. It was a great production, true to the original book. Donald was brilliant and I learned a lot from him.
CW What was it like being in Les Miserables?
Paige Oh Carolyn, that was a "high" every night. It's a brilliantly written show, and Fantine is such a heavy, sad role. It was wonderful to really dig into it. I pulled as much of the character from the original novel as I could. It was incredible. I mean the audiences get totally involved in it, and people keep coming back to the show again and again.
CW You said you hate auditions. What kind of material do you use for them?
Paige You know my "money song", the ballad that's gotten me many jobs is the Jule Stein piece from Funny Girl, "His is the Only Music That Makes Me Dance." It's a beautiful ballad that shows over two octaves and is very emotionally charged. For comedy and the lighter stuff, I have a whole repertoire that I can use, depending on the role I'm trying for. I tend to stick to things that aren't too obscure for auditions. I don't want people spending so much time trying to figure out where the material comes from that they aren't paying attention to me. I also try and stay away from very popular songs. I don't want to do songs that everyone else is singing. It's a very fine line.
CW Paige, can I ask how you got to do the voice for the animated Beauty and the Beast movie?
Paige I actually read about the job in The New York Times. I am a huge fan of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, so I called my agent and told her I MUST have an audition for this. She got me in, and from the very first auditions, I knew they were interested. I "knew" this character. "Belle" is so much like me that it was like playing myself, only younger.
CW Well, they certainly made "Belle" look a lot like you, except for the big eyes (laughing).
Paige (a big laugh)Yes, the eyes are a lot bigger than most people have. That makes the animation more interesting to look at. She changed physically after they cast me. She was originally more stereotypically "French-pretty". After they cast me, they decided to give her a "quirkiness", to make her a little more "human", you know, relatable to little girls in the audience. They decided that they didn't want her to be "drop-dead beautiful". They decided to make her beautiful in a different, more mature sort of way.
You know Carolyn, the most interesting part of the story of the Beauty auditions happened early on. Thinking the Disney people were planning on another Snow White, I kept raising my voice higher and higher. Right away Howard Ashman said, "Paige, what are you doing? Don't do that. Use your own voice. We love your own voice." So, "Belle" is eighteen, but has the maturity of someone in her thirties. That's what makes her so special.
CW What is it like to do voice-overs?
Paige It's great. I've done cartoons you know, but they're very different from this. With a Disney film, you treat it as though you were actually in front of the camera. The first couple of takes, I was belting to the second balcony. "Hey, Ethel Merman, tone it down!" I didn't have to sing to the second balcony, only the camera. Actually, the camera was on me during most of the recording. The animators take a lot of things from those cuts.
Robby (Benson) and I requested that we record most of the film together. It was just treated like a scene; the only difference is that you can't move. You have to stay right on that microphone. You can't imagine what it's like. There are several hours where you can't move anywhere, but you have to convey all the energy and a full range of emotions with your voice. It's very intense work.
CW With all the various venues that you've done, what do you prefer: stage, concerts, animations ...
Paige I don't have any preferences, Carolyn. I love it all. You know, this movie will be the first time I've done this. It's going to be a real education. I have worked in live theater since I was very young, so the stage is second nature. The animation things have taught me a lot. When I go into a studio, I'm also very confident. I know how to use the microphone, and what microphones are most flattering to my voice. I'm really looking forward to discovering this new medium.
CW Paige, do you mind being identified with the role of "Belle" and being a role model for children?
Paige Oh, NO! Are you kidding? It's fantastic! There are incredibly talented people out there that never get the opportunity for the kind of independence and world appeal that Beauty and the Beast had given me. I was offered the role of "Nellie" in South Pacific because they knew my voice in Australia and knew they could sell tickets. The same is true of the concert stage. The opportunities for the concerts are forthcoming because my voice is known.
CW (laughing)Then I guess you don't worry about being the voice of a cartoon character.
Paige No! I love it. I'm very proud of Beauty and the Beast. Like I said in my show, it made history for being the first animated movie to be nominated for an Oscar and the only one to win a Golden Globe award for Best Picture.
CW How do you like working in Las Vegas as opposed to Broadway or L.A.?
Paige Las Vegas was much harder than what I've ever done before. I was used to playing a character and having the character be presentational, even in the concert work. I had to throw all that away (laughing). In Las Vegas, in terms of relating with the audience, you have to be yourself. You have to ad-lib with them, improvise when you have to. I can let some of the material be presentational, but I had to learn that it was O.K. to be myself, and then I sort of fell into that comfort zone.
CW How comfortable were you singing in front of your peers at the 64th Academy Awards?
Paige (laughing) It was terrifying. I had the option to sing live or lip-sync. I said, "I'm a Broadway actress, of course I'm going to sing live." I was standing in the wings waiting for my cue and Angela Lansbury was standing next to me. Angela was shaking more than I was. I said, "Angie, I'm nervous, but it really surprises me to see that you are." She looked me in the eye and said, "Paige, when you get to my age you learn when to be nervous, and this is it." Then she patted me on the back and said, "if I sang like you honey, I wouldn't be nervous". Then she walked out and introduced me.
As soon as I hit my mark, I saw Warren Beatty. Then I saw Barbra Streisand and Nick Nolte. Then I stopped looking and just sang. I was fine once I got out there, but, just before I walked on the stage I was terrified, and very excited too.
CW Paige, I heard that you were planning to start your concert From Belle to Broadway this year, but with the movie, and Michael in EFX have you changed your plans?
Paige Actually, we want to get the concert set for the end of the year. We want to do it here in town, and we're trying to find a small room where we can work together. We've given the concert all over the country and have gotten incredible response. It really is a fun show. If I'm not doing twelve shows a week, I can sing the three octaves that "Belle" requires. There is some interest in the show floating around town.
CW You call the show From Belle to Broadway, but it sounds like From Belle to Broadway and Back Again.
Paige (laughing) Maybe we should re-think the title.
CW You seem to enjoy everything you do. Do you have any favorite roles or memories? Or is there any role that you want to do?
Paige Playing in The Mystery of Edwin Drood was one of my favorite experiences. I was a stand-by on Broadway. Drood won the Tony, and Betty Buckley originated the role. I took over the role in the National tour which went out right after it closed on Broadway. When George Rose died, Clive Revill took over that role and Jean Stapleton toured with the company. I did that role eight times a day for eight months. And fell in love with it. Playing the boy was a little tricky at first.
(laughing again)You know I actually practiced in my house and gave myself a test? I went to a bar one night in drag, to see if I could pull it off. I started talking to the bartender, pretending to be this young man. But the bartender was sooo cute, that after about fifteen minutes I had to say to him, "O.K., this is what I'm doing. Did you believe I was a man?" The bartender said yes, he believed I was a man, very feminine, but a man. I felt ready to take on Drood.
CW I hear that you've recorded a new album called, "Dream with Me"?
Paige Yes, it's to be released on October 27th. It's basically a children's album with lullabies and such, but I wanted to make it a little more sophisticated for the adults who will listen to it also. Michael and I have a duet on the album. And, since I've never recorded "Beauty and the Beast" on any of my other albums, I have it here.
CW Paige, what kind of encouragement or advise would you give to someone interested in a theatrical career today?
Paige I'd have to be totally honest, and say the competition is incredibly difficult. You have to be able to deal with the rejection because it's constant. If in your gut and in your heart you know you have to do it, that you were born for it, then you should pursue it. If you're doing it just for the reasons of wanting to be famous or making lots of money, whatever ... those are the wrong reasons. You have to do it out of love. If you have the love for it, then get as much training as you can. Perform wherever you can, whether it's community theater, school, stock, whatever, pack all the experience possible into your life.
CW Thank you Paige, it's been wonderful talking with you, and break a leg on the film.
Paige Thank you Carolyn, I've enjoyed our conversation too.
Paige O'Hara has a bubbling personality and a seemingly endless energy on stage. I truly enjoyed the time she gave so freely for this interview. It became very apparent early in our conversation that the persona she presents on stage is a reflection of the person that she truly is. I know that we'll be seeing much more from this wonderful talented lady.