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Elaine Paige Brings Her Concert Tour to The Town Hall
by Michael Portantiere


Elaine Paige
Elaine Paige has graced Broadway as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard and, more recently, as Carlotta Campion in Follies. We were also lucky enough to see and hear her as Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd at the New York City Opera. But, mostly due to union restrictions, Paige did not get to play on Broadway the three iconic roles that she created as a great star of the London musical stage: the title role in Evita, Grizabella in Cats, and Florence in Chess.

For that reason especially, her upcoming concert at The Town Hall on Saturday March 9—in which she'll sing her big hits from those shows, along with a wealth of other material—has a good chance of being one of the most exciting events of the spring season here in New York City. I recently spoke with Paige about the concert, which will unfold in several other U.S. cities before and after she brings it to New York. Our interview had to be rescheduled from its original time due to Paige's jet lag, but when we finally connected, we had a lovely talk.


Michael Portantiere:  Good morning, Miss Paige. How are you today?

Elaine Paige:  I'm all right, but I just got up. I've been flying around the world quite a lot of late, and my body clock doesn't know quite where it's at.

MP:   This is your first concert tour in the U.S., correct?

EP:   It is, indeed. I've done odd concerts in various places, but I've never done a regular tour. We're just about to start in Mesa, Arizona—somewhere that I can't say I've been before. Then I'll be playing Palm Springs and San Francisco, and then I'll head to the East Coast. It's very thrilling for me to do a show in which I tell the story of my journey in musical theater, with all the songs from the shows that I've appeared in. I tell some anecdotes along the way, to enhance the journey. I did a shorter version of this show last year at the Lincoln Center, as part of their American Songbook series. I think those couple of dates sort of begat this tour, because the show was received rather well.

MP:  What instrumentation are you using?

EP:   I have a piano, bass, guitar, and woodwind. It's something I tried out at the Lincoln Center, and I really liked it. It's quite interesting not having a drummer; I can hear myself, for once.

MP:   I didn't see your American Songbook show, but I believe it was in the beautiful Allen Room. Is that right?

EP:   Indeed, with that wonderful view. Absolutely stunning. I think it's one of the most amazing concert venues I've ever performed in. But I hear that Town Hall is quite a revered venue.

MP:   Oh, yes. Wait until you see the photos on the walls of the legends who've appeared there—everyone from Margaret Sanger to Marian Anderson to Joan Crawford.

EP:   I'm looking forward to it.

MP:   There are so many things I'd like to ask you about your career, but if I may, let's start at the very beginning. You've said that you're in one or two of the big production numbers in the film Oliver! but I haven't been able to spot you.

EP:   I'm not really surprised. If you blinked, you missed me.

MP:   Can you give me some specifics on where and when to look for you?

EP:   I play an urchin in "Consider Yourself." Almost at the end of the number, when everyone on the screen is doing that sort of Lambeth Walk thing, I'm next to Jack Wild, who played the Artful Dodger. I've got long blonde hair with fringe, and I'm strutting my stuff right next to the Dodger and Oliver. The other moment, where you would never spot me, is that I play a housemaid in "Who Will Buy?" Onna White, the choreographer, took a bit of a shine to me because she knew that I loved to dance. Because I'm so short, I could never make it into the dancing corps, but she said to me: "If you can learn this sequence where the housemaids come down the steps with the brooms, you can be in it." I thought, "Wow, this is something!" I was very young. Sure enough, I learned the routine, and I was in the number. When it came to the premiere of the film, I was very excited to see myself in my few moments on screen. I spotted myself fine in "Consider Yourself," but when it came to "Who Will Buy?" I looked over to the right hand side of the screen—and I saw half of my body doing all of the action. I was right at the edge of the frame. So I thought, "Well, I nearly made it!"

MP:   Did you have any personal interaction with the director, Carol Reed?

EP:   Yes. In my book, "Memories," there's a photograph of me and Carol Reed when he's setting up the shot in "Consider Yourself." Ron Moody was also around a lot when I was on the set. He was like a father figure to the young people, a wonderful man to work with.

MP:   Flashing forward from Oliver! about 10 years, what was it like to work with Hal Prince when you created the role of Evita in the West End?

EP:   Oh, my. That's a memory I'll never forget. Whenever I sing "... Argentina," I can still hear his direction and the conversations we had about that song—or rather, speech, as he would always remind me. "This is a political speech. I want you to fix your eyes on various members of the audience. Make them watch you, draw them in." He paid so much attention to detail. All of the characters had back stories; no one ever came onto the stage without knowing where they were coming from, why they were there, and where they were going. Working with him was really a master class.

MP:  I first had the pleasure of seeing and hearing you onstage in Sunset Boulevard on Broadway. You had played the role in London before you did it here, isn't that right?

EP:   I did, yes. It was after I had finished Piaf. Betty Buckley had been unwell, and Andrew [Lloyd Webber] asked me if I would take over the role. I wasn't too keen on it, to be honest, only because of the stairs. I've got bad knees, and I thought, "Oh, my God, up and down all those stairs." But it was a role I had coveted, and I thought I could do it for a limited run.

MP:  Another of your great roles on the London stage was Reno Sweeney in Anything Goes.

EP:   I saw Patti LuPone play that originally at the Lincoln Center, in Jerry Zaks' wonderful production. I thought, "I've got to play that role!" It's a brilliant musical comedy, with all those fantastic Cole Porter songs. So I co-produced the London production myself, to ensure that I would play it—because I'd already learned that, in this business, things can be whisked away from under your very nose.

MP:   John Barrowman played opposite you in that show.

EP:   It was wonderful for me to have discovered him, really, while he was at home in Scotland visiting his granny. He was so perfect for the part—young and brash, and he had that confidence and joie de vivre about him. He's carving a wonderful career for himself. I'm going to see him when I do my show in Palm Springs; he's going to come with family. That will be wonderful, because I haven't seen him for some years. He's so busy.

MP:   He turned up in the movie Zero Dark Thirty, in a small role. I had no idea he was in it until I saw him on screen.

EP:   Yes! I was watching it, and I went, "Oh my God, it's John!"

MP:   I saw the original production of Chess in London, but it was way into the run, and you and the rest of the original cast were no longer in it. Did you have any chance to discuss the show with Michael Bennett before he had to drop out?

EP:   Sadly, I only had one meeting with him. I went out to dinner with him and the writers. He talked to me about his ideas for the show, which were so fantastic—you know, the banks of television screens, and that incredible set. Visually, I think it was an absolute spectacle. But long before we got anywhere near rehearsals, he withdrew because of his illness. It was a sadness to me that I never got to work with that great man. What vision he had. Trevor Nunn stepped in [as director of Chess], but he had a very different take on the show. And for the Broadway production, he got Tim [Rice] to rewrite the character that I played. On the original recording and in the London production, she was born and brought up in Hungary. She was an Eastern European, which made much more sense in terms of her love affair with Anatoly, the Russian chess player. But Trevor wanted to change the character for Broadway and make her an American; he felt that would be more suitable for a production in the states. So I was basically written out of the show that Tim had originally written for me.

MP:   Well, the entire show was heavily reworked for Broadway. There was very little spoken dialogue in the concept recording and the London production, but the Broadway version had a book by Richard Nelson. Did you get to see it?

EP:   I saw it on its last night. I don't know what they did with it. They messed it up, basically. It was just not the show that it was in London. It became too dark, the set was dull and boring, the storytelling became confused. Everything that could have been done to make the show worse, was done. It didn't work—and, of course, it didn't run. So I think I was lucky to escape from that one, but it made me sad. I've just seen a tiny production in London, in a theater that's the size of a postage stamp, directed by a chap called Chris Howells. He's pieced together bits of the many different version of the show, and now, at last, it's a really well-told story. And the music, it goes without saying, still stands up as one of the great scores of the 1980s.

MP:   Speaking of Chess, I just re-watched on YouTube the famous television clip of you singing "I Know Him So Well" with Susan Boyle. You're so supportive of her in that clip; she seems quite nervous, singing ahead of the beat and flubbing the harmony and some of the lyrics, but you do a great job of serving as her anchor and keeping the number together. It's one of the most generous performances I've ever seen.

EP:   Well, the phenomenon that she became is so extraordinary. I felt for her in that here she was, this woman from a tiny village in Scotland who had dreams of being a professional singer. I don't think she thought further than that, really. And suddenly, in a heartbeat, she was a huge star. I watched all that happen to her, and I remembered what happened to me with Evita. That was not as sudden, obviously, because we didn't have all the technology then. But I remember how overwhelming it can be to suddenly go from being nobody to being somebody, and everybody wants a piece of you, wants to talk to you and photograph you. I remember how shocking that was for me, and how long it took for me to come to terms with it. Susan seemed to be overwrought by it all, not surprisingly, and I just wanted to help make that duet as easy and comfortable for her as possible. She had sweetly said that I had been her inspiration, and to think that I could inspire anyone is really humbling. So it was more than my pleasure to sing with her.

MP:   Although we haven't had you on stage in New York as often as we'd like, the roles in which we've seen you are some of the all-time greats.

EP:   Absolutely. When I look back on my career, it amazes me how fortunate I've been to have played the roles I've played. To be in Mr. Sondheim's shows—those roles, Nellie Lovett and Carlotta Campion, are absolute gifts. There are some roles that I've missed; I would have loved to have played in My Fair Lady, but I'm far too old for it now. Maybe I can still play Desiree in A Little Night Music. You know, when you're in this business, you never retire, really. It's in the blood. You can't help yourself.


Elaine Paige will appear on March 9 at 8:00pm at The Town Hall, 123 West 43rd St, New York. For tickets, please visit http://the-townhall-nyc.org/tickets.


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