The word star is thrown around a lot in theatre, but today’s ‘Quick 5’ subject is truly worthy of that word. Elaine Paige shot to fame in London as the original Eva Peron in Evita. After that, as you will read, on two days notice she created again in London, the role of Grizabella in Cats. Think about this for a second. She was the first to sing two of musical theatre’s biggest songs. “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” and “Memory” have been sung by hundreds of singers, but Elaine Paige was the original. Since then, she has performed in many of our biggest musicals in London and on Broadway. Select credits include Sunset Boulevard, The Drowsy Chaperone,Hair, The King and I, Anything Goes, Billy (with a pre Phantom of The Opera Michael Crawford) and the recent revival of Follies which started here at The Kennedy Center and then went on to play Broadway and Los Angeles. She has recorded several solo cds, some of which have gone double platinum. This Thursday March 7th Elaine Paige will be performing at The Birchmere in Alexandria Virginia as part of her current concert tour. As you read on, you can see what will be in store for you if you go. I am not one to be humbled and I have done lots of ‘Quick 5’ interviews with some truly amazing performers, but I have to say I am honored to have who some people call “The First Lady of Musical Theatre” take the time out of a rather hectic schedule to do this column. Please go to The Birchmere and witness a wonderful performer in the person of Elaine Paige. The food is great and the entertainment I know will be spectacular too.
To purchase tickets to Elaine Paige in concert at The Birchmere on March 7th at 7:30 pm, click here.
Growing up did you know you were going to be a musical theatre performer?
There was always music in our house – my father was a drummer and loved jazz and my mother loved vocalists such as Ella Fitzgerald and Perry Como. It was my music teacher at school who first noticed my singing voice – I think it must have been when my school staged The Boy Mozart, an operetta based on the composer’s life and work. I sang the mezzo role, Bastienne, from the opera Bastien and Bastienne. I got the bug and loved it. My parents were wonderful, encouraged me to explore this further and helped me get a place at the Aida Foster School to learn singing and acting.
Can you please tell us a little bit about what people can expect to hear when they come to see you in concert at the Birchmere?
From my beginnings in the musical Hair, I take the audience on a journey through my career from the West End to Broadway with lots of anecdotes and songs from the shows I have appeared in. Including Evita, Cats, Chess, Anything Goes, Sunset Boulevard and Piaf.
You created the roles of Eva Peron and Grizabella in the original London casts of Evita and Cats. This was before both of those shows came over here to the states. What do you remember most about your opening in both of those musicals?
I don’t really remember much about the opening night of Evita as it was such a blur. I’ve said knowing what I know now I’d love to go back and re-live it all over again just so I could experience it more calmly!
However I do remember getting the part of Eva Peron. It was like running a marathon. I was working in the North of England at the time and my agent convinced me to buy the recording of Evita – the White Album, as she said I was perfect for the role. I bought the album and from the very first hearing I knew I had to play her. I became obsessed with Eva Peron – the story, the lyrics, the dazzling music and the woman. I research everything I could about her and played the album over and over.
For my first audition I sang the Beatles hit “Yesterday,” not as a pop song but as a drama with a beginning middle and end. I was called back the next day and there began a series of six further auditions of increasing intensity until one night my agent arrived at my apartment and announced that I had got the part! The news that would change my life forever! I had won the title in the new Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice musical. How amazing!
For Cats I didn’t have much preparation at all! I had heard the song “Memory” on the radio one night and was determined to call Andrew Lloyd Webber the next day to ask him if I could record it. The very next morning I was awoken by a phone call from Cameron Mackintosh asking me if I would meet Trevor Nunn as Cats was about to go into previews and Judi Dench had been taken into the hospital with torn tendons. I had two days to learn the part. And in fact singing “Memory” during previews was a feat of memory! The lyrics changed every night -Tim Rice, Don Black – everyone had a hand in it until Trevor Nunn’s original lyric, inspired by lines from T S Eliot’s Rhapsody on a Windy Night, prevailed.
Early in your career you performed in a London stage musical called Billy which starred a pre Phantom of The Opera Michael Crawford. What are your memories of that show?
I created the role of Rita, a brassy no nonsense girl. Rita was a loudmouth and I discovered I had a voice to match! I was able to sing “Any Minute Now” without a microphone, but to balance the sound we all used at that time the newly invented body mic! Michael was a great natural comedian. I often stood in the wings to watch him wield his magic, how he would get laughs with his daring, long pauses and brilliant comic timing. A superb clown! Billy was a triumph! After the opening night the UK newspapers called it the most successful British musical since Oliver!
Of all of the roles you have played, what are some of your favorites?
Its so hard to chose my favorite but I guess I should say Eva Peron in Evita as that is the show and role that gave me my big break. And Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard as that was the show that eventually took me to Broadway and it’s a great score. I also really enjoyed playing Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd at The New York City Opera – I love Stephen Sondheim’s work and as I’m sure you know most recently I played Carlotta Campion in Follies written by him and had the most amazing song to sing “I’m Still Here” – that was a thrill as it took me back to Broadway and also to Los Angeles and Washington. And of course there’s Chess – to have a song written for is marvelous, but to have a whole musical written for you is thrilling. See I told you it was hard to choose a favorite!