Friday, May 4, 2012

2012 Interview with Elaine Paige

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 just spot 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?

elaine paige as norma desmond
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.

What I was thinking when I asked this question was your coverage here in the US. Doing this Follies has seemed to generate more public interest in you.

I certainly think...who would have thought, the amazing thing is about this...when I was asked if I'd like to do it, it was just going to be a three month run in Washington, and I didn't really know the piece that well, but  I was fascinated by the idea of being able to be part of yet another Stephen Sondheim musical, which again in England is not done that often. We don't do Sondheim as much as you do over here. That's really why I took the role on, but having said that, the journey of this musical has been incredible, from Washington to Broadway for six months and now out here to LA. Just because of that journey it has given me more of a profile here. But that's not really why I'm doing it. It's always about what I'm doing rather than where I'm doing it.  It's wonderful to be here to appreciate the American audiences.

Are they really different from London audiences?

Absolutely, yes, yes. The English audiences are very much more reserved than American audiences. To hear the rafters ring as I have been doing with this role is really fantastic. Of course, English audiences appreciate us too, but it's just much more lively here. So, that is very rewarding. It's lovely to know that one is appreciated.

Of all the wonderful musicals that you've done - Evita, Chess, Cats, Piaf,  Sunset Boulevard, Anything there a favorite?

Well, of course, Evita will always be one of my great favorites, A, it was the first one to give me a career in musical theatre, that was my opportunity, and it was a brilliant role, beautifully written...a layered character, wonderful music and lyrics to sing. It really is more of an opera than a musical, and it was a challenge, in fact, musically to sing that every night. So that will always stand out for me because it was the first, and the original production, in London. 
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.

Do you have a favorite leading man?

I love John Barrowman, I love Alan Campbell, he's a doll as well. (laughs) Seemingly one always falls in love with one's leading man. Alan was wonderful to work with on Broadway in Sunset Boulevard...just the most generous actor and wonderful singing voice. It was a pleasure to work with him. I discovered John (Barrowman) really when we cast him in Anything Goes in London, which launched his career. He took over from Howard McGillin, who was also a dreamboat, the most lovely man, and gorgeous silken voice.

Is there any role that you haven't played, that strikes your fancy?

I love the film All About Eve, and Bette Davis' role Margot Channing. That's one I keep looking at; I'd love to have a shot at it. Also Desiree Armfeldt in A Little Night Music,"Send in the Clowns"; I saw Judi Dench do that. So, there are a few and people keep asking me to play Gypsy and Hello, Dolly, but the theatre is very demanding of one's time and energy...and the older I get, I think "Oh my goodness, have I got it left in me to do?" But, never say never.

Tell me about your radio show for the BBC Elaine Paige on Sunday, which has become immensely popular.

Huge. I have over two million listeners in England. It's a national show on the BBC. It's basically a two-hour show  on Sunday, which is online now as well. I've got listeners all over the world...fantastic! It's basically all musical theatre songs and film music, and I also interview people as well. It's sort of like a Sunday Brunch kind of, easy-listening show every week. I didn't know anything about broadcasting, but when they asked me to do it, I was having a down time in the theatre, and I thought "That might be fun to do" and of course, it took off.  So now it's become a part of my life that I really rather enjoy to do. It's very relaxed and a fun weekly event in my life.

Any other plans after Follies?

This has been a longer run than one had at first suspected, so I shall take a little time off after this and look for something interesting to do.

Elaine Paige loves to chat...what a charming lady... and fun! She brings such personality and humor to Carlotta Campion and makes her truly memorable.  See her in Follies at the Ahmanson through June 9. It's everything you could wish for in a musical...and more.

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