SPECIAL PREVIEW: InDepth InterView - Elaine Paige

By: Jun. 13, 2010
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Today, in honor of the American premiere of ELAINE PAIGE: CELEBRATING FORTY YEARS ONSTAGE being broadcast on PBS is a sneak peek of an upcoming InDepth InterView with legendary star of Broadway and the West End, Elaine Paige. In this portion of the interview we discuss the writing of CHESS with ABBA's Benny Andersson & Bjorn Ulvaeus and lyricist Tim Rice, as well as her thoughts on contemporaries like Patti LuPone and, of course, originating the leads in EVITA, CATS, CHESS. We also preview her new album produced by Phil Ramone and featuring a duet with Barry Manilow. We also discuss the new song written for her by Stiles & Drewe for the concert.

This Bitch Can Belt

Elaine Paige has crafted an incomparable career on the West End stage since she burst onto the scene in HAIR, but it was her originating the role of Eva Peron in Andrew Lloyd Webber & Tim Rice's EVITA that cemented her place in theatre history. Following that role up a few short years later in Andrew Lloyd Webber's new show at the very last minute when originally-cast and fully-rehearsed Judi Dench became indisposed, Paige had the fortune to create the lead role in the other - perhaps most iconic - musical of the 1980s, CATS. Next, of course, the lead role of Florence in CHESS was written for her and that concept album's international success - still the most successful female duet of all-time, "I Know Him So Well" with Barbara Dickson - solidified her place in the recording industry and many, many more albums have followed since. In our complete interview we go into detail on each of these shows, but today will just be a mere taste to whet your palette as we prepare to enjoy tonight's absolute delectable entertainment. Also, you may find it informative to check out my review of the complete concert as represented on DVD that is linked below. The American release of the DVD is set for next month and contains additional footage not included in the PBS broadcast. In the next portion of the interview we discuss everything from her relationship to Freddie Mercury of QUEEN to her hit radio show on the BBC to her favorite scores of the moment as well as blow-by-blow accounts of each of her stage endeavors and many behind-the-scenes stories of the albums and special events she has participated in - and much, much, much more. Surely, this is only a page of the book of Paige that is forthcoming. Stay tuned!

PC: Could you tell me about your experiences with CHESS?

EP: It was pretty amazing. You know, Tim Rice had wanted to write a musical for me for some time. First came BLONDEL about King Richard the Lionheart and British history... but I didn't become particularly involved in that. Then he came up with the idea for CHESS and started having meetings and talks with Benny and Bjorn of ABBA. I heard some of the original demos for some of the tunes that they were putting forward to write lyrics for and I was just blown away by the melodies. I remember thinking what an amazing show this was going to be and how much I wanted to be a part of it. So, very early on in the process of writing the show, I accompanied Tim Rice to Stockholm in those early days - long before it became the wonderful show that is - and we would go there and work in the studio with Benny and Bjorn and Tommy Korberg who played the Russian originally on the album. We would bat around different ideas in terms of Tim's lyrics and Benny and Bjorn's music and we would just try out different keys and play around with lyrics and see which character might be singing what lyrics and whether songs would be solos or duets and so on. So it evolved. At least, you know, to see this work in progress from its very beginnings. It was one of the most exciting times ever, really, for me in musical theatre because I had never ever watched or been involved in that process ever before in musical theatre. It was very, very exciting indeed, as you can imagine. Indeed, some of the early music was for a song called "When the Waves Roll Out To See". That was just - when I heard that tune I just knew I had to be involved with the production. In fact, it was one of the tunes that eventually got dumped from the original production - it never made it! It always amazes me how fantastic that tune is and it never made it. Such a brilliant song never got to be in the show.

PC: Are there any other ABBA songs you'd like to do? I'd love to hear you do "You Have To Be There" from KRISTINA.

EP: That's a fantastic song, isn't it? It is something I'd like to do. But, at the moment, I'm just about to embark on a new album - which has nothing to do with musical theatre - so, I might have to put it on the back burner for awhile. I might want to do it in concert, but, certainly, in terms of recording, I don't think I'll be able to do it this time around. Indeed, it's a brilliant song. What I love about their work is that it is so emotionally charged, their melodies. You know, Benny, the music just sort of tumbles out of him, these dramatic ballads. There's something rather operatic about them in their intensity, in the means of, from the bottom end of the register to the top. A bit like in Andrew Lloyd Webber in some ways - but, slightly more modern. That's what I love about their work, it's like modern opera really.

PC: What did Andrew Lloyd Webber think of CHESS?

EP: I don't know. I don't know what he was doing at the time, PHANTOM or something. Also, LES MISERABLES was another show I was asked to do during that time and I had to turn that down because I had already committed to CHESS. For me, CHESS was the score the 80s. I think it's the most amazing score in modern musical theatre. It's one of the great musical theatre albums.

PC: Did you enjoy the success of the concept album? "One Night In Bangkok" was even a hit in the US and, of course, your duet with Barbara Dickson - "I Know Him So Well" - still holds the record for the number one female duet.

EP: "Bangkok" is fantastic but "I Know Him So Well" never made it in America, but it made it everywhere else in Europe and everything, really. Barbara Dickson enjoyed the success of being #1 here and in Scandinavia but it never translated to American audiences in the same way. But, it's still in the Guinness Book of World Records for being the longest running female duet - it was sixteen weeks at #1 here.

PC: You turned down LES MISERABLES and Patti LuPone did the role of Fantine and, of course, she did EVITA on Broadway prior to that. You also both played Norma Desmond in SUNSET BLVD and Mrs. Lovett in SWEENEY TODD. And ANYTHING GOES. What do you think of her career? In some ways she's sort of like the American Elaine Paige.

EP: Yes, because, and the reason for that is - sadly for me - Patti was the one to play Evita on Broadway. I didn't get to do it. I wasn't allowed to come because of the Equity rulings and all of that stuff at the time. So, Patti was the one - EVITA did for Patti's career in the States what it did for me here. It's strange for me to watch the shows that I've created here come to the States - either by Patti or Betty Buckley or whoever - it's always been somebody else. I'll be coming over to New York shortly to make this album with Phil Ramone and I'm going to play Feinstein's later in the year so I'll have to put the record straight and let everyone know in the States that I started all this! Patti's had a very interesting career, as well. She's played EVITA, she's had an amazing varied career as well.

PC: You have had more opportunities than many other performers, especially during that period. I mean, to have CHESS - one of the best of that era - written expressly for you and originating the leads in EVITA and CATS, it's astonishing.

EP: I've been very, very fortunate. You know, you couldn't even write me a paper about the roles you would dream of playing in modern musical theatre. With this DVD - which is a retrospective of forty years in the business - you see I was there at the beginning of this British Renaissance in musical theatre. For one, with Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice musicals - like JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT and JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR and EVITA, then SUNSET and so on, CATS - these were musicals that were very much a resurgence of the British modern musical and I was there at the beginning of that with Andrew and Tim, certainly at least through the late seventies and all through the eights and into the nineties. I got to go along on their journey as well. We made that journey together. It's been really remarkable as I look back that I was in the right place at the right time in that era of modern musical theatre. I've been more involved in that than anything else. I mean, I did do ANYTHING GOES after having seen Patti do it at Lincoln Center. I did it here and produced it as well.

PC: With John Barrowman.

EP: Yes, but, in general, besides dipping my toe into the occasional comedy - I did THE DROWSEY CHAPERONE a few years ago here as well - it seems that most of my work comes from the pens of the English writers.

PC: What was it like having the newest cutting-edge British musical theatre team, Stiles & Drewe, write you that fabulous song with the "this bitch can belt" line for your concert DVD?

EP: (Laughs.) I think it's absolutely wonderful! What I love about it is that you get these fabulous writers come ‘round to your apartment and you sit and have a glass of wine - or three - and you discuss what they're going to write. They said to me, "Tell us about...". And I told them about things that irked me - one of them is being short. It's always been a bit of a problem for me, or at least it was earlier on in my career. I used to get down to the last two or three on every audition I went for and then get the big elbow because I was too short. They always had an average size leading man and I looked like a little schoolgirl next to him. That was the bane of my life. So, we batted around a few ideas and I told them all the different things about that and what my mother had said and all that. Then, they went away and said, "We'll write something and get back to you." And the first feeling I had was, "Oh, God, what if they come back with a song and I hate it!" But, that wasn't the case and the humor certainly comes over. It was left off the CD, but it's one of those songs you really need a visual to put over; to do it justice. It's on the DVD and it's really quite special.

PC: What do you think of GLEE?

EP: It just started here in England a few weeks ago. It's just starting to take off. It's such an enormous success in America. I'm going to add a GLEEFUL MOMENT to my radio, I think. I think we all need a gleeful moment! (Laughs.) You know, the production values and the guest artists are just wonderful. I love it. It's just brilliant.

PC: Care to comment on Andrew Lloyd Webber's newest show, LOVE NEVER DIES? I think it's his best score since EVITA.

EP: It's a good show. I think it's one of Andrew's best scores since PHANTOM, probably. I love some of the melodies. I played "The Beauty Underneath" on my radio show this week - you know, the rock song with the gadgets and things that go on. It has elements of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR in it, a real sort of rock number. I really like that. And, then you have that gorgeous title number when she's standing on the stage alone with the Phantom and her lover on either side of her and the whole set turns. That's just wonderful. But, it's a dark piece. People aren't quite sure if they want to see something like that right now. But, certainly, the music - it's quite a lovely score, I think.

PC: The first version of the title song was premiered at the Andrew Lloyd Webber 50th Anniversary Celebration. I think that is one of the best filmed concerts I've ever seen, as is your concert DVD. What do you think of it?

EP: I agree entirely. It's beautifully produced with wonderful artists and the set was just amazing. The sound. The whole thing. You're right. It's one of the best of those kinds of things, so very stylish. I was honored to be a part of it. We'll be doing his 70th next, I suppose. (Laughs.)

PC: Do you have any particular memories of that night? Where did you get that dress?

EP: I do. I shared a dressing room with Glenn Close.

PC: Oh, my God.

EP: It's very funny. Well, it wasn't very funny. She was down on one end of the dressing room and very quiet and kept to herself and I was up on the other end. We were there all day long, it seemed, in the Royal Albert Hall. She had a make-up artist - since she's from the film world, I suppose - she must have sat in that chair for four hours having her make-up done. I don't know how she did it, I would have gone quite mad sitting in that chair for that long! But, she was fine, she was nervous, as we all were because we knew it was being filmed and we wanted our performances to come through clearly. I remember hearing Antonio Banderas singing "Oh, What A Circus" and I'm standing in my dressing room with a quarter million pounds worth of diamonds on on loan from Asprey's or something, in my underwear, with my hair and make-up done, waiting for this dress that I had had especially made for the evening and the designer didn't turn up with the damn dress. And Antonio is singing and I'm going, "Shoot! I've got to run all the way around the Albert Hall!" It's a vast building. I remember he came right at the last minute and as Antonio is singing several people are trying to throw me into this dress and get me onstage. So, we had to run all the way around the Albert Hall while I sang all those lines offstage during "Oh, What A Circus". I arrived in the dark - heaving for breath - prior to walking down that long stairwell to sing. I had said to the stage hand at the rehearsal in the afternoon, "Please make sure the microphone is the right height!" So, I walked with this imperious walk down the long staircase and as I got nearer and nearer to the microphone I could see they had set it for someone six foot four not five foot even, like me. So, I was thinking "I'm gonna have to get this mic down here." So, all I'm thinking is "Please, please let me be able to lower the mic." It was terrible.

PC: But, you were magnificent. The emotion of the moment was palpable, whatever the actual emotion was you were feeling. It's one of your best performances captured on video, and your new DVD is just as good; on that level, if not better.

EP: Thank you so much, I'm so glad you enjoyed it. I'm quite proud of it.

PC: As you should be. The First Lady of British Musical Theatre at her very, very best.

Check out my review of the DVD here.