Rare appearance by British stage star
by Richard Dodds
Elaine Paige is often called "the first lady of the British musical theater," having introduced such classics as "Don't Cry for Me Argentina" and "Memory" in the original productions of Evita and Cats. She has appeared in numerous other London stage musicals, but she has been a rara avis on this side of the Atlantic. Nearly three decades after her star-making performance as Eva Peron in Evita, Paige will finally make her San Francisco debut on March 1 as part of the Bay Area Cabaret concert series at the Fairmont Hotel's Venetian Room.
Just back from a Scandinavian tour and en route to the States for her first American tour, the diminutive 64-year-old performer was able to answer a series of questions via e-mail.
Richard Dodds: So what has taken so long for you to come see us?
Elaine Paige: I have performed on Broadway twice, and in concert on a couple of occasions in the US, and have been asked to tour many times, but due to commitments in the UK, I have never managed to make it work. So after Follies , I decided it was time to set some time aside and make it happen.
Please tell us a little bit about the songs you are performing in your current tour. Can we expect greatest hits as well as some surprises?
The repertoire is from my beginnings in the musical Hair [London, 1968], 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. And yes, a few surprises, which if I told you wouldn't be surprises, would they?
Your description in an earlier interview about discussing with Stephen Sondheim the specific meanings of the lyrics in "I'm Still Here" from Follies taught me some things about a song I thought I knew so well. I appreciated your process and approach to the song.
Thank you. It was thrilling to work with Mr. Sondheim and have the opportunity to discuss with him the song and the character of Carlotta Campion. Fascinating to find out he based the song on Joan Crawford and where she was at that time with her career.
Had Broadway been a significant goal for you?
I think for any stage performer, Broadway is a significant goal. It really is the home of the musical, and the Broadway community and audiences are extremely special. I had, due to the rules and regulations of Actors Equity at the time, been unable to bring Evita, Cats, and Chess to Broadway – all roles I had originated – so when Sunset Boulevard finally gave me that opportunity [in 1996], it was a wonderful experience, which remains with me to this day.
Are you aware of your very passionate fan base that I know exists in the States?
It has always amazed me how wonderful American audiences are to me when I perform in the States, especially as I am not there as often as I would like to be. More recently, with the ever-increasing modern technology, I have seen through my website and Twitter the incredible support from my American fans.
I want to ask you about the deep feelings that gay theater aficionados have for you. Any words or ideas you'd like to share?
The gay community has always been incredibly supportive, and I have a lot of fans and friends who are gay. Working in theatre and being gay isn't an issue – we are all one. And I feel we are in exciting times right now, and finally it looks like it doesn't matter who you are with regards to who you love – and that's how it should be.
I know every interviewer asks you about your intentions regarding a return to Broadway or the West End in a musical. But anything new on that horizon?
If the right role in the right musical came along, then I'd be a fool not to consider it. Eight shows a week is demanding, especially if you want to give 100% every night, which I always do. The only way I deal with it is to give myself completely to the show. I eat well, sleep a lot, stay away from alcohol, chocolate, and dairy, just to ensure I'm in tiptop condition. I use meditation and yoga to relax, and days off are sacred.
You are often described as "the first lady of the British musical theater." Do you ever let yourself really feel that way?
It was a title bestowed upon me by the British press. I'm an actor first and foremost, but I'm grateful I am thought of in this way. I'm incredibly proud of my body of work, but I don't go around acting or feeling like a First Lady!