Elaine Paige: Good Times and Bum Times

The musical theater legend looks back at a storied career, from originating the lead roles in Evita, Cats, Chess, to her latest showstopper in the acclaimed revival of Follies.

BY John Carroll

June 01 2012 12:00 PM ET

It's not every day that you get to meet, let alone work with one of your idols. If lady luck just happens to swing your way, there is still no guarantee that the person will be able to reach the great heights of the pedestal you so lovingly propped them up on. You can imagine my shock and delight when I got to work with Elaine Paige, the reigning "First Lady of the British musical theater" playing her date in the Broadway revival of Follies

From originating the role of Evita, Grizabella in Cats (“Memory” is a song she made famous), Florence in Chess, to now bringing down the house at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles with her rendition of Stephen Sondheim's "I'm Still Here," Ms. Paige is everything I could have wished for a belting Broadway diva to be and so much more. While the world knows she's got a voice from "on high," they might not know she is one of the funniest people you could ever meet. With her quick wit, generous spirit, and a laugh that will warm up a room, this little lady has more than proven she is a force to be reckoned with. 

John Carroll: Elaine, I want to ask you, being from Great Britain, how did you come about playing the role of Carlotta Campion here in Follies?
Elaine Paige: Well basically, I was in New York making my duets album, Elaine Paige and Friends and went for a chat with my new agent. They asked me what I wanted to do next. I said, "TV or film, but if it were theatre, I'd like a cameo role where I come on, kill, and get off." Two days later they rang me to say, I'd been offered the role of Carlotta Campion in Follies at The Kennedy Center. As soon as they told me Carlotta gets to sing, "I'm Still Here" I thought, OK, this sounds interesting. It is one of the great iconic songs in musical theater. So, after reading the script, it was a definite yes.

How do you identify with the character of Carlotta and the song "I'm Still Here?"
You can't have been around as long as I have and not be able to identify with that song to some degree. However, being a Brit, it did pose various problems in that it's a social history of America. I had to Google some of the references and, on top of it, Carlotta is supposed to be from Idaho. [Elaine pronounces "Idaho" in her best American accent.] She's a woman who's done everything, has known the ups and downs of life, the good and the bad times. She’s a hard worker and is able to overcome any difficulty that is put in front of her. A true survivor. She also has a great sense of humor and I like to think I have that as well [Laughs]

Did Stephen Sondheim give you any insight into the character?
I talked to him at length about it. What, at length? Like 20 minutes!

I'm sure that's more than most people get out of him!
[Laughs] To be able to talk to Stephen Sondheim for five minutes is amazing, so 20 minutes was gold, and he did give me gold. He told me he wrote the song about Joan Crawford. I queried the lyric, "I should have gone to an acting school, that seems clear." I asked him, "Did she think she was a bad actress" and he said, "On the contrary, that line is in reference to the McCarthy hearings ("'Pinko' commie tool") and how after she testified, they couldn't determine whether she was a communist or not. They thought she was sincere, hence the lyric, "So, I'm here."

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