By John Carroll
Originally published on Advocate.com 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."
Is there anything about this whole Follies experience that jumps out at you for being noteworthy? I mean after all, you are nominated for a Drama Desk Award.
You know what stands out, working with all these talented women, well, the whole cast really. There is so much experience and history on that stage. We are an eclectic bunch, there's no doubt, but we support each other. Oh, and you're a highlight darling, you're my highlight.
Oh, go on… Going back, what were some of your earlier performing jobs?
I was an urchin in the film Oliver. I cornered the market in urchin roles! I wanted to dance in the "Who Will Buy" sequence but was too short. I begged the choreographer who said to me, "If you can learn it, you can be in the number." This was amazing! I was moving up to a dancing housemaid, with a mop cap and a broom. The female dancers were all about 5' 6 and were all doing fan kicks over the head of the broom. I'm only 4' 11 1/2 so a broomstick is too tall for me. I practically killed myself, but I learned it. When I saw the film at the premier, I was so excited to see the number. To my horror, I'm on the side of the frame —cut in half. All you can see of me is one arm and one leg.
Bullying is such a big social issue here in the States and is finally getting a lot of very much needed attention. Do you have any personal stories that a young person who is dealing with being different might relate to?
Listen, I was very short, nothing's changed there. I was very flat chested, not much has changed there either. I had very frizzy hair... that definitely hasn't changed. As a child at school, I would have to pass through the boy’s playground to get to the girls playground. Run the gauntlet, if you will. It was ghastly. The boys would shout horrid names, poke sticks, and throw chalk at me. It was the dread of every school day.
Well, you know they say: what makes us different is at times our best attribute and you're a perfect example of that.
Well, my height for instance. I always thought it had gotten in my way; however, it became one of my biggest assets. Luckily for me, Eva Peron was only 5'2. If she'd been a tall woman, I might not be talking to you right now.
In musical theater, to originate an iconic role is quite an accomplishment, but to do it numerous times is like having lightning strike twice — though in your case, multiple times. What does it feel like to have musical theater students learning about you in their theater history classes?
It's amazing really. When I look back at my career, I think, how did I get so lucky for all this to happen to me. I try to always remember the lift, oh sorry, the elevator, stops on all floors going up and it stops on the same floors going down. You have to get off to help the others on. I give classes now and then, discussing character and lyrics. Basically, I try to impart some of what I've learned over the years. Of course, luck plays a huge part and I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice were writing a new style of musical, operetta really. When Evita came along I had done my work, I was prepared, I was ready—it changed my life.
What you could do with your voice and what the score of Evita called for changed the female sound in musical theater.
I've never thought about that actually, now that you mention it. I've always tried to cover the break in my voice from chest register to soprano. I would sing along with all of my Barbra Streisand albums and work with a tape recorder until I'd perfected the sound. Andrew said that vocally I went to places no normal person would dare to go. I think he meant because it could be dangerous for the vocal chords, but touch wood I've never had any problems.
When Piers Morgan asked Andrew Lloyd Webber what his favorite moment in his life was outside of personal events like love, marriage and children, he said instantly, "Elaine Paige, opening night of Evita in London." From your memory was opening night of Evita that amazing?
It truly was. At the curtain call, the audience went bananas. I had left the stage and went to my tiny dressing room that was two flights up.
Wait a minute. You were the title character of the show and you didn't have a dressing room near the stage?
David Essex was the star name in Evita. I was unknown to the public, though known within the industry, so I had second billing. The press said I became a star overnight, which is funny, as I'd been working for 12 years prior. Hardly overnight.
So, the company manager ran to get me and said, "Come on, you have to come back, the audience won't go away." He grabbed hold of me and forced me back down to the stage and I'm thinking, "This is going to be embarrassing when I get all the way down there and the audience is gone." The entire theater was standing and chanting, "Evita, Elaine." One of the producers had a tape recorder and gave me an EP record of it as a memento. I still can’t believe it, it was overwhelming.
You're one of the funniest people I know with an amazingly contagious laugh. What role has humor played in your ability to navigate this crazy business in a career that has spanned over 40 years?
Thanks for reminding me. [Laughs] We are so fortunate to be in this business and though I take my work very seriously, you have to learn to take the knocks, the rejection, and the disappointments. So, I've learned not to take myself too seriously. You have to have humor, how can you survive without it?
So what's next for you?
I have a concert tour starting in Scandinavia, then off to Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Singapore, ending in China. Next year I'm coming back to the States to do my first-ever U.S. tour. It's taken me, oh, I don't know... only 40 years. It starts right here in L.A. on February 23, then Vegas, Mesa, Arizona at the Piper Theater, Palm Springs at the McCallum Theater, San Francisco at the Venetian Room, then the rest of the country. I'm so excited — another first!
Elaine, thank you so much for chatting with me, I'm going to let you rest before our second show.
Darling, I better shut up now, and if I can't sing tonight from talking too much, it's your fault.
Paige and Carroll perform in Follies at L.A.'s Ahmanson Theatre through June 9. For more information on Paige go to ElainePaige.com. For more information on Carroll go to TheJohnCarroll.com.