Nearly 30 years after her major West End breakthrough and with many leading roles under her belt, Elaine Paige is once again in the West End. But this time the world-famous musical theatre actress and singer is more than happy to take her place in the ensemble and leave show-carrying duties to someone else. Because these days, Paige tells Caroline Bishop, she just wants to have a laugh.
I suppose I’ve mellowed somewhat, to some degree, as a person,” says Elaine Paige, contemplating how she has changed in the decades since she got her big break in Evita. “I don’t think I have as a performer, everyone is complimenting me on my energy!” She gives a hearty chuckle, one of many that travel down the phone line one morning during previews for the new West End show she is starring in, The Drowsy Chaperone.
Mellowed or not, it is an upbeat and friendly Paige who chats away on the phone, far from the difficult diva label that has, in the past, been laid at her feet. The 59-year-old is thoroughly enjoying herself at the moment, playing the title role in the light and fluffy new musical The Drowsy Chaperone – drowsy, she translates the American slang, means “somebody that errs on a few vodka martinis too many”. The lush in question, Beatrice Stockwell, is for Paige “one of the most fun parts I think I’ve ever played”.
A comedy pastiche of musical theatre of the 1920s, The Drowsy Chaperone was initially born in Canada as a skit to perform at the stag party of Bob Martin (who is now credited as co-writer and also stars in the show). It grew into a Broadway hit before spawning this London production which, says Paige, has 1,000 people a night howling with laughter. “It’s just the most gratifying thing.”
"As you get older it’s harder to find parts to play, really"
The show is Paige’s first appearance in the West End since The King And I at the London Palladium six years ago. As she points out, she has hardly been sitting about twiddling her thumbs during that time, performing in concerts around the world and appearing with the New York City Opera in Sweeney Todd. But it took this show to tempt her back to London. “As you get older it’s harder to find parts to play, really. I mean, in six years since I’ve not been performing in the theatre, this is the first thing that’s come along that has interested me to play and that I knew that I could play, age wise,” she says. The comedy element of her role is what sold it to her when she first saw the show on Broadway, not least because these days she prefers the lighter side of musical theatre. “Comedy isn’t something I’ve done a great deal of, but this is something I just thought I’d love to have a stab at because it’s so broad and witty,” she says. “Musical theatre is very, very demanding, physically and emotionally and mentally. With a comedy the emotion element is lessened because you’re not having to dig deep into yourself to find all those dark places, which, of course, is very draining.”
Another, distinctly un-diva-like reason it appealed was because, “on paper it looked to me like it was a cameo role really. In the script I thought, well that looks rather marvellous, I’m not carrying the show entirely.” Her plan to take it easy backfired slightly, as although the show is very much an ensemble piece and Paige only has one big song to sing, “they’ve got me dancing and hoofing about in every other scene,” she says jovially. “I’m being a chorus member again, it’s quite wonderful, I’m enjoying that more than anything really, all the dancing, it’s just fantastic. But my knees are telling me they don’t like it!” and she gives another broad chuckle.
Age – and the physical strains it imposes – seems a preoccupation for Paige, who gives the impression that she is genuinely taken aback to find herself nearing 60. She says she forgets her age “all the time” and finds it surprising that younger cast members, like 22-year-old Summer Strallen, look to her for advice because “I still, in my head, think I’m the ingénue, you know.” However, her body won’t let her forget entirely: she finds it frustrating that she doesn’t want to slow down but her physique tells her “sadly, I’m not 25 anymore”. She even admits contemplating her musical theatre retirement, saying this show “might well be my last one… because it’s jolly tiring!”
If this is her last musical role, Paige will have 30 years as Britain’s ‘first lady of musical theatre’, as she is often labelled, to look back on. You might think she would be tired of talking about the role that made her a star, but she’s not. In fact, if she could relive just one of the highlights from that long career it would be the first night of Evita in 1978, “because that really did change my life”.
Paige was 29 when she was cast as the original Eva Peron in Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's Evita. She had already performed in Hair, Lloyd Webber & Rice’s Jesus Christ Superstar, Grease and Billy, but her status as a West End leading lady was born on that night. “They were very heady days indeed for me because it was in my late 20s, I felt completely and utterly ready to play a leading role because I had paid my dues, as it were, in minor roles and small parts for a good 15 years prior. It was just the most exciting time of my life really, both on and off the stage.”
Avoiding subsequent offers of musical roles “all of which seemed to be dictators’ wives”, Paige chose her follow-up carefully and went on to consolidate her success with Cats, replacing an injured Judi Dench in the role of Grizabella and making the song Memory part of her soundtrack. Her association with Lloyd Webber and Rice (with whom she had a decade-long love affair) then continued with parts in Rice’s Chess in 1986 and Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard in London in 1994 and on Broadway in 1996.
"I still, in my head, think I’m the ingénue, you know"
The fact that Paige had put in years of hard slog before achieving West End fame in Evita makes her objections to Lloyd Webber’s current penchant for casting his shows through reality television understandable. She was quoted in the press last year criticising How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria?, which plucked Connie Fisher from obscurity to become the lead in The Sound Of Music. She is diplomatic when speaking on the subject today, saying: “Andrew has always been rather good at marketing and knowing what the public wants almost before they do. I admire him in that regard. I also admire him for caring enough about the industry in always seeking out new talent, which he’s always done.”
“But,” she goes on, “without any experience at all it’s pretty ludicrous to believe that anybody could hold the West End stage in a leading role eight shows a week without serious detriment to their health and well-being. I worry that they are being – not exploited exactly – but a bit because they are inexperienced. And I know, an old trouper like me, what it takes to do it.”
The cast admire Strallen's legsPerhaps, for this old trouper, looking back at her “heady days” starring in Evita, which she describes in grand terms as “the beginning of the Renaissance in British musical theatre”, there is too great a contrast between her hard-earned debut leading role in a time she obviously considers a golden era and Fisher’s instant success in a decade when the ubiquity of reality shows means fame comes easily, even, now, in the theatre. Without years of experience behind her, will Fisher have an adequate foundation upon which to build as successful a career as Paige? Lloyd Webber seemed to indicate so when he compared the 23-year-old to his former protégé.
As for Paige herself, with such experience behind her, it is ironic that she is now in the situation whereby she says of her appearance in The Drowsy Chaperone, “they’ve obviously just got me in for my name”, and she gives another chuckle.
Paige has certainly achieved a great deal to reach this point in her career where her name bears such weight in the industry, but she has sacrificed a lot for it too. Behind today’s bonhomie, there is a slight sadness when she says “You give a great deal up to be in the West End,” and “Seize every opportunity,” as she advises me at one point, “carpe diem, it’s so true, because it goes by in a blink of an eye, I can tell you.”
She is certainly doing all she can to seize opportunities at the moment. Though she says she isn’t a workaholic “on the other hand I don’t seem to have much free time”. Currently she is filling her only day off from The Drowsy Chaperone by continuing her Radio 2 show on Sundays, which she describes as “wonderful fun”.
Paige didn’t even slow down when she was diagnosed with cancer in 1995; instead, it was then that carpe diem became her philosophy. “They told me that I might get tired and it would perhaps be best to rest and things, but instead of moping about at home and resting I went on a rather exotic holiday on a cruise to Vietnam. It was quite exhausting really but it was wonderful,” she says. “I did that because I was asked to go and I learned to seize the opportunity and to not procrastinate and learn that – I know it’s easier said than done – but try and live in a positive manner every day of our lives and enjoy it all and the people we meet and touch in it, because it could be taken away so fast. I had always tried to live by that, but it wasn’t until my own mortality was staring me in the face… it’s the most frightening thing, it’s the most awful thing that’s happened to me in my life.”
"They’ve obviously just got me in for my name"
“I don’t get myself wound up so much any more about inconsequential things you know,” Paige continues, confirming her claim to have mellowed. “I don’t worry so much, I do worry because that’s in my nature, but I’m calmer about things and take things in my stride a bit more, but that might also be to do with just getting older. I think that does happen when you get older, you fret less.”
She does seem to be less bothered by things that may have bothered her in the past. Paige has long been vocal about her desire to do more non-musical acting (she has starred in Peter Hall’s productions of Molière’s The Misanthrope and the Faydeau farce Where There’s A Will, plus guest parts in television dramas) but now seems more accepting – laced with a touch of cheerful cynicism – about the lack of offers that come her way. “That Miss Marple thing I did a couple of years ago was re-run a couple of Fridays ago and everybody came up to me and said ‘oh I saw you on the telly, didn’t recognise you’, waxing lyrical about my acting prowess and I think to myself, crikey it was two years ago, where are the offers to play in something without music? But I spent my whole career saying that and nobody takes any notice so I think I might shut up about that in a minute!” she laughs.
Despite this grumble, Paige feels she has been lucky in her career. Regrets? She doesn’t admit if there are any: “I don’t think I have really, no. There have been some [jobs] that have been more enjoyable than others but I’ve really been so lucky.”
Anyway, she wouldn’t worry about it if she did, because worrying, she has decided, is “a complete waste of time”. Instead, this more relaxed – if manically busy – woman is just happy to be having fun on The Drowsy Chaperone. “If you want a good laugh at something that’s silly and daft then this is the show. It’s not challenging at all!” Judging by the loud chuckle that accompanies this description, that suits her just fine.