We Know Her So Well: Hitting the Road with Elaine Paige
The legendary star of Evita, Cats, Sunset Boulevard, and Broadway's recent revival of Follies takes on America by storm on her first ever U.S. concert tour.
She's played a cat, an aging Hollywood silent film star, the wife of an Argentinean dictator, and cities from her native London all the way to China, but this "First Lady of British Musical Theater" has never played a U.S.tour. Until now.
After an acclaimed performance in 2012 at Lincoln Center's The Allen Room, Elaine Paige is embarking on her very first American tour, a career-spanning concert scheduled to stop at San Francisco's Venetian Room (March 1), Florida's Crest Theater (March 4-5), and The Town Hall in New York (March 9), among other cities. It's a rainy Saturday afternoon in New York when Paige, who was most recently seen on Broadway in Follies, and I chat, though she assures me that where she is, the sun is shining brightly.
Good morning. I can tell by your area code you're in California--
Yes. I'm in Palm Springs, with the sun shining on me!
And your tour begins on next week [February 26]?
[On February 26] I head off to Arizona, to Mesa. That's where I begin, and I've never performed there, so it'll be a first.
How did this American concert tour come to be?
I've been trying to come out here and do a tour for so many years now, but I've never been able to do it because of commitments in Europe and the UK and Asia. After the Follies experience, I did a couple of concerts at Lincoln Center, and it was through that, really. Because of that Lincoln Center concert, they asked.
When you're doing a concert like this, how do you go about choosing a set list?
It takes time. You go through absolutely everything, and then it's deciding what not to sing. It's really like the hits – the songs people will know and the ones that I've been specifically involved with. I start off with Hair, which was the beginning of my musical theater career and has such a brilliant score. [The show is] my personal journey, through the shows I starred in.
You've been associated with so many musical theater standards, from "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina" to "As If We've Never Said Goodbye" to "Memory," and now, "I'm Still Here." Do you have a favorite?
"Memory" is probably one of my favorite songs to sing. It's such a brilliant tune, of operatic proportions, and the lyric is very endearing. It's a beautiful ballad Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote, the perfect marriage of a great tune and lyric. I've done it hundreds of times since the original production in 1981, and I never get tired of singing it. With a lot of these songs, I've lived with them for a really long time. Songs become like a pair of slippers. They become very comfortable in the voice and throat. The fact that you know them so well means you can relax and play around with them a bit.
Your tour cities are very eclectic. How were they selected? Which one are you most excited about?
The agency I work with put this together. In a lot of [the cities], I have friends coming to see me, which is lovely. It's going to be a reunion tour. I'm looking forward to Palm Springs because we have a lot of guests, and in New York, a lot of the Follies gang are going to turn up, so we'll have a proper reunion. I'm looking forward to that very much. When you've got pals in [the cities], that makes it more fun. Equally, it puts the pressure on a bit as well. I'm quite looking forward to San Francisco and the [other] places I've not played, like Mesa in Arizona.
Do you have a favorite American city to play in?
New York is always somewhere I love to return to, and I know it quite well now. I really enjoyed Washington, as well, [with] this experience in Follies.
What struck you about Washington D.C.?
The country kind of feel to it. It was much slower-paced, and the buildings were lower, it was very English…I loved the river, the restaurants. All the history there. [To work at] the Kennedy Center was such a thrill; the people were so kind and accommodating. And it was in the springtime, so it looked very beautiful.
Follies became a a gift that kept on giving, traveling from the Kennedy Center to Broadway to the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles.
Originally, it was just meant to be an eight-week contract for the Kennedy Center, and we were all rather surprised when we found out we'd been offered a theater in New York. There wasn't a great deal of time in between the two. It was a wonderful journey. Being in New York, we had access to Stephen Sondheim, which was fascinating to work with him. He would give insight into certain things that nobody else could. The longer one plays in something, the more nuances and the more details you can begin to discover about the character. I liked the idea that we got a little longer to play it, and working with these fantastic women of all ages. Amazingly, we all kind of got on. I could imagine that could be quite difficult, but it was one of those scenarios where everyone kind of gelled. I'm happy to say that we're still friends.
Was there a major difference between audiences in each city?
I didn't notice much difference in LA, I have to say. It was as enthusiastic as New York, and I was thrilled about that. I imagined there wouldn't be much of a theater audience in Los Angeles, but to the contrary, they went mad for the show. I think it surprised all of us. Certainly, English audiences compared to American audiences are much more reserved and quieter. It's always a pleasure for a Brit to play America. You let us know when you like something. When I play in China, they're much like American audiences. They're very loud and stomp their feet and shout. It's lovely to have a response like that. It's great to have a connection with the audience.
I wouldn't expect that in China.
The first time I ever played China, which was 2000 or 2001, they had never experienced Western musical theater. We were warned by people -- by those that know -- that they might be quiet, but to the contrary, they went absolutely bananas. It was such a shock. It amazed us all. I play there every two years and every time I go back, it's the same thing. Their love of musicals is growing.
What's your favorite American musical?
West Side Story. That's the show that inspired me to do what I do. I didn't see it as a show, I saw it as a movie, but it hit me like a ton of bricks. That was the one for me. There are lots: My Fair Lady and Carousel and Oklahoma!, all the greats.
Do you have any plans for a Broadway return on the horizon?
I'm always looking for things. I'm always hoping something's gonna turn up to bring me back to Broadway. Any time I land in America, I feel good about it. At the moment, I'm going back to the UK to put together a new album. Sometime you have to take time from performing to be creative in other ways. You need to take time out to be re-inspired and fill up the cup again.