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Elaine Paige Proves She's Still Here in 'Follies'

Elaine Paige Proves She's Still Here in 'Follies'
Photo Source: Joan Marcus
In 1964, 16-year-old Elaine Bickerstaff auditioned for her first professional musical straight from drama school, and she didn't get the part. Her teacher was so sure that Elaine was right for the show—"The Roar of the Greasepaint-The Smell of the Crowd," on its pre-Broadway British tour—that she urged a name change and a stealthy second audition. Desperate for a marquee-worthy name, Elaine leafed through the telephone book. She decided that the pages themselves were more interesting than any name printed on them, added the "i" for extra flair, and an unrecognized Elaine Paige was cast in the show.

Paige has sung onstage for a living ever since and is currently appearing in the star-studded Kennedy Center revival of "Follies" in Washington, D.C. She made her West End debut in "Hair" in 1968. In 1972, she was in the chorus of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Jesus Christ Superstar" and became a star as the pair's "Evita" in 1978. She introduced "Memory" in Lloyd Webber's "Cats" and has been the first lady of British musical theater to this day. Lloyd Webber says "She has a 'belt' voice in areas where no self-respecting angel will ever dare to tread and she has the heart to use this God-given voice in a way that imbues it with true emotion." 

Surprisingly, Paige has done relatively little work in America until recently. She attributes this to being so closely identified as "an Andrew Lloyd Webber girl, so involved in his work." (She did finally make her one and only Broadway appearance as a Norma Desmond replacement in the composer's "Sunset Boulevard" in 1996.) In 2004, she sang 18 performances as Mrs. Lovett in Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd," for the New York City Opera.

Wearing Two Hats

After seeing the 1987 Lincoln Center revival of Cole Porter's "Anything Goes," starring Patti LuPone and directed by Jerry Zaks, Paige decided to buy this quintessential American musical for herself to take to London. "I remember coming out of the theater beaming from ear to ear and the feeling of being uplifted by this wonderful, wonderful musical," she says. "I knew that I wanted to play the part of Reno Sweeny in London. I also knew that the only way to do that was to produce it myself. If you wait around for others to offer you roles, you could wait around forever."

She took director Zaks with her to London, but found the experience "quite difficult, wearing two hats at one time, just exhausting, and probably not something I would ever do again. I remember having internal fights with myself about creative things as the artist and with the producer's hat on worrying about costs. I found that to be quite taxing." The production was a success, however, and the Queen Mother, a Porter fan, paid a visit.

Paige came to New York just last summer to make a duets album, "Elaine Paige and Friends," with producer Phil Ramone. While she was making the recording, Paige's agents brought up "the possibility of my working in the theater again, which was not something I was seeking particularly at this point in my life. Now I'm involved with my concert tours, traveling the world at my own speed and booking them about a year in advance. All the stage shows I did ran and ran, and committing to eight performances a week for years on end now seems daunting."

But then Paige was offered the role of Carlotta Campion in "Follies." "As a cameo in a short run, it really interested me," she explains. "Getting to sing 'I'm Still Here,' one of the great classics in musical theater, was the clincher."

Research is Fun

Paige began her preparations by "Googling the song's references that we Brits wouldn't be quite au fait with:  'Abie's Irish Rose,' 'Five Dionne Babies,' 'Beebe's Bathysphere,' and several more. Obviously J. Edgar Hoover is fine, and commie, pinko tool…stinko by my pool' we understand. As an actor I immerse myself in the era we're in, which here is America from the 1930s to 1972, to create a backstory for my character. That's part of the fun of being an actor, that you get to do all that research."

While still at home in London, Paige reunited with dialect coach Joan Washington to get just the right American dialect for Carlotta's limited dialogue and one song. Thanks to her weekly radio program, "Elaine Paige on Sunday," now in its sixth year on BBC Radio 2  (and available and archived online), " I have a rather large listenership in America," she says. So far that hasn't translated to playing large halls in the U.S. "I'd love to do some concert work here, but it seems tricky to put that into place—quite why, I'm not sure. I have been offered cabaret, but that's not really what I do, I don't really know about it, and I'm not used to small rooms."

So after "Follies" ends its run June 17, Paige is off to big venues in Singapore, Hong Kong, Australia, and perhaps New Zealand, a circuit she plies "every couple of years, interspersed with concerts in Scandinavia and elsewhere. One circles the Earth, follows the sun, that's the idea."

 At 63, Paige is "just trying to find the time to get everything in and still have a life. Every now and again I get a little world-weary and look forward to being in one place, being still, working on one thing. You get to a place where you do need some down time, to get inspired again, but you also can't stop and just do nothing. You have to crank yourself up and start again. Home is always home, but I also love to travel, so I've got the perfect job, really."

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