The Big Interview: Elaine Paige

Elaine Paige, backstage at the New London Theatre, Drury Lane, after she opened the first preview of Cats in 1981.
Elaine Paige, backstage at the New London Theatre, Drury Lane, after she opened the first preview of Cats in 1981.
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MUSICAL MEMORIES: Elaine Paige is one of the world’s best known musical theatre stars and next week she is in Harrogate for a special show. She talks to Chris Bond.

IF you’re a big fan of musicals, then the chances are you will have been to see Elaine Paige. In a career spanning six decades, she has played the leading lady in a string of hit shows including Evita, Cats and Sunset Boulevard. She has also recorded 20 albums (four of which went platinum and eight gold) and been nominated for, and won, more awards than you can shake a stick at.

Now, the First Lady of British musicals is back in Yorkshire for a special show at Harrogate’s Royal Hall. “I’ve been away for about a year doing a show on Broadway so when I was asked to perform at the Royal Hall, somewhere I’ve really enjoyed playing in the past, I thought this would be a nice way to get back into doing some concerts.”

But instead of belting out the show tunes for which she’s become famous, she will be singing some of her favourite jazz songs. “Everyone’s musical influences I guess come from what they heard when growing up. Mine was jazz. My father loved Count Basie, Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa and my mother was a huge Ella Fitzgerald fan and loved Perry Como and Matt Monro. So I’ve put some of their favourites into the show and some of my own like Blue Skies, All That Jazz and I Get a Kick Out of You.”

Her vocal talents, perhaps not surprisingly for someone who has enjoyed such a glittering career, were evident from an early age. “I loved singing as a child. I used to sing in the school choir and I was given a lot of support by my music teacher, as well as my dad.

“We used to sing together and he encouraged me by letting me go to drama school – I think he wanted me to have the chance in life he didn’t have.”

Her other great passion was tennis, but given her height [she’s 5ft tall] she decided she stood a better chance of becoming a star in the West End than Wimbledon. It proved to be a good call and in 1968 she made her professional debut in Hair, which at the time was the hottest, and most controversial, show in town. It required cast members to shed their inhibitions and their clothes which, for a young girl from the quiet suburbs of north London, was quite a theatrical baptism.

“Nobody had seen anything like this on a British stage before, or any stage for that matter, and for a 20 year-old like me to be part of something so radical was amazing.”

Paige was among those who dared to strip off for one scene. “It was risque, but it was also very liberating. The law had only just changed because up to that point it was against the law to be naked on stage, so we were exploring this new found freedom,” she says.

“It was a time of great social and cultural change and we believed we were going to change the world. It was all about flower power and ‘ban the bomb’ and fighting for equality and women’s rights. London was at the heart of all this, there was fantastic music and fashion and art and I was there in this wonderful and exciting show. Everyone came to see Hair, it was the show to be seen at, not just to be seen in.”

After the success of Hair, Paige found her career if not quite stalling then not exactly moving up through the gears. She appeared in popular shows like Jesus Christ Superstar, Grease and Billy, but found herself “lurching” from one minor role to another and before landing the lead role in the original Evita in 1978, she was on the verge of quitting. “I was beginning to tire,” she confesses. “I was almost 30 and I wasn’t getting the leading lady roles, I was getting to the final interview but kept missing out at the final hurdle. By this time I’d been working for more than 10 years and although I was doing okay I didn’t have much money. People say you should live for the theatre, well, that’s all very well but you still have to eat and buy some new shoes now and again.”

It was Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber who proved her salvation. By the late 70s, the duo were on a roll following the success of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Jesus Christ Superstar, so when they started auditioning for Evita she threw her hat into the ring. “When the chance to play Eva Peron came along, I thought ‘gosh, this could be the one.’” Even so, she wasn’t confident of being offered the part. “Anybody who was anybody wanted that role and nobody was more amazed than I was that I got it, but thankfully Eva Peron was small and being short finally paid off,” she says, laughing. “Evita saved the day for me.”

In an instant, Paige had gone from jobbing singer to musical star, but if she was elated at landing this dream role the scrutiny of the press and paparazzi was less welcome. “It was extraordinary, I was given the role and within 24 hours the press were on my doorstep and the next day they found out where my parents lived and were asking them questions about me.”

She found fame hard to deal with initially. “For me that was very difficult. I had never thought about being famous, or what it might be like, it just didn’t interest me so it came as a bit of a jolt. It took me about 18 months to come to terms with it because I knew my life would never be the same again. All of a sudden people were interested in my opinion on everything from Argentinian politics to the latest recipes, it was ludicrous. I didn’t enjoy that kind of attention and I still don’t.

“I’m just interested in doing my job as well as I possibly can.”

After the success of Evita, the job offers came flooding in and Paige had the pick of the crop. “It’s one thing getting to the top, but staying there is something else and while I’ve been fortunate in the sense that I kept being offered great roles I’ve always worked very hard.”

As well as starring in the show Cats, she played the lead in the musical Chess, which was written especially for her, and the single from the show’s score, I Know Him So Well, a duet with Barbara Dickson, spent four weeks at the top of the UK charts and remains the biggest selling single by a female duo in the Guinness Book of Records. Then there was the obligatory appearance on Top of the Pops. “I remember thinking how strange it was that we were on with all these rock and pop stars and there we were at the top of the charts with a song from a musical,” she says. “They were heady days and you get caught up in it all, which is why when I look back I sometimes think ‘was that really me?’”

In the 90s the jobs continued coming her way. She played nightclub singer Reno Sweeney in Anything Goes and the title role in Piaf – both of which earned her Olivier award nominations – and when she landed the much sought after role of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard she appeared to be living a charmed life.

But during the production her world was turned upside down when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“The show was about to close, it only had 10 days to go but I didn’t say anything and I continued with the show. I suppose I was imbued with a sense of duty for some daft reason when I should have just said, ‘sorry I’m not well.’ But in retrospect I think it helped because it stopped me from thinking about it too much.”

Thankfully, she recovered and made a successful return to the stage a short time later. Over the past decade, she has continued performing both here and across the pond, while her weekly BBC Radio 2 show Elaine Paige on Sunday is still going strong after six years.

For the past 35 years, her life has been a whirlwind of touring, recording albums and appearing on TV shows, which meant she never found the time to meet someone, settle down and have children.

“The older one becomes the harder it gets, your drive and ambition lessens as you get older.

“I’ve spent a lot of my life jumping from one thing to another, there was a time when I was constantly doing albums and shows and I didn’t have much of a life. But now, later in life, I’ve discovered more of a social life and I enjoy that.”

But the 64-year-old doesn’t regret the life she chose. “I look back on it all very fondly because none of it was planned. I’ve had a wonderful career and to be still singing after all these years and coming to places like the Royal Hall in Harrogate and to be still doing what I love – I think that’s something.”

Elaine Paige plays Harrogate Theatre on April 4. For tickets call the box office on 01423 502 116, or www.harrogatetheatre.co.uk