She is a woman of firsts.
She was the first to play Eva Peron in Evita.
She was the first to play Grizabella in Cats.
She was the first to play Florence in Chess.
Hal Prince promised he’d make her a Broadway star, but he failed to keep his word.
Instead, Paige continued working in U.K., where she is a Major Star known as the First Lady of British Musical Theatre who has been honored by the Queen with an OBE.
It’s sad that many people---make that American people, save die-hard musical theater fans---don’t know the work and wonders of Elaine Paige. For that, they should be forced to sit through Starlight Express for the rest of their lives.
Paige, who turned 65 on March 5, has just experienced another first: Her first American concert tour. It began in Arizona and is ending in Pittsburgh (it’s her first visit) on March 12 in a sold-out performance at the Cabaret at Theater Square.
I caught up with the effervescent Paige while in Palm Springs, home to Barry Manilow, her pal and one of the people who duet with her on the CD Elaine Paige and Friends.
This is your first trip to Pittsburgh. What do you expect?
A lot of bridges. Isn’t it a river city?
Early in your career, things weren’t going so well, and you thought of becoming a nanny. But a famous man stepped in . . .Yes. Dustin Hoffman came along when I was at a low end. He heard me sing “Shoot the Breeze,” a song he wrote. He told me he really believed that I should continue singing. He told me I was on the brink and not to give up. He was very kind and he had nothing but encouragement. He gave me tips and told me what I should be doing. ‘The hell with the rest,’ he said. ‘Be yourself.’
Yet you started out your life as Elaine Joy Bickerstaff, changing your surname to “Paige” after leafing through a phone book. True?
(laughs)Yes. I was frantically flipping through my parents’ book but no family name jumped out at me. I finally thought, ‘page.’ And since I have a visual brain, I added an ‘i.’
Did you ever think that today you might be known as Elaine Verizon?
(long pause) Verizon? I don’t get . . . Oh! I see what you mean! (laughing loudly) How funny!
Being named West End’s answer to Ethel Merman and the First Lady of British Musical Theatre is pretty heady stuff. How do you define yourself?I don’t go touting myself. I am not a legend. I am a working actress who is amazed that I am still doing what I love and that people still want to see me and pay to hear me sing. And to tour America for the first time at my age . . . wow! Obviously it’s taken me all these years to get where I am, and I am not cocky about it.
Forgive me Father for bringing up her name, but Patti LuPone and Elaine Paige have a weird connection. You turned down Les Miserables; Patti originated the role of Fantine. You created Evita; she got the role on Broadway. You both played Norma Desmond, Mrs. Lovett and Reno Sweeney. Do we dare talk about her?
I first came to prominence in Evita. It gave me a career in musical theater and was the role that changed my life. Hal Prince said, “You are coming Broadway in the show and I am making you a star.” It never happened. I was told it was due to union rules. As far as I know, these rules haven’t changed fast enough. Artists are artists. It should not matter where someone comes from if they are right for a role.
Sometimes I think Patti is the American me. Look, I originated three roles and three times didn’t get the roles when she shows went to Broadway. I have finally accepted this. I simply think it was not meant to be. I love what I do. My philosophy is as simple as that.
You have lost roles because of your height, but Eva seemed a match.
(laughing) Yes and thank God! We both are blonde and diminutive. She was five-foot-two, and I don’t quite make five feet, but it worked didn’t it?
The Queen bestowed an OBE on you. Does that mean you can get free lemon martinis as posh restaurants?
(laughs) No. I went to Buckingham palace and had the honor bestowed upon me by the Queen in a ballroom full of people. The OBE is a medal that the Queen pins on your chest. Frankly, it means tiddly squat. I received it for my work in the musical theatre, but like your Kennedy Center Award, it means nothing.
(Pauses) Well it means I can get married in a chapel at Westminster Abbey
Speaking of marriage . . . You dated Tim Rice for many years. Were you ever concerned that people would point and say, ‘She gets roles because of him?’
People may have thought that, but I got every role on my own. I didn’t even met Mr. Rice until I was cast in Evita. Obviously working for Andrew Lloyd and Webber and Mr. Rice has helped me to move on from there.
Everyone has a role they would give OBE for. Yours?
Gypsy. But it would kill me. I think I’m too old. (pauses). Actually, maybe not.
Elaine Paige’s Cabaret at Theater Square performance. For last minute cancellations, call (412) 456-6666 or visitculturaldistrict.org/production/35274/elaine-paige.