There can’t be many performers who are still giving it large after 50 years, but Elaine Paige, the popularly crowned Queen of British musical theatre (with the OBE to prove it) is one of them. An honest, thoughtful singer, who gives generously of her time – for her, this interview was taking place after 10pm – she’s managed her career with an adept hand ever since she burst onto the scene as Eva Peron in the premiere production of Evita. The famed belt may not soar quite as high these days – “like most things in life, everything’s dropped,” she chuckles over the phone – but this month she brings her latest show down under in a visit to shores that over the years she has come to love.
Elaine Paige. Photo © Justin Downing/Sky Arts
“When I was in musical theatre, I don’t know how many shows I seemed to do back to back, year in, year out, but I had to be very careful about eating the right food and getting enough rest,” she explains when I ask her about her secret of vocal longevity. “No chocolate, no alcohol. It was a bit like being an athlete I suppose. The singing voice is like a muscle. Using it all the time, on the one hand it gets stronger, but on the other hand you have to watch out for it and make sure it gets some rest because otherwise it will let you down. There’s not much time in the day for anything other than doing the show, sleeping, eating and taking care of yourself. It’s like living the life of a nun!”
Classically trained, Paige debuted at the age of 16 playing a Chinese urchin in the 1964 UK tour of Anthony Newley’s The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd. She went on to make her West End debut in 1968 in Hair, a job she stuck with for two years. The following decade saw her as Sandy in Grease and Maisie in The Boyfriend, as well as a few interesting sidesteps including Maybe That’s Your Problem, a musical flop on the subject of premature ejaculation, and a film role as a saucy barmaid in the 1978 sex comedy Adventures of a Plumber’s Mate. However, it was the high belt voice she discovered in 1974 playing opposite Michael Crawford in the West End musical Billy (an adaptation of Keith Waterhouse’s play Billy Liar) that was to shape her subsequent career.
“I played Rita, a rather blowsy, loudmouthed Northern girl,” she recalls. “We were playing at the Drury Lane Theatre here in London, which of course is an enormous auditorium of several thousand seats. I only had one song in the piece, but I decided I’d sing it in a rather brash manner – and that’s when I discovered that I could belt.”
With Michael Crawford in Billy, 1974
By the 1970s and all through the ‘80s, musical theatre was becoming more ‘modern’ and Paige found herself with a voice that was in tune with the times, one that was perfect for the women’s roles that were being written. Her enormous success as Evita was followed by Grizabella in Cats, whose iconic Memory became a lifelong theme song. The role of Florence in Chess saw her hit No 1 in the UK charts singing the duet I Know Him So Well with Barbara Dickson.
“I never really wanted to cultivate what is known as a musical theatre voice,” she admits. “I don’t really like that kind of sound particularly. My heroines were always Judy Garland and then later Barbra Streisand, Lena Horne and Bette Midler. Every woman has a break in the voice from the chest register up to the head register and what I admired about Barbra and Bette was you could never distinguish one area of their voice from the other. I had a two and a half octave range and I spent a great deal of time trying to emulate them and disguise my passagio, which I managed to do. But Andrew Lloyd Webber always said that my belt voice was much higher than most people dared to go.”
As Carlotta in Follies, 2011. Photo © Joan Marcus
Recent decades have seen Paige make a conscious decision to cut back on the stage roles. “I’ve been doing this for 54 years and 40 were in musical theatre,” she reflects, “and even though mentally I still think I’m 25, clearly I’m not. In the end – it’s awful and I hate to admit it – but I got tired. You have to make a decision: if you can’t physically get up there every night, eight shows a week to do it, then you have to say to yourself, ‘you know what? I’m going to have to think of something else if I still want to continue to work’ – which I do! That’s why I’m coming out to Australia and New Zealand to see you guys. I still feel the need sing, but I have to be more careful now about how and when I do it.”
Touring has also broadened her repertoire though she always makes sure to satisfy fans with the ‘greatest hits’. Her latest show, she promises, will still deliver the standard blockbusters – “obviously I’m not going to not do them” – while exploring a set of classic non-musical theatre songs that she describes as “the soundtrack to all our lives”. Over the years she has managed to meet most of her chosen song writers at one time or another, allowing her to pepper the performance with an array of stories and anecdotes.
“They are the songwriters that caught my ear and attention growing up, particularly the lyricists – I always think the lyrics are just as important as the tunes,” she explains. “The first person I can remember really hitting me between the eyes was Jim Webb who’s written so many amazing songs like Up, Up and Away and MacArthur Park and on and on. After that I was really into Burt Bacharach, even though they were pop songs. I loved the storytelling by Hal David who wrote the lyrics. Lennon and McCartney, they were just brilliant. It was new sounding music, wonderful stories and witty lyrics. Randy Newman was another one I admired… Harry Nilsson, I loved him and was completely obsessed with his song writing… Paul Simon, Carole King… the list goes on and on really.”
Elaine Paige. Photograph supplied
Regrets? She’s had a few. “I always wanted to play Eliza Doolittle and I think I could have done it quite well ‘cos I could do the Cockney all like that, you know,” she says, broadening her native Barnet accent. “When I was younger, I had a nice, light soprano voice but of course I was too busy doing modern musical theatre. Maybe Guys and Dolls – and Les Mis of course. I was asked but I had to turn it down because I was already committed to Chess. That’s how Patti LuPone got the job, because I’d passed on it. You can imagine, I was furious!”
Nowadays, she’s ticked a lot off of her wish list, though Dolly Levi is still a part she mentions wistfully. “It would be a great role, but you know what, I think it would kill me off,” she laughs. “Bette Midler has just done it on Broadway. She’s a friend of mine and I used to do vocal warm ups with her on FaceTime. She got into trouble vocally, so she called on me and said, ‘how the hell do you do this eight times a week? – now I know why you’ve given it up!’ I said, ‘well, you know, I hate to say I told you so!’”
“When she said she had a mind to do it, I said I think you’re mad! You need tremendous reserves of physical energy let alone the vocal scenario to worry about. Musical theatre is the most tiring and exhausting medium there is and that’s why, as much as I love it, I have to admit that my days in musical theatre are probably done. Ooh, I’m going to cry!”
Elaine Paige is at State Theatre, Sydney on January 24, Arts Centre Melbourne on January 26, Brisbane’s QPAC on January 29, Thebarton Theatre, Adelaide on January 31 and the Astor Theatre, Perth on February 2