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April 28, 2012

Follies’ Elaine Paige: Still here and finally gunning for a Tony Award

by Jesse North
elaine paige follies broadway revival im still here carlotta bernadette peters

Photo: Joan Marcus

On May 1, Elaine Paige, the actress who originated the roles of Eva Peron in Evita and Grizabella in Cats could likely be nominated for her first Tony Award. Despite a lauded stage career that goes back nearly 45 years, the British actress has only been on Broadway twice (and not in those shows), having done most of her work in London’s West End. Her Broadway debut was in Sunset Boulevard, and although she played the lead role of Norma Desmond, she was ineligible for a Tony nomination, as she was a replacement. However, her return to Broadway last fall as the saucy stage and film star Carlotta who belts out “I’m Still Here” in the revival of Follies has her on everyone’s frontrunner list for a nod for Best Featured Actress in a Musical. As she readied to begin rehearsals for Follies’ Los Angeles run, Paige telephoned Stage Rush to discuss chumming it up with her Follies costars, being Andrew Lloyd Webber’s go-to gal, and what a Tony nomination would mean to her.

You’ve taken this show to three locations now. How does that feel?
Here we are in LA for the third and final installment. It’s extraordinary. It feels like we’re on tour, really. It’s all very unexpected, of course, because initially it was just going to be in Washington, DC. To then be told we were going to New York was a wonderful surprise. Now to be here in LA is even better. It keeps on rolling.

What’s going on with this production? Has anything different? How’s it going with Victoria Clark, who is replacing Bernadette Peters?
I haven’t yet started rehearsals; I start on Friday. One thing I know is different is that the leading lady, Bernadette Peters, is not in this production out here. It’s a young lady by the name of Victoria Clark, who I’ve yet to meet. That will make a different complexion on the piece. Sometimes when somebody new comes into something, I think that could be a breath of fresh air.

What’s it like to dance that difficult choreography in “Who’s That Woman?”
Well, it’s difficult! It’s very energetic. It’s eight minutes long. It certainly builds up one’s stamina. It keeps you fit, let’s put it that way. It’s great fun to be in an ensemble number with my fellow actors, having to bat off one another as we remember what it was like to do that number when we were young, and here we are all those years later doing it again. It’s just great fun, really. It often stops the show, indeed.

What do you do with all your time off stage in Act II?
Well, in New York, we had a green room, so it was a wonderful opportunity to meet up with fellow actors who also aren’t in Act II. We’d pass the time telling stories and just chew the fat, as you would say. I would sometimes email or Skype my boyfriend back in London. When you’ve got time off in a show, it’s quite hard to switch off and do something else. You’re there to work and you’re in the piece, you hear music playing. I don’t really like to divorce myself too much from what’s going on in the theater. Nevertheless, it is quite a long time in Act II after I’ve done that scene in the beginning to wait for the end. It’s a matter of hobnobbing with one’s fellow artists.

If only those walls could talk, huh?
[Laughs] Yes, a lot of stuff went down, I can tell you.

Has playing this role made you reflect on your own career? What have you realized?
Well, I’ve realized that Mr. Sondheim is a very clever lyricist and tells the story of Carlotta Campion [in “I’m Still Here”], which I think is based on Joan Crawford’s life, pretty realistically. I think if you’ve been in the business for any length of time, as I now have been in the business for nearly 45 years, it’s true to say that one has a career of ups and downs, which is what this song is about. It’s not too difficult to identify with a lot of the lyrics in this song. Of course, at the end, to triumphantly, as she does, state for the last time, “I’m still here,” I can identify with that completely. I’ve been around the block a few times and to be able to say “I’m still here” is always a bit of a marvel to me, and a wonder that indeed I am. And at this rather late stage in the game to be performing out here in America is wonderful.

Follies focuses on disappointments in life, and in many interviews I’ve read with you, you’re asked about your career disappointments. What were some of the most joyous moments of your career?
My goodness, I’ve been one of the most fortunate actors in the world, I think. From when I’ve started, particularly with English musical theater, I’m talking about Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s modern musicals, I’ve been very much at the forefront of that and traveled along their journey with Jesus Christ Superstar, and then of course starring in Evita, Cats, Sunset Boulevard, and Chess. These are major musicals of the modern era of musical theater and I was lucky enough to be there.

Is there a moment that was your happiest?
Evita will always stand out as a moment that will be difficult to surpass. Everybody wanted to play that role, initially. To be the first to play Eva Peron, it was a very coveted role. For me to win that part was truly amazing to me. It really did change my life completely and gave me a career. It really was one of the most exciting, frightening, and nerve-wracking times of my life, all at once. I was embarking on something that was completely new to me. That will always stand out to me as one of the most momentous times of my life. Cats was equally extraordinary because I had that wonderful song “Memory” to sing and was the first to do so. That came about through rather strange circumstances, to be called in at the last minute as Andrew did, because Dame Judy Dench had injured herself and they called me in to take over at the last minute. And Cats of course, for many years, was the longest running musical in English musical theater history. I’ve been connected with these iconic show, sometimes by default. It’s all been a whirlwind of a journey. I can’t complain; I’ve had a wonderful career to date. Now this is sort of coming so late in my career, to be part of a wonderful company in this marvelous show is also unexpected and a delight. I’m loving every minute of it.

What is the best advice you have received in your career?
When I was doing Evita, Hal Prince said to me, “Don’t leave this show too quickly. You’ll be very lucky to ever get another role like this in your career. Sometimes there’s just one. If you get two, that will be really amazing. Just thank your lucky stars and don’t be too ready to leave this.” I’ve remembered those words always. He was saying I’d be lucky to get one or two of those roles, and I’ve been much more fortunate than that and had several. I always pinch myself and remind myself that I am still here.

The Broadway run of Follies was super successful and had a healthy run. What are some of your most fun memories from those months that we might not know about?
Living in New York for any length of time, for a Brit, is a stunning thing. The energy of the place and the speed of it all is all terribly exciting. London, by comparison, is a bit like a village; it’s quiet and slow. It was all very exciting. And to see my fellow Brits on Broadway as well, like Alan Rickman, Tracie Bennett, and people like that is always lovely to have some of your contemporaries from home as well. Basically, it was just being in a hit on Broadway. What more can you ask for?

You’re probably headed for your first Tony nomination. Doesn’t that sound crazy? What would it mean to you?
Oh my God, I don’t like to think of it. It would be wonderful. Awards and such are just the icing on the cake. Should it come, it would be an absolute thrill. I don’t expect it and I don’t think about it. We’ll just have to wait and see on that one. If it should, it would be amazing, because it would be the first and if it happens, it would be a very exciting evening to get there to be there.

You’ve been away from your BBC Radio 2 show for quite some time. Will you return with a bang?
I’ve been home to London during the interim between Broadway and LA for several weeks. I resumed my radio show and backed up a few, so that I can be out here and my audience won’t know I’ve gone. When I go back after LA, the show is going to be revamped. I’ve been doing it for seven or eight years, so I think it’s time to look at it and change a few things. It’s something I love to do and everybody loves the show, for some reason or other.

Which of your Follies castmates would be the best cohost on your radio show?
When I was in New York, I did a couple of things with Ron Raines, a couple of radios and we would just sit and chat and play music and stuff. So maybe Ron would be the guy to do it with me. It worked rather well then, so I would have to say Ron! I’ve got to get him on. He gave me his album when we were in New York and I’ve given him a couple of spins on the show.

Do you think Elaine Paige is headed for her first Tony Award nomination, Rushers? What is your favorite role that she’s played? What did you think of her performance in Follies? Will you be seeing Follies in LA? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!

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