She’ll Be Here! Elaine Paige on playing Carlotta in Kennedy Center’s upcoming production of Follies
I was so excited when it was announced that Elaine Paige would be playing the role of Carlotta in The Kennedy Center’s new production of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Follies that I jumped at the chance to interview her because I am a big admirer of hers. Every week I listen to her recordings of “Heaven Help My Heart” and “I Know Him So Well” (With Barbara Dickson) from Chess. To me, it’s the most beautiful recording of these two songs ever made. When Elaine finally made it to Broadway in Sunset Boulevard and also starred as Mrs. Lovett in a concert version in NYC – I hopped on a bus to see her. There is something magical about her voice, her stage presence, and her ability to grab an audience and never let go – even after the curtain falls. Elaine’s life is full of triumphs, some disappointments, health challenges – just like Carlotta’s and ours. I am honored that Elaine spent 50 minutes on the phone with me. I look forward – as do her many fans in the DC area – to watching her ‘steal’ the show when she sings “I’m Still Here” in Follies next month at The Kennedy Center.
Joel: How did you get involved with Follies?
Elaine: I was in New York last summer making an album with Phil Ramone and some other wonderful people – “Elaine Page and Friends”. It’s gone ‘gold’ and that’s quite wonderful.
While I was here in NYC, I met with my agent Josh and he asked me what I was doing in the theatre and I said, “Not a lot at the moment – I am here just making an album – and I’m enjoying doing concert work all over the world”. And he asked me, “Are you thinking about doing any theatre?” And I said, “It’s a matter of finding the right thing to do, and he said, “OK, I’ll get back to you”.
A couple of days later, he called me and said that Follies was going to happen at The Kennedy Center this spring and would I be interested in playing Carlotta? And I asked, “Is that the one who gets to sing that wonderful song “I’m Still Here”? And he said, “Yes indeed! That’s the role!” And I said, That’s absolutely perfect!” It happened there and then. And here we are this spring about to go into rehearsals.
Tell me about Carlotta.
She’s a woman who’s probably in her late sixties, and born around 1937, and joined the Follies when she was around twenty years old, which would make her now 72. She’s ‘Been there, done it and seen it’ and she’s done it all. She’s been a movie star, she’s played Vegas, and she has her own TV series. In the old days they would have called her a ‘triple threat’. She can sing. She can dance, and she can act. She’s basically a survivor. She has a persona that’s tough and self-assured, but I think all of that is to protect herself. She’s a person who has taken some knocks in her life. She’s got ‘balls’. You know what I mean?
Yes I do!
I think she is really vulnerable because she would never ever let anyone know that.
I’m sure you can relate to her, since you’ve had some ‘knocks’ in your life and career?
I relate to her quite easily. I’ve also been around a long time. I’m in my 45th year in my career. I also started out when I was young, and I have done practically everything as well. I’ve also ‘been there, done that, and seen it all’. I’ve been in musical theatre, played in straight plays, have done television, and I have my own radio show (Elaine Page on Sunday), which is a Sunday lunchtime radio program on BBC Radio 2.
I’ve been ‘around the block’ like she has. I am also a survivor because it’s a tough business to be in. If you want to stay in it – it’s tough – but it’s in her and my bones and she can’t not do it, and that’s where I am. It’s very much my life.
In Follies, you get to sing the very long, difficult and emotional song with so many lyrics -“I’m Still Here”. What experiences in your lifetime do you think you will pull from to create your performance of “I’m Still Here’?
That’s an interesting question. I haven’t yet started rehearsals and I don’t know the song very well, though, of course, I’m looking at the lyrics, and it’s a very American song. Lots of the references in the song have to do with the WPA, for example, Herbert and J. Edgar Hoover, and there’s a lot of social commentary in the song, and the history of America through a certain period of time. And I am looking all these things up and ‘Googling’ them because there are a lot of things –as an English person – that I don’t understand. But it’s easy with the Internet today to find out all these things. That’s what I’m really loving about learning to play this role. I’m really Sherlock Holmes trying to find out about ‘5 Dionne babies’, and it’s absolutely fascinating! This is why I love being an actor because that is exactly who you are. You put on your detective hat and discover who the character is, and that’s what I am doing right now.
So it sounds like you have never sung the song in concert before.
I have sung a bit of it on the UK Concert Tour that I just finished last week. I went all over the UK, and up to Scotland and Edinburgh, and Glasgow and down to Wales, and Ireland and the south coast of England, and I decided I was going to give the song a spin, just to see how the English would take to it, remembering that they don’t know the song, and that they don’t know the references. I told them who the character was and I also told them that I was a lot like her in that I had also done a lot of things in my career as she had done, and then I sang the song:
“Good times and bum times,
I’ve seen them all and, my dear,
I’m still here”.
I didn’t do the whole thing – but considering the English audiences didn’t know the song – I ‘killed with it’ every night! So I am hoping – please God- that I can do the same thing here at in America.
I’m sure you will!
I mean when I sing the whole song! They loved it and they really seemed to appreciate it. It’s really one of the Stephen Sondheim classics isn’t it?
Yes it is. It’s a ‘killer’ of a song to sing, but you will do a fantastic job with it.
Yes, it’s about remembrances about how tough things have been. And she sings,
“I’ve gotten through Herbert and J. Edgar Hoover,
Gee, that was fun and a half.
When you’ve been through Herbert and J. Edgar Hoover,
Anything else is a laugh”.
And then she sings how she was forgotten:
“I’ve gotten through “Hey, lady, aren’t you whoozis?
Wow! What a looker you were.”
Or, better yet, “Sorry, I thought you were whoozis.
Whatever happened to her?”
It’s really quite shocking! It shows what time and growing older does to you. It’s not all cynical, I think. The fact that one has survived so much and you can stand there and honestly say, “I’m still here!” I do feel that. Quite recently when I was on the UK tour I was talking to a General and I was talking – like I am doing now here with you – and in England I am known as ‘The First Lady of Musical Theatre”, and he said to me, “I’d stay clear of that title because you’ve been around forever”. I thought he doesn’t know what he’s saying to me! I said to him, “I am quite proud of that title because it says something about me and that I’ve been around a long time. And that’s not a bad thing”. It’s something to celebrate that I’ve been around the block a few times, and I’m still here!
And I heard myself singing the very lines I will be singing soon in Follies. It was funny that I was defending my position and it raised what the song is about – “You know what? It’s OK because I’ve done all of that and I’m still here!”
My biggest joy is to interview the legends of Broadway because they’re still here, and they have great lessons to teach young actors, singers, writers, directors, and composers.
That’s what I do. When I am in England and when I travel around the world I do Master Classes for young actors and singers. They are like sponges – they soak it all in. I remember when I first started out – nobody told me anything. You just had to learn it as you went – you just learned by experience. But today the world has changed so much and young performers can – if they want –learn from us who have been there who have done it all.
Have you met with director Eric Schaeffer yet? Has he talked to you about his vision for the role of Carlotta and your performance of “I’m Still Here”?
I had one brief meeting with him in London,. He was there to direct Million Dollar Quartet, which just opened in London. I like him very much. He’s a very easy-going chap. We got on very well. We discussed a little about who I think Carlotta is and what he thinks, and so on.
And who does he think she is?
Just like I said to you – we agreed – and a lot more will come out when Carlotta has a talk with Dimitri Weismann in the piece. And I will be doing it in the dialogue in Washington. More than that? Not yet. We’ve yet to get down to the nitty gritty. I am meeting with the costume designer tomorrow to talk about costumes and ‘the look’ of the woman. I’m really getting into now. It’s really exciting indeed.
What role and song in Follies that you don’t have or are not singing – would you like to have played or have sung?
I have the role that I want and I have the best song in the show to sing, so I think. I just love the character because she as I said she has ‘balls’ and she’s still out there strutting her stuff. This is not a woman who is going to wear pale colors and wear makeup. She’s still out there making the best of herself. This is the role I wanted to play.
Did they ask you what role you wanted to play?
No. I told my agent I didn’t want to play the leading role anymore. I don’t really want to carry a show anymore.
You have a lot of fans in the DC area. When you played Mrs. Lovett with The NYC Opera and when you were in Sunset Boulevard on Broadway a group of my friends and I rented a van to come up and see you.
Well, I am so pleased. I know I have some fans out there because they are Twittering me. I can’t wait to meet my American fans. When I did my UK tour some of them flew over and bought tickets for every one of my concerts. Can you believe that?
I believe it!
What about this incredible ‘All-Star’ cast in this new Kennedy Center production – which includes, among others, Bernadette Peters as Sally, Danny Burstein as Buddy Plummer, Jan Maxwell as Phyllis Rogers Stone, and Ron Raines as Benjamin Stone, and yourself starring as Carlotta Campion. Also joining you are Florence Lacey as Sandra Crane, Linda Lavin as Hattie Walker, Terrence Currier as Theodore Whitman, and many others. Have you worked with any of these talented people before?
No. I’m going to be the ‘new girl’. I don’t know anybody. I worked with Bernadette once – when producer Cameron Macintosh was having his 50th birthday celebration, and Bernadette came over to sing some Sondheim songs for Cameron. That’s the only time I met her. We shared a dressing room with Dame Judi Dench and Millicent Martin and Julie Andrews, and being in that room with these wonderful women, it was a bit like Follies – they were all talking about ‘old times’, and various people they all worked for and with. It was really funny to witness all of that and to listen to all the stories, and the repartee was so wonderful. Those moments I spent in that dressing room with Bernadette Peters is how I feel this production of Follies is going to be. It’s going to be a ball!
It took a long time to get you to perform in a Broadway musical and finally you performed in 1996 in Sunset Boulevard as Norma Desmond at The Minskoff Theatre, as you did in London the year before. You stayed with the show until it closed 6 months later. Why did it take you so long to perform on Broadway?
Well, it was one of those strange things. As you know, I created the role of Evita in 1978 – that’s 33 years ago this summer – and Hal Prince at the time told me, “I am going to take you to Broadway and make you a star!” And of course it didn’t happen. In the end, there was a problem with Actor’s Equity. It was slightly different then than it is now, the exchange to English actors to American actors and vice versa – and I think they couldn’t find anyone in England to replace me, so they wouldn’t let me go.
Well Patti [LuPone] didn’t do too badly.
Well, it gave her here what it gave me there in England. She got a great career from it as I did. And of course Cats came along with Grizabella, and it was a cameo role – like Carlotta is – and I could hear them say again that it didn’t warrant me coming to Broadway and that they could find a lot of actresses in NYC to sing “Memory”. And so it did for Betty Buckley there like it did for me in England. So again I was stymied!
But you got to replace Betty in Sunset Boulevard in London.
I did! That’s an irony isn’t it?
And then you replaced Betty here on Broadway in Sunset Boulevard.
You’re right! We have been kind of linked extraneously. The funny thing is that they took up the role I created in England, and then I end up taking over one role that they both played.
I didn’t get here with Chess either because the director changed the character from being an Eastern European to an American – and that blocked me out of that one again.
They got theirs for doing that! It didn’t last very long.
No – exactly. And, of course, with Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard it was just a fluke because Betty got sick in England [an emergency appendectomy] and Andrew [Lloyd Webber] called me and asked me to help out and take over the role for a few weeks before Christmas. So I thought, “It’s only for a few weeks”, and I did it, and then when she eventually left when her contract expired, he asked me if I’d take over her role, and I said, “Only if you let me play Broadway!”
You had him finally!
I finally had him! (Laughing)
How would you describe your voice because it is so unique?
I have a very good middle range –a chest voice -. It used to be three octaves and I’m not sure it is anymore. It’s not a musical theatre voice, as per say, I think.
Elaine, I always use the word ‘expressive’ to describe your voice.
I think that’s fair enough to say because I like to emote. The reading of the lyric is always so important to me. I liked to bring acting to my singing. And that is the joy for me really. I always think of myself first as an actress and then as a singer. ‘Expressive’ is a very good word because it’s not always about belting out a song. It’s important to be able to take the audience on a journey of the lyrics of the song. And that means you have to think quietly and emote. I am an emotional singer! That’s what I am!
Let’s talk about Andrew Lloyd Webber because you have appeared in several of his musicals and played the roles of Evita Peron, Grizabella, and Norma Desmond.
Why do you enjoy working with him and appearing in his musicals, and why do you think every musical theatre actress/singer I know would ‘kill’ to play these roles?
Andrew’s tunes are very melodic and he writes in an operatic way. Often the range he writes in his songs is great, and that affords a singer to be able to bring your passion and emotion to a song. His songs are very emotional. “Memory” is very emotional.
And how about “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina”?
“Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” is less so because it’s not that melodic because it’s flatly monotone – deliberately so – because it’s a speech. It’s not meant to be a song. It’s meant to be a passionate speech. But many of the songs Andrew has written like “Memory” and the music in Sunset Boulevard or Phantom of the Opera are very emotive and passionate and sweeping melodies. I always think of his work as more operetta or operatic – other than anything else. I think his music is very accessible and people remember the melodies, and for young singers and so on, they lean towards those kinds of songs because you can show off your range.
The characters in his shows are not one-dimensional. Like Norma Desmond – these are people that show their private persona and their public persona. They show their vulnerability. They show their courage and determination and fire. They are full-rounded characters. They are great roles to get your teeth into. Really.
You do have to be well-trained to sing Andrew’s songs properly, don’t you think?
Well, it’s true. When I would go to Andrew’s apartment for a final audition – and it was probably the tenth time I had seen him – every time he would ask me to sing “Rainbow High” [from Evita]. It was such a difficult song and he would say, “If you can sing “Rainbow High” you can sing the part.” It always tickles me that when the movie came out “Rainbow High” was put into a lower key. That was such a difficult song to sing eight times a week – that was a real test. If you can do that, then you have a throat of steel. If you can do that – then you can do anything!
Eric Schaeffer directed a new version of Chess this year with Jill Paice playing Florence – who you played on the concept album and later played on the London Stage.
Did you hear about that production?
I didn’t hear about that – sadly. I haven’t had time to talk to him about those things yet. I know he loves musical theatre and that he does a Sondheim piece every year. Was Jill good?
She was fabulous and she just received a Helen Hayes Award nomination and I think she’s going to win it.
It’s a wonderful score and probably the best score of the 1980s.
I agree with you. That’s why they usually do the show ‘in concert’ because the book has problems.
The book still needs work. It didn’t really work and even when Trevor Nunn got a hold of it – normally he’s so clever – he tinkered with it and made it too political and it lost the love story angle – and it all got all too confusing.
Actually what I liked about this year’s production at Signature was that Eric refocused it on the love story. I think you would have been thrilled with it. You know l love “Heaven Help My Heart” and “I Know Him So Well”, which you recorded with Barbara Dickson.
I love “Heaven Help My Heart” and it’s one of my favorites, and of course with ‘Heaven Help My Heart” it got to #1 on the charts in England and we still remain as the #1 all-time selling duet in England. We are in the Guinness Book of World Records still. No one has toppled us yet!
Let’s talk about one of my favorite musicals that you starred in. You appeared as Beatrice Stockwell/The Drowsy Chaperone in London in 2007 in The Drowsy Chaperone. Why do you think it didn’t do well in London?
In London we have something every Christmas called Pantomime. I really don’t have the answer but it might have had something to do with it. People thought it was going to be a pantomime and they just didn’t get the humor. They didn’t get it! However after saying that – those who did come to see it loved it and came several times. They would come again and again and again. It was like a cult show and either you got it or you didn’t.
And sadly at that time that it was on in London it was the birth of all these reality television shows, and Andrew [Lloyd Webber] was casting Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat on television and there was a lot of interest in that whole thing. And The Lord of the Rings –The Musical was playing at Theatre Royal Drury Lane, and our show was so small and the budget was little, so we didn’t have enough money to publicize it. Nobody knew about it. They didn’t know it was there.
Our producers kept telling us, “Well on Broadway, it was word-of-mouth”. Well, I would tell them that London theatre is not like Broadway theatre. You can’t rely on word-of-mouth to get a show going in London. They didn’t seem to get it. There just wasn’t enough publicity. The show was so clever and so witty, and that’s why I wanted to do it. It was a brilliant piece.
I love the show and saw it six times on Broadway and laughed so hard every time I saw it. I recently saw a fabulous production at a McLean Community Players – a community theatre in McLean, VA and the audience howled throughout the show.
And to hear a British audience laugh that hard every night – it was so brilliant to be part of that! I was very, very sad that it didn’t make it.
You have played so many great roles. You have been a producer, a concert artist, a recording artist, have appeared on television and now have a weekly radio program “Elaine Paige on Sunday”. Is there anything you haven’t done yet that you really want to do?
I didn’t really dip my toes into the movie world, and that would be wonderful. So far it’s escaped me, but you never know.
I promised a friend that I would tell you how wonderful you were as Edith Piaf. His CD of that show is almost worn out form playing it so much.
Thank you very much. That is really very kind. I’ve always felt that I would like to do it over here.
I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1995, actually while I was finishing the run of Sunset Boulevard in London, and it was a terrible shock to be told that I had cancer, and since then I have supported the Breast Cancer Care charity whenever and wherever I can, because it’s very important to get the message across to women to look out for themselves and to deal with it if anything has changed. You have to be able to give something back. And I’ve been involved with The Estée Lauder Breast Cancer Awareness Campaign.
And I have also suffered from Lupus. In 1989, when I was producing and starring in Anything Goes, I got the flu in the middle of the rehearsals. And I didn’t take any antibiotics, which I probably should have done. At the time I tried to fight it off naturally with a homeopathic doctor and from that I got Lupus, and it is the most awful and debilitating disease. In England, in 1989, hardly anybody knew about it. I went from doctor to doctor and no one could figure out what was wrong with me. Eventually I found Dr. Graham Hughes who lectures worldwide about Lupus. Luckily for me he got me well. It was more terrifying than the cancer.
Because of the things that have happened to me personally, I know what I am talking about and I know what it feels like, and that’s why these are charities close to my heart, and anything I can do for them I will always do.
What do you want DC audiences to take home with them after seeing you perform the role of Carlotta in Follies at The Kennedy Center?
Oh my goodness me! Our business is all about entertaining people so I want people to go away and say, “Wow – what a great evening in the theatre that was! What a great show that was!” It’s a stellar cast and I am just honored to be part of it. I can’t wait to get up there and give it my best shot!
Watch Elaine Paige sing “Heaven Help My Heart” and sing the duet “I Know Him So Well” from Chess with Barbara Dickson here.
Andrew Lloyd Webber said Elaine Paige’s performance of “As if We never Said Goodbye” was “the best of anything I’ve ever heard.” See it here.