Elaine Paige

By Jeremy Miles

Elaine Paige, the woman they call the First Lady of Musical Theatre, is in the midst of preparations for her latest UK tour. 

She tells me that at the age of 58  (she looks 10 years younger) constant travelling tends to take it’s toll.

With 19 dates just around the corner - she plays Bournemouth Pavilion on Thursday - she’s been working out some contingency plans.

To make things more comfortable she tells me she’s  ordered a mini Winnebago  so that at least  she can get some rest, have a shower and maybe cook some lunch between gigs.

 She talks nineteen to the dozen about  the churches and art galleries she likes to visit as she criss-crosses the country, her extraordinary life and career and her undying love for the musical stage.

In fact Paige is such a chatterbox that when she tells me she’s about to undertake a vow of silence, it’s really quite hard to believe.

Yet she insists that as soon as she’s on the road, that’s it. No more talking. Resting that famous voice between shows is vital.

"I shall be doing my nun act," she laughs. "I don’t speak all day when I’m on tour. It’s like I’m in purdah."

She admits this might sound just a little extreme to an outsider but is adamant. "This is really quite a rigourous tour so I have to make sure that I’m  fit and that includes looking after my voice, so I really do try not to speak all day."

In the past she’s carried a small blackboard on which she can scrawl messages but this time around she’s thinking of going a little more high-tech and maybe investing in a hand-held computer.

"I’ve only just realised that I don’t need the blackboard anymore,” she explains.  “I can do it with technology. I really must get myself organised."

After nearly 40 years of tour buses and aeroplanes and thousands of hotel rooms Paige says she’s not particularly enamoured with life on the road but accepts it as the lot of a performing artist.

“I love visiting different towns and meeting people but I can’t say I enjoy the travelling. After about five days it becomes one big blur  of cars hotels and dressing rooms and I haven’t got a clue where I am. I have to check every night before I go on stage just in case I get the name of the town wrong. “

Paige had already been performing for a decade when she got her big break playing the title role in Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's hit musical Evita.

It made her a household name and propelled her into a career that found her starring in shows like Cats and Chess - productions that established her as not only the nation’s leading lady of choice but also an acknowledged authority on the subject of musical theatre.

No one was more surprised that fame and fortune fell so neatly into her lap than Paige herself. But although she claims that she’s naturally quite shy and initially found coping with her new found  celebrity quite difficult, it never showed.

The consummate professional, she sailed through role after role with poise, elegance, style and a capacity for delivering show-stopping numbers with just the right degree of pizzaz.

Her current tour is a spin-off from her hugely popular BBC Radio 2 programme, Elaine Paige on Sunday. The weekly show, devoted to the music of the West End, Broadway and Hollywood, recently found her inviting listeners to vote for their ‘essential musical’. The response was extraordinary. Nearly half a million people took part, creating their own Top 20 chart.

As a result Paige produced a new CD using the listeners chart as the basis for own 13 track selection of personal favourites. The album, called simply Essential Musicals was released last month and features classics from Evita, Cats, Phantom, Les Miserables and many more.

"There are so many fantastic songs," says Paige adding  that listening to the audience choice and then choosing her own favourites brought home to her what an astonishing career she has had.

"I was amazed how many of the songs came from musicals that I had actually been in.

It made me realise how lucky I have been . My career coincided with a golden era and I was fortunate enough to be in at the very beginning with shows like Hair and the early Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice musicals. It was a whole new innovative time for musical theatre and I was born at the right time to be there.

"I was in the chorus of Jesus Christ Superstar which is where I first met Andrew and Tim, then Evita of course and then Cats and Chess and it all rolled on from there."

Paige says she’s acutely aware that even if that golden era is not yet at an end, musical theatre is changing

She points out that the new wave of shows like Spamalot and Wicked are for more tongue in cheek than the big, heart-rending productions of a couple of decades ago.

"I think the age of musicals going down the operatic route is gone. I think. It’s much more light-hearted and quirky and off the wall and that’s probably a reflection of the times we live in.

"With the war in Iraq and so on maybe people need to forget the traumas of everyday life, it’s such a troubled world."

Marketing strategies have changed too. Paige says she watched with grim fascination as her old friends Andrew Lloyd Webber and David Ian successfully sold their new production of The Sound of Music to the nation via the live TV auditioning process that was What Are We Going To Do About Maria?

She says she doesn’t entirely approve but admires the business strategy. "Andrew is renowned for his marketing expertise and he’s done it again. He realises that reality television is what everyone watches these days and that it’s a great way to promote a show. It certainly worked with The Sound of Music. They’ve got over £40 million in advance ticket sales or something incredible."

However she says she find TV auditioning hard to accept: "It’s not the proper way to go. This is a business where at any one time 93 per cent are unemployed and you have professional people who train hard and earn there parts through hard slog."

On the other hand she says theatre must move with the times. There are so many choices for everyone, different routes they can take to fill their spare time. So if you can find a way of getting people’s attentions and get them into the theatres then it has to be a good thing."

Not that she believes that musical theatre is in trouble. “It’s not something that’s pallid and fading away, it’s a burgeoning thing and there’s more interest now than there has ever been. My radio programme gets nearly two million listeners. I get 1500 to 2000 emails a week. There’s a huge following out there and I think it’s growing ."

© Jeremy Miles 2022