From her West End debut in Hair to her acclaimed performances in Evita, Cats, Chess and Sunset Boulevard (to name but a few) Elaine Paige has (rightfully) earned the title “The First Lady of British Musical Theatre”. Along the way, she has had success on Broadway in Sunset Boulevard, a brief stint in the New York City Opera production of Sweeney Todd and most recently in the revival of Follies. She is also a noted recording artist, with albums that cover a wide variety of songs, from musical theatre to standards, and even an entire album of Queen songs; she also hosts her own radio program on BBC Radio. She has had concert tours in her native England, as well as all around the world, and it is only in 2013 that she has finally (!) embarked on an American concert tour, with her New York concert venue at the historic Town Hall.
Her concert kicked off with a Sting song “An Englishman in New York”, with fragments of “America” (from West Side Story) interpolated, to which she quipped afterwards that it was her only opportunity to sing that particular song. She went on to point out the confusion she experienced in the verbal differences between British and American English [French fries instead of chips, chips instead of crisps, eggplant instead of aubergine] when she was last in New York during Follies. This segued into her acknowledging that there were a few of her Follies co-stars in attendance (indeed, I spotted Jayne Houdyshell in the audience, and another concert goer had remarked he also spotted Mary Beth Piel), which followed with her spectacular rendition of “Broadway Baby” during which she briefly outlined her early theatre credits in between verses. Next she related a colorful story about her time in the Hair tribe, and her trepidation of having to be naked on stage, which led into “Easy to be Hard”. Next up was “Hello, Young Lovers” from The King and I, which she had played on the West End, and which she humorously had re-titled The Kings and Me, due to the seemly revolving door of actors playing the King.
Next, she related a story of meeting Dustin Hoffman early on in her career when she had doubts on pursuing her musical theatre career – she had related that he had given up pursuing a career as a concert pianist in favor of becoming an actor, and she credits Hoffman for giving her advice to keep at singing. This lead to her auditioning for a role coveted by every actress – the role of Eva Peron in Evita – and she proceeded to sing her audition song – the Beatles song “Yesterday”, which was sung much more dramatically than the original version; this naturally segued into the first of her signature songs, “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina” from Evita. I should note that the accompaniment was a four member band playing the piano, string bass, guitar and various woodwinds (flute and alto saxophone). While not on a Broadway stage, it was thrilling to finally hear Ms. Paige sing this song live in New York, to which she quipped “it only took 35 years” for her to do so, which was rewarded with a rousing standing ovation. This was followed by “As If We Never Said Goodbye” from Sunset Boulevard, which was the show in which she made her Broadway debut. I was fortunate to have seen her as Norma Desmond, and she was amazing in the role (I’ve discussed in a previous blog that I had cheered so much during her performance that I literally lost my voice and therefore physically unable to speak with her at the stage door). The song was also greeted with thunderous applause and a few people giving a standing ovation (myself included – Sunset Boulevard is one of my all time favorite musical scores).
Next up was a tongue in cheek song “Small Packages” written especially for her – as she is four-foot eleven in height, her dreams of being a “tall, leggy blonde” were out of the question, lamenting that she was too short for most of the leading roles but as the song reveals, thankfully for her, “Eva Peron was short”. Following this was another humorous story of her meeting the Queen Mother after a performance of Anything Goes, which led to a fantastic rendition of “I Get A Kick Out Of You” followed by the Noel Coward song “Mad About The Boy” (which she had recorded on her “Romance and the Stage” album), which she sang with the stylistic mannerisms of a socialite, a maid and a chanteuse singing of their fixation on a silent movie star. This led to her discussion of her involvement in the development of Chess, singing “I Know Him So Well” as a solo song instead of as a duet as the song was originally sung. She then remarked on how she has played two roles that share the same initials as her own – Eva Peron and Edith Piaf, leading into a staccato-laden, declarative arrangement of “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien” (which was originally arranged more lyrically and softer on her Piaf recording). Her final song was “If You Love Me” also from Piaf, which was a powerhouse of a rendition – I wish I had been able to have seen her in Piaf – this was greeted with much applause and another rousing standing ovation.
For her first encore, she related the story of how she had become involved in Cats, which (as she told the story) was unexpected and perhaps by fate – she told of how she had heard the radio DJ stating that the theme to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s [then] new musical would be played after the midnight news. Rushing home to tape the music off the radio, she relates how a bedraggled black cat found its way into her home and how that was a sign of good fortune (unlike how it is in the US). The next day she was contacted by Lloyd Webber to replace Judi Dench, who had suffered an injury and had to withdraw from the production. This led into a powerful rendition of her “other” signature song “Memory”, once again greeted with a huge standing ovation, and induced a second encore, which was an amazingly powerful rendition of “With One “Look”, from Sunset Boulevard.
The stage door area was a bit crowded, with no visible barricades (though as it was a concert and not a stage performance, that wasn’t to surprising); when Ms. Paige came out (after waiting about twenty minutes or so) she was quickly ushered into her car, as her next concert was the next day. I don’t recall if she was able to sign anything, but those waiting out in the brisk evening were miffed that she was rushed off into her car. In fairness, her next venue was in New Jersey, and taking into account the fact that the clocks were to be set an hour ahead due to Daylight Savings, it made sense for her to rest up for her next concert – and at least she did exit out the stage door, so at least those waiting at the stage door were able to thank her for her wonderful concert.
I thoroughly enjoyed this concert, which touched upon the majority of her musical theatre career, and many of the stories she told during the concert I had heard several years ago when there was a book signing for her memoirs, Memories at Barnes & Noble. Her voice was as powerful and emotional as always, sustaining long notes with ease, and her banter was easygoing and witty (with the cultural word differences between England and America as a running theme). I would have loved to have heard some of the pop and standards songs she has sung on her many solo recordings – perhaps she will be able to if she were to embark on another US concert tour.