Memories In Concert – Elaine Paige at Town Hall – March 9, 2013

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.

Elaine Paige in Concert

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.

Elaine Paige in Concert

Elaine Paige looking stunning in red.

 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.

This is the only photo I was able to take outside the stage door

This is the only photo I was able to take outside the stage door

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.

Early Morning Madness and the Magic in the Making: Explaining How My Love for Sunset Boulevard Created the Minskoff Theatre Curse

Speaking the actual name of the Scottish Play in a theater when not performing it. The presence of ghost lights on stage. Not wishing someone “good luck” before a performance. Over the course of theatrical history, there have been superstitions and stories of strange, inexplicable occurrences that have defied logic. Some may dismiss them as coincidence, while others may believe them to be fabricated or embellished; then there are those few who wholeheartedly believe in such things and adhere to the rules around how to ward off bad luck, to appease the ghostly figures that inhabit several Broadway theatres and also the Gods of the Theatre. I never really believed in all that, I thought it had to be sheer coincidence or just mischief-making to propel the veracity of such stories. The evoking of the Minskoff Curse, and the subsequent events that happened made me realize how wrong I was, and even though fifteen (!) years has passed since the Curse was first uttered, its lingering presence remains intact (albeit altered), making its home at the Marquis Theatre.

Before I impart the tale of the Minskoff Theatre Curse, a bit of exposition is required. First of all, for any of this to make any sense, I must mention that Sunset Boulevard is one my favorite musicals, and is in fact ranked third in my list of all-time favorite [excluding revivals] musicals that I have seen live on stage, (after Les Miserables and Phantom of the Opera). I would listen to the cast recordings constantly, and talk about so much to the point that my nickname amongst my high school friends was (and still is) Norma. Sunset Boulevard was the first Andrew Lloyd Webber musical I aware of and followed in its development from the West End to Los Angeles to Broadway (I became aware of Phantom after the show already arrived on Broadway, and Aspects of Love seemed to have opened and closed relatively in short order) and I had also seen and enjoyed the 1950 Billy Wilder film. I still hold out hope that the musical will be made into a movie musical, but considering the recent Hollywood movies based on musicals, most with pretty, young bankable movie stars for the most part can’t do justice to the source material, I should know better. But then again the upcoming movie musical of Les Miserables gives me hope that casting of such projects should have trained actors who have some theatre experience.

But I digress.

Sunset certainly had its share of (presumably) unintended drama off-stage, particularly with its leading ladies. Glenn Close, having played faded movie star Norma Desmond in the American premiere production in Los Angeles, being slated to star on Broadway, despite the fact that Patti LuPone had been promised that honor (LuPone subsequently sued Lloyd Webber over this breach of promise); Faye Dunaway, who was to replace Close in the Los Angeles production was basically fired from the production for not being up to snuff to play the part (she also sued Lloyd Webber). So, even before the show reached Broadway, there was trouble brewing. Nevertheless, Sunset reached Broadway in 1994 with the largest advance tickets sales at the time, the critical reviews were for the most part favorable, and won the appropriate awards. Despite these accolades, the show was not a financial success, considering the production costs associated with the exorbitant sets and lavish costumes, which were amazing. I was only able to see the Broadway production three times (and the second US tour production once), as I was still in high school at the time of the production with little disposable income of my own, and there were not as many discounts for young theater-goers as there are now (had there been the programs and discounts for teens they have now back then, I would certainly have seen the show and many others…).

But I digress.

Again.

While I was unable to see Glenn Close as Norma Desmond, I did see Betty Buckley (twice) and Elaine Paige, who were both astounding. Most likely due to the high weekly production costs of the show, Sunset was also the first Lloyd Webber show of which I was aware to close (Phantom was and is still running, and Cats was still around). I was absolutely livid and quite distressed when I read the news of its closing on March 22, 1997 adding insult to injury, in my opinion, since that day is also Lloyd Webber’s birthday. I soon organized a group outing with a bunch of my friends to see the show one last time on February 20, 1997 (I was unable to attend the final performance due to a school-related activity that required my attendance, which ended up not happening, but by the time I knew that it was too late to get to the final performance). Anyway, my friends and I were seated in the rear mezzanine of the theater, and I was cheering quite enthusiastically, to the point that my voice was quite hoarse by intermission and just about gone altogether by the end of the show, which was not particularly a good thing; that evening was also the very first time I waited at stage door for the actors (Elaine Paige in particular) to emerge. While we waited, we spotted Julie Andrews leaving the Marquis Theatre stage door across the street (she was in Victor/Victoria at the time) and waved at her (and she waved back!) and I organized my friends to be standing in the area between where the stage door and Ms. Paige’s car (yes, I was that determined to meet her). When she did emerge from the stage door and signed our playbills, I had to have one my friends tell her how I enjoyed her performance and ask her if I could have a photo with her, as I literally could not speak to her, which I found pretty embarrassing. Thankfully, I got to meet her again years later at a book signing for her memoir Memories and finally got to speak with her.

My Sunset playbill, signed by Elaine Paige

Me and Elaine Paige, February 20, 1997 (I have no idea who the couple behind me were, but at least they’re smiling too!)

By the time we left the stage door, it was already past midnight, so we all headed to the subway to get home. If memory serves, it was during this subway ride home when I thought up of what will later be known as the Minskoff Theatre Curse, and a complex and specific curse it was. Here’s how it went: I had evoked that no musical that went into the Minskoff Theatre after Sunset that had the letter “S” in its title (either upper or lower case) would last more than three years there, as Sunset ran for just about two and a half years (don’t bother asking me how I did it – that is knowledge that can be dangerous if placed in the wrong hands). Now here’s where things get uncanny and made think that it was more than coincidence:

  • The next musical to play at the Minskoff Theatre was The Scarlet Pimpernel, which had problems of its own – the production played for about a year and a half (two different versions were presented) before closing briefly and moving to the Neil Simon Theatre, where it played under a year before the show closed for good.
  • The next musical to play at the Minskoff Theatre was Saturday Night Fever, which ultimately played a little over a year before closing.
  • The next musical to play at the Minskoff Theatre was The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which only played less than a month, and interestingly enough, the marquee for that production stayed up longer than the production was open.

The Minskoff Theatre remained vacant for several months after The Adventures of Tom Sawyer closed, and it is at this point in time I’m convinced that the mythical Gods of the Theatre took offense at my curse-making and decided to take punitive action. That they did and on a grand scale, for the next musical to play at the Minskoff Theatre was Dance of the Vampires, which marked the Broadway return of Michael Crawford, of whom (as mentioned in a previous blog) I have an avid fan. When I had read about this, I was both overjoyed and worried: delighted at the prospect of seeing Crawford act and sing on stage in a musical (I had seen him in concert a few years prior) and also anxious about that “s” in the show’s title and where the theatre in which the show was to reside. Needless to say, the Gods of the Theatre had relished their machinations, as Dance of the Vampires received the most hateful, negative reviews I have ever read, to the point that the “reviews” were more like personal attacks on Crawford himself rather than on the qualities of the production (or about the other actors). Despite these hateful critiques, the production ran for three months (nearly two of which were in previews) – I managed to see the show nine times: twice in previews and the rest after it opened, and was the first show I saw both the matinée and evening performance, albeit they were the final two performances. The show was (and still is) one of the best musical scores I’ve heard, and was thoroughly entertaining; and to see and hear Crawford onstage in character was a thrilling experience.

After Dance of the Vampires closed, I sought out a way to rescind the Curse and make things right again with the Gods of the Theatre. The opportunity came out roughly a year later, when the next musical to play at the Minskoff was a revival of Fiddler on the Roof, which, while has no “s” in its title, just so happened to be the very first Broadway musical I ever saw (as a school field trip in 1990). I took this as a sign and my opportunity to show my sincerity and remove the Curse. So I then made plans to book tickets for February 20, 2004 and to also to attend the performance with one of the friends who had also gone to see Sunset that night. The Curse was lifted that night (again, don’t ask what I had to do to lift the Curse – it’s not something that can be shared). Suffice to say it worked – Fiddler ran for roughly another year, and the next (and current) show to play at the Minskoff Theatre? The Lion King, which is destined to have a long, long run.

Normally, this would be where the story ends, but another curious thing happened: after the expulsion of the Minskoff Curse, it seems to have regrouped, dropped “the letter‘s’ in the title” component and moved into the closest theater from its prior home: the Marquis Theatre. For the musicals that have played at the Marquis Theatre that were not limited or seasonal productions ran less than two years:

  • La Cage aux Folles: November 2004 – June 2005
  • Woman In White: October 2005 – February 2006
  • The Drowsy Chaperone: April 2006 – December 2007
  • Cry Baby:  March 2008 – June 2008
  • 9 to 5: April 2009 – September 2009
  • Come Fly Away: March 2010 – September 2010
  • Wonderland: March 2011 – May 2011

Currently at the Marquis Theatre is a revival production of Evita, which started its run in March 2012, so I’ll be closely watching to see how long this production runs, though there’s not too much I can do about this, as the phenomenon that currently occupies the Marquis is not the same Curse I had evicted from Minskoff. So I ask you, is this all purely coincidence or is there perhaps something other-worldly that exists in the world of the Theatre? Well, believe what you will; needless to say I’m now more careful with my critiques and thoughts about the theatre and equally careful not to anger the Gods of the Theatre, lest I incur their wrath again. I’ve learned my lesson the hard way.

Update: I know I should have updated this sooner, as it has already been announced that Evita will be closing on January 26, 2013, which (interestingly enough) is also the same date as the 25th Anniversary of Phantom of the Opera. The next production to play the Marquis is the revival of Frank Wildhorn’s Jekyll & Hyde, though that production is (as far as it has been reported) scheduled to be a limited run, so it’s safe from this “curse”.