Elaine Paige isn’t known as “the First Lady of British musical theater” for nothing. The Olivier Award-winning actress originated the title role in Evita, delivered the first “Memory” as Grizabella in Cats and has appeared in West End productions of Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar, Grease, Chess, Anything Goes, The King and I and The Drowsy Chaperone. She’s back on Broadway for only the second time, appearing alongside Bernadette Peters, Jan Maxwell and more in Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman’s Follies. Paige plays the still-glamorous former showgirl Carlotta Campion, reuniting with other Weissman Follies vets on the stage of their soon-to-be demolished theater and delivering the Sondheim showstopper “I’m Still Here” in the process. Below, Paige tells Broadway.com what she loves about her tough-as-nails character, her amazing castmates and being a theatrical survivor herself.
What appealed to you about playing Carlotta in Follies?
Stephen Sondheim’s brilliant writing and a character that I can identify with, because I’ve also been round the block a few times. So I understand what this woman is saying. Obviously not all of it, because her big song discusses American social history, five Dionne babies and all that, so I had to do some Googling. But she’s a survivor, and that part I really understand.
Do you think of yourself as a survivor in a tough business?
Absolutely. I’ve been in this business for over 40 years and I can genuinely say, “I’m still here.” I know what that means and what it’s taken to be able to make that statement. It’s tough, especially for women. More so for women who would have been working between the world wars, like Carlotta, but it still is. If a woman is really good at her job, if she can produce, direct, write and act and do her job well, she can still be thought of as being tough as nails or whatever. Whereas if a man does the same thing, he’s just terribly good at his job.
You’ve been a producer as well as an actor. Is that double standard something you’ve faced in your career?
Not often, but I do sometimes feel I’m working twice as hard as a man might do to achieve the same ends. I think that’s maybe overstating the case these days, but when Carlotta is singing about her life and what it’s taken to make it, it might well have been the case for her.
Is there anything about Carlotta you don’t relate to?
Well, I don’t know that I’m quite as laissez-faire about men as Carlotta is! They come and go in her life quite frequently, so on that score we differ somewhat. Although in the play she comments about younger men, so perhaps I identify with that! [Laughs.]
“I’m Still Here” is a showstopper, but what do you say to people who argue it doesn’t show off your voice enough?
Yes, it does! This song has quite a range on it. It starts in the lower register, but by the end when she’s singing, “I got through all of last year” it’s really a cry out in defiance and survival and it’s really quite high. This woman has lots of guts and muscle and determination and survival instincts, and it takes all of that to sing the last bit, I can tell you.
Is it a relief not to be carrying the show?
It is, but it brings other problems. When you have a cameo role, which is what Carlotta is, you do a lot of pacing about and waiting for your moment, as it were. I watch my fellow actors, the leading players, give their all every night, and the energy, passion and physical exertion required are just phenomenal. It’s a big ask, for all of us. We all seem to have an ache or a pain somewhere or other. I always have said musical theater is for the young, but this show is dispelling that argument for the moment. But in that respect I am pleased that I’m not one of the leading players.
What’s it like working Bernadette Peters, Jan Maxwell and this incredible ensemble cast?
It’s one of the happiest companies I’ve ever worked with. It’s like a real family. With so many ladies together, it would be easy for people to say, “Oh no, oh my God,” but we genuinely do all get on. There are no egos flying around. It’s been a hoot.
Was that feeling immediate?
I realized it was going to be fun early on in rehearsals. All of us ladies have to do this eight-minute tap number, and it took us two or three hours a day for a month to learn the thing. Nothing levels the playing field quite like that. We all thought, “Well, we’re in this together!” Everybody is very supportive and has been from the word go. At the top of the show we’re arriving at this party, and it really does feel like that every night. It’s a great way to start the show.
And a great way for you to return to Broadway, right?
It’s fantastic. It’s so exciting to hear and feel an audience react the way this New York audience does. Being a Brit in an American company is not something I’m used to. We’re much more reserved than you lot. It’s a joy and a great way to “make my return,” as Norma Desmond would say.
Sunset Boulevard was the show that finally brought you to Broadway. Since you didn’t come to New York in shows like Evita and Cats, did that make it more important to you to conquer Broadway one day?
I think that’s probably the case. I was thwarted with Evita and didn’t get to recreate the role I created in London on Broadway, which happened again with Cats and again with Chess. Three times I was thwarted with roles that I created, and the irony of course was that eventually I came as Norma Desmond, which I took over from Betty Buckley. But this is my third time lucky in New York [including a New York City Opera production of Sweeney Todd], the hat-trick, and it’s brilliant.
Evita was obviously a career-changer for you. How long had you been in the business before that happened?
I was doing OK playing smaller parts for 15 or so years before Evita. I’m glad for that because it meant that I had learned quite a lot along the way, playing small roles and being in the chorus, so when Evita happened I was ready. It was quite difficult to adjust to all the attention that was paid to me and the role of Evita though. I had the experience as an actor, but when one minute you’re not famous and then you are, you don’t know how to handle it.
What was most difficult about that?
Loss of privacy, really, and the fact that everybody wants a piece of you and they want it immediately. The pressure is extraordinary. You learn to live with it, of course, and it becomes part of your life but initially it’s quite tough to adjust to.
Was there ever a time you considered giving up acting?
Absolutely. Just before Evita, in fact. That came along and saved the day, I suppose.
What do you think you’d be doing if you had thrown in the towel?
That’s the 50 million dollar question, isn’t it? I have absolutely no idea!
See Elaine Paige in Follies at the Marquis Theatre.