Elaine Paige's Musical Life, Lived On Stage

Elaine Paige is known as the "First Lady of Musical Theater" and recently celebrated 40 years on the stage. For more than six years, she has also been hosting a radio show on BBC Radio 2, on which she interviews people from the theater world. Host Scott Simon speaks with Paige about her radio show and her favorite musical roles.

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SCOTT SIMON, host: Elaine Paige is often called the Queen of British musicals. She created the role of "Evita" for Andrew Lloyd Webber, and Grizabella, who sings "Memory," in "Cats." She played Edith Piaf in "Piaf," and Anna in the "King and I." Lord Andrew says, she has a belt voice in areas where no self-respecting angel will ever dare to tread and she has the heart to use this God-given voice in a way that imbues it with true emotion.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MEMORY")

ELAINE PAIGE: (Singing) Midnight not a sound from the pavement.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

PAIGE: (Singing) Has the moon lost her memory?

SIMON: Whoa. For the past six years, Elaine Paige has hosted a weekly radio show on BBC 2.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO JINGLE) (Singing) 88 to 91 FM, Elaine Paige.

SIMON: Elaine Paige "Sunday EPOS," in which she plays music and interviews theater folks, and always seems to have a good laugh.

PAIGE: That number was performed by Dick Van Dyke.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER) Why is that funny?

PAIGE: Just the way I said it. Who celebrate?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Elaine Paige, who's smiling, if not laughing, joins us in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.

PAIGE: And it's a great pleasure to be here.

SIMON: What makes you laugh so much?

PAIGE: I don't know. I just see the funny side in things, I think and that was just a quite an amusing moment on my radio program. And it occurs more often than not I think these days. Sometimes something, you know, will crop up and I lose the plot, as they say, and giggle away.

SIMON: What are some of your favorite programs that you've done or favorite moments and favorite interviews?

PAIGE: Oh my goodness. Well, I've interviewed Liza Minnelli and Bette Midler and Hal Prince. I came to New York to interview Stephen Schwartz. I mean I'll never forget, for example, having tea with Angela Lansbury in her home in L.A. and, you know, discussing essential musicals. We asked everybody to choose their five essential musicals. And with her, of course, I discussed "Gypsy," and "Mame," and "Sweeney Todd."

SIMON: Those were all shows she was in. Yeah.

PAIGE: Yes. Yes. So I mean it was pretty amazing to be talking to her because she's such a legend. And it's been an education for me. And also just a wonderful new area of my life - to be able to sit on the other side of the desk and ask my heroes and heroines about their life and how they got to be where they are, you know. I've always been fascinated with people's stories so it's a wonderful thing to be able to sit opposite them live and chatter on, as we are sort of doing now. In fact, I'm doing far too much talking.

SIMON: Oh, no, no, no. I...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Well, that's why you're here. I want you to talk. So what are your five essential musicals?

PAIGE: Well, obviously, my first and the one that inspired me to be part of musical theater was "West Side Story." I remember I didn't ever see it on stage. I saw it on film. And I think before that even I heard it on record.

SIMON: So if I went...

(SOUNDBITE OF FINGERS SNAPPING)

PAIGE: Ah.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COOL")

CAST OF WEST SIDE STORY: (Singing) Boy, boy, crazy boy. Stay loose, boy. Breeze it, buzz it, easy does it. Turn off the juice, boy.

PAIGE: Yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: That brings it back?

PAIGE: That does brings it all back. That's my favorite. I love "Singing in the Rain." Oh, gosh, what else? "My Fair Lady" I think is one of the great musicals of all time.

SIMON: Yeah.

PAIGE: There's an endless, endless list that I am not even more aware of than I perhaps was before I started doing the radio show, because having asked so many people what theirs are and playing the tracks from them, I kind of come and to know and love many more than just my own few favorites.

SIMON: Do you have a favorite number of yours?

PAIGE: Of my own?

SIMON: Yeah.

PAIGE: Oh, my...

SIMON: You ask that question of other people sometimes.

PAIGE: I guess. It's such a difficult question. "Evita" obviously would always be very special to me because it was the first major musical that I did on stage and created in the U.K. with Hal Prince directing. So that's always going to be very, very special to me. But I think "Memory" probably is the one I'm probably most possessive about, you know, in a weird way. And I never get tired of singing it because it's so sort of operatic, if you like...

SIMON: Yeah.

PAIGE: ...in its structure. It has that wonderful strident piece at the end when she sings touch me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MEMORY")

PAIGE: (Singing) Touch me. It's so easy to leave me, all alone with the memory of my days in the sun. If you touch me, you'll understand what happiness is. Look, a new day has begun.

That is, it's just one of his most brilliant songs, I think.

SIMON: It clutches the heart.

PAIGE: It is. It does tear at the heartstrings, I think - both melodically and lyrically. It's a great marriage. I think that's the thing, why it makes it such a special song. And I think any really great song has to have that, where you have to have the lyric and the melody that really sort of marry up together.

SIMON: Do you listen to much music when you're...

PAIGE: I don't listen to so much music now. I did when I was younger. Music is so much part of my work. I like peace and quiet now when I go home.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PAIGE: And shut the door and you - oh, it's just so wonderful to not have anything and any radio, music or anything. I do listen to the radio more than I ever did when I was younger. I do listen to music but not like I did. And if I do, it's more often than not these days classical music because I find that rather peaceful and kind of calming. Life I think seems to hurry by so fast and there's so much going on, especially now with all this modern technology that we're all hooked into. There's very little time for peace and quiet and silence and I'm always in search of that it seems these days.

SIMON: Elaine Paige, a real pleasure. Thank you.

PAIGE: Thank you so much. It's been a real pleasure talking to you, Scott.

SIMON: And try to keep a straight face while I call you this one more time, okay?

PAIGE: Oh, no, what you to say now?

SIMON: Elaine Paige, the Queen of the British Musicals.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: But, moreover, the host of "Elaine Paige on Sunday" on BBC2, which can be heard all over the world live on Sunday or downloaded every day of the week.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T CRY FOR ME ARGENTINA")

PAIGE: (Singing) It won't be easy. You'll think it's strange...

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

PAIGE: (Singing) ...how I feel. That I still need your love after all that I've done.

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