It is 1977 and Elaine Paige’s career is pretty much flatlining. After appearing aged 20 in the West End’s seminal musical, Hair, in 1968, she had landed sporadic small jobs but not the uplift she’d been hoping for.
‘By the time I got to 29,’ she remembers, ‘I felt I should be doing something more substantial. I was on the verge of thinking that I’d give it another year and if, by 30, I hadn’t made a bit more of a mark, I’d pack it up. I was seriously considering becoming a nursery nurse.’
The man who changed her fortunes was Dustin Hoffman, no less. They met socially when he was in the UK filming Agatha with Vanessa Redgrave. ‘We fell to talking and he asked me what I did. I told him I was an out-of-work actor who sang a bit. I was trying to make my way in the business but it was proving difficult, not least because I was so short.’ (She’s 4ft 11in.)
‘That seemed to hit a chord with him and he started telling me how he overcame his own lack of height.
He told me to keep on keeping on. He also revealed that he’d wanted to be a concert pianist and that he loved playing the piano. He’d recently written a song with Bette Midler. Would I like to sing it for him?
‘We were at a party in a hotel and he said he had a piano in his suite. I wasn’t at all sure. It sounded like the best pulling line ever. But I decided to take the gamble. So he played me the tune and wrote out all the words.
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Singing her heart out
‘I learned the song as best I could in the time available and then sang it for all my life was worth. And he was gobsmacked.’
Can we go back to that suite for a moment? Did she see Dustin again? She shifts a little uneasily in her chair. ‘Well, yes, a few times.’ She did once confess to The New York Times that they ‘had a little fling’.
Dustin told Elaine she shouldn’t even consider giving up. ‘He was passionate about what he said was my talent. It’s fair to say he was instrumental in giving me back faith in myself. He then went on to offer me lots of advice about audition technique, all of which I employed.’
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Spool forward a year and Elaine is now the talk of the town, the little-known singer who has just landed the eponymous role of Evita, the most sought-after since the search to find the actress who’d play Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind. It is June 21, 1978, the first night of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s hugely anticipated musical.
Unbeknown to Elaine, Dustin Hoffman was sitting in the stalls next to producer David Land. As she later found out, David asked Dustin what he thought of Elaine’s performance. ‘Apparently, he replied: “Oh, I think she’s wonderful. But she somehow seems familiar”.
It wasn’t until the interval that the penny dropped.
‘During rehearsals I’d said to Myra Sands, who was also in the show, how funny it would be if Dustin were there. It would be the cherry on the cake.’
Getting into her ballgown for Act Two, Elaine spotted Myra. ‘She was running towards me like a madwoman. “Oh, you’ll never guess,” she said. “The cherry’s here.”
‘So I said: “Myra, this is the biggest night of my life and you’re talking to me in riddles.”
Biggest night of her life
‘And that’s when she told me Dustin was in the audience. My initial reaction was: “Oh my God, I wish you hadn’t told me!” I was just about to go back on to sing Don’t Cry for Me Argentina, knowing he was watching me. For the first time that evening, I felt self-conscious.’
To this day, Elaine believes that without those encouraging words from Dustin a year earlier, she might never have landed the role of Evita, never gone on to have the career she’s had.
‘Without him, I might have become a nursery nurse and married, perhaps with children of my own. So I owe him an enormous debt because, whatever parts I subsequently played, Evita remains the defining role of my career.’
So now here we are, tucked away in a smart alcove in London’s Cadogan Hotel, and the lively Ms Paige, 66, dressed in a black suit, is contemplating 50 years in the business, the uncontested first lady of West End musical theatre. ‘I know it’s a terrible old cliché,’ she says, in that familiar smoky voice, ‘but the time has gone by in the blink of an eye.
West End theatre
‘That may be because I’ve lived in the moment ever since I appeared in Hair. It was one of the themes of the musical and it’s a philosophy I’ve embraced ever since.
‘Planning my farewell concert tour, though, I’ve been forced to look back down the years and it’s been strange. It’s almost as though all that happened to someone else. Who was that girl?’
Her upbringing in Barnet, north London, was ‘wonderful’, but as far removed from the bright lights of the West End as you could imagine. ‘There was Mum and Dad and my elder sister, Marion, with my grandparents and my aunts and uncles all living close by. I went to a Church of England primary school and then to a local secondary modern. It was a very secure, very simple suburban life.’
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An artistic talent
Academia was not really her thing. ‘To be honest, I struggled a bit. I was always rather more artistic and it was there that I discovered my love of music and singing and performing. My dad, Eric, loved music; he was the drummer in his own band. If the war hadn’t come along, I’m sure he would have wanted to become a professional. But I inherit my voice from my mum, Irene (although everyone called her by her nickname, Dooker); she had a beautiful singing voice.’
In one school production of Mozart’s comic opera Bastien and Bastienne, Elaine sang the mezzo-soprano role of Bastienne.
‘I took the conscious decision to let out a heart-rending sob at the end of the aria and then sank to my knees. There was a gasp from the audience but for all the wrong reasons. They thought I’d forgotten my words and had collapsed with the strain of it all. I was very indignant. Didn’t they know I was acting?
‘Obviously my father did, because he asked me afterwards whether I’d like to go to drama school. I couldn’t believe it. Suburban girls like me didn’t do things like that. But by the end of the year – I was 16 by then – I’d enrolled on a three-year course at the Aida Foster stage school in Golders Green.’
Initially, she felt like a fish out of water. ‘All the other students seemed so confident. It made me retreat into myself even more. I found it difficult because I didn’t seem to have the necessary bravado. Quite a lot of that had to do with my height. Being a small person, you don’t view life in quite the same way.
‘All my life, I’ve felt patronised. Not so many years ago, I appeared on Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? alongside Michael Ball. At the end, Chris Tarrant said to me: “You did better than you thought, didn’t you?” And then he patted me on the bloody head. How condescending! He didn’t do that to Michael Ball – I should have punched him.’
Is she a diva?
By the time she graduated from Aida Foster, she was, she says, completely and utterly hooked on the life that was to become her career. It has been a career, moreover, notwithstanding those rather sluggish twenties, that has seen her star in, among others, Cats – ‘It gave me my signature tune, Memory’ – Piaf, Chess (her duet, I Know Him So Well, with Barbara Dickson remains the biggest-selling hit by a female duo in the history of the charts) and as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, her Broadway debut at 50.
She has tended to play divas. Typecasting? She laughs.
‘I don’t think so. I’m very focused. I’m opinionated. I’m strong-willed. I work very hard. To me, a diva is someone who demands her dressing room be repainted baby pink or who refuses to go onstage until 30 fluffy white kittens are delivered to the theatre. But that’s not me at all.
‘I’m not a diva over nonsense. I’m not someone who throws tantrums.’
Presenting and touring
She is currently hosting a series devoted to musical theatre on Sky Arts. In September, she will celebrate a decade of presenting her Radio 2 show each Sunday. Then comes the concert tour that kicks off in the UK in October before heading out to Ireland, Australia and the States next spring.
‘No more touring after that. You can’t get to sleep until 2am after a concert as the adrenaline is still pumping, but you have to be up at 8am to get to the next place, and that takes its toll. I do take my own pillow as I’m in a different bed every night,’ she laughs. She adds ‘But that doesn’t mean I’m retiring altogether.’
So, what of her private life? ‘Ever since the “Tim thing” [she and Tim Rice had a very public 11-year affair spanning the Eighties], I’ve tried to hold back, to keep something for myself and for my partner.’ She and Justin Mallinson, a marketing executive, met at Queen’s Club in West London – ‘He’s rather a good tennis player’ – in 2010. She keeps fit playing tennis three times a week.
Partners - in tennis and life
‘In fact, we got to the doubles finals in Mustique one year, and then our opponents realised I was the weak link and started aiming all the shots at me.
‘I don’t keep him a secret. He often accompanies me to first nights. It’s just that he’s not in the public eye and I don’t think it’s my place to talk about him.’
But ask her if, amid her sustained success over half a century, she has any regrets and she seems to surprise herself with an unexpectedly candid answer.
‘I’ve never said this before, but I do regret the fact I never married and had a family of my own. I’d have loved to have been a mum. But I’m of the belief that you can’t have it all. Had I had marriage and motherhood, I wouldn’t have had this career because I couldn’t have juggled it all.
‘Nor am I complaining. I’ve had, and continue to have, an amazingly rich and abundant life, which contains plenty of children of whom I’m extremely fond.’
A broad smile. All right, then, tell us one final surprising fact about yourself that no one knows.
She leans forward conspiratorially. ‘I’m really six foot one!’