Elaine Paige and Michael Crawford

Elaine Paige "I Remember..."

Actress, performer and broadcaster, Elaine Paige OBE reflects on her life and greatest memories. About to embark on her 50 year anniversary tour, Elaine tells Reader's Digest how it nearly came to an early end. (Above: Elaine Paige lifts Michael Crawford at theatre school).

My upbringing in North London was wonderful...

There was my mum Irene (although everyone called her Dooker), my dad Eric and my elder sister Marion, with my grandparents and aunts and uncles all living close by. I went to a Church of England primary school and then to a local secondary modern school. It was a very secure, very simple suburban life.

 

I was in a school production of a Mozart comic opera…

I sang the mezzo soprano role of Bastienne. I took the conscious decision to let out a heartrending 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 drama course at the Aida Foster Theatre School in Golders Green. 

Initially, I felt like a fish out of water…

All the other students seemed so confident, encouraged by their pushy parents. It made me retreat into myself even more. I didn’t seem to have the necessary
bravado. Quite a lot of that had to do with my height. Being a small person—I’m 4ft 11in—you don’t view life in quite the same way.

I was in the original production of Hair in 1968…

Then I went on to appear in Jesus Christ Superstar in 1972 and, the following year, Grease with Paul Nicholas. I took over the lead role of Sandy, while Paul replaced Richard Gere as Danny. Paul and I had been together in Superstar. For once, this was a story where the girl gets the guy—although the main appeal for me was the transformation from sweet Sandy to Sandy the rocker, dressed from head to toe in black leather. Our final number was a raunchy duet, “We Go Together”, which Paul and I had to sing while jiving all over the stage.

 

The musical Billy was based on Billy Liar by Keith Waterhouse...

The title role was played by Michael Crawford, a hugely gifted actor but a perfectionist—as demanding of himself as of others. So there were inevitable tears and walk-outs, although no trouble between him and me. I played his loudmouth girlfriend Rita—and, as I discovered, had a voice to match. I was able to sing without a microphone, although, to balance the sound, the newly invented body mike was eventually used by all of us.

My 20s turned out to be a bit of a disappointment...

They’d  started well and then they stalled. At 29, I was seriously considering giving up the business and training as a nursery nurse. What I didn’t know was that the big one was just around the corner. Whatever happened before or since, nothing can ever compare to my landing the lead part in Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s mould-breaking musical Evita. It was the most sought-after role since the search to find the actress who’d play Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind. It was the defining moment of my professional career. It changed my life forever. And the opening night, June 21, 1978, will be etched on my memory for as long as I live.

After Evita I started to worry that I was a one-hit wonder…

Driving home one night, a radio DJ played a fragment of a new Andrew Lloyd Webber song, “Memory”. As I climbed out of the car, keen to get back into the house because the DJ was going to be playing the full song after the midnight news, a bedraggled black cat crossed my path—a sign of good luck, my mother always said. In my haste to turn on the tape recorder, I hadn’t shut the front door properly. When I looked up five minutes later, the cat had followed me inside.

I went to sleep listening to this beautiful, haunting ballad with its operatic climax. I’m not particularly superstitious, but next morning the producer Cameron Mackintosh phoned—Judi Dench had had to pull out of the production of Cats just days before previews began with a torn Achilles tendon. Could I take over? I was apprehensive, but Cameron explained the part of Grizabella (pictured above) was a cameo with just one song.

“It wouldn’t by any chance be called ‘Memory’?” I asked.

I played the part for nine months in London, and “Memory” became my signature song. The black cat stayed with me for the rest of her life. No prizes for guessing what I named her.

Read more of Elaine's story in the latest Reader's Digest magazine.

Buy Elaine's CDs and DVDs here.

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