“The lyric lays on the tune in the most wonderful way, so that when you hear it, it just creates an emotion… it makes you feel something that connects you to it.” Elaine Paige knows what makes the perfect show tune better than most - so much so that even her criteria has a musicality to it.
From I Know Him So Well in Chess to Cats’ infamous 11 o’clock number Memory, Paige has originated some of musical theatre’s most iconic tracks. Her weekly BBC 2 Radio show, meanwhile, has been on the airwaves since 2004 - but in the past 10 months or so, it’s become something of a tonic for those of us missing live performance.
Though the theatre industry has, as Paige bluntly puts it, been “clobbered” by pandemic-enforced closures and on-off re-openings “with little support,” her broadcasts try to sound a positive note amid the uncertainty. “It’s all about keeping spirits up,” the 72-year-old says. “Giving [listeners] a bit of the experience, along with good news stories. And I’m constantly keeping them in touch with where the theatre industry is at the moment [...] What's so brilliant about musical theatre [is] you can escape. And I think we could all do with a bit of an escape right now.”
Over the weekend, Paige will be one of a handful of stage stars spearheading Radio 2’s celebration of musicals. On Sunday evening, she will be unveiling the results of a listener poll counting down the top 20 musical theatre tracks of all time, whittled down from an original shortlist of 50 which spans around eight decades of jazz hands and tear-jerkers, from Rodgers and Hammerstein to Hamilton.
Naturally, that shortlist includes some of her own greatest hits - but has looking back prompted her to reflect on roles not taken, or ones that she might yet take on? “Of course, there are certain shows that I wish I had been able to do, that I never got the chance to, because I was doing the modern musicals that came along with Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice [in the 70s and 80s],” she muses. “It was fantastic to create all that, the new British musicals, but I would have loved to have done My Fair Lady, as Eliza… I used to sing I Could Have Danced All Night at singing lessons when I was very young.” Mama Rose in Gypsy is another one she’d love to have tackled later in her career, “but by the time I could have done, I suppose, I think I was already feeling the pinch - you need a lot of stamina and energy for musical theatre, and I’m not 25 any more, unfortunately. I was in too many long runs… luckily for me.”
Paige is hoping the special programme will provide her listeners with some respite from “the long dark days” of January, and the “overwhelming” response to the initiative has also underlined radio’s power to connect, something which she has become more conscious of in recent months. She lives alone (she has never married, though she had a relationship with then-married lyricist Tim Rice throughout the 80s, and said in a 2017 interview that she “[doesn’t] really see the need in it [marriage] at all”) and has "the radio on quite often, just for the fact that it makes you feel as if you have somebody in the house with you and there's a chatter going on,” she says. “It’s very intimate, there’s a one-to-one feeling about it as if you’re just being chatted to by a close friend, and I think that’s been very, very valuable over all these lockdowns.”
As well as the countdown, Paige will take part in Musicals: The Greatest Show, a compilation of exclusive performances from some of the genre’s leading lights from the West End and beyond, which airs on Radio 2 on Sunday evening; a televised version will follow on BBC One next month. Of all the songs in her back catalogue, she has chosen to reprise As If We Never Said Goodbye from Sunset Boulevard for the radio broadcast, not just because “it’s one of Andrew’s most beautiful scores,” but because it was the soundtrack to one of the most memorable nights of her career.
“It’s the show that took me to Broadway, 18 years after I opened Evita in the West End,” she says. “It seemed like every time it might be my turn to recreate a show that had opened here on Broadway, every time I got stymied.” It’s a track she put her personal stamp on, too. “There’s a line in it, ‘I’ve come home at last,’ and I told Andrew, I want to hold the word ‘home’ longer than you’ve actually written it, because to me, that is where that song, and the character [Norma Desmond]’s whole feeling about her life, lands,” she explains. “So I held that note on probably for a little too long, and the audience went absolutely mad - it was almost as though they understood that it was long overdue, for me to be on Broadway. It’s a moment that I’ll never, ever forget.”
Memorable for a very different reason was her brief return to the stage at the London Palladium before Christmas for the venue’s socially distanced pantomime, which was cut short by the re-introduction of Tier 3 measures in the capital. “We thought, ‘this is fantastic, we’re home and dry, against all the odds we’ve got this show on with extraordinary safety measures in place,’ and then it just came crashing down after only six performances,” she recalls. “We were in total shock - it was just devastating.” Even before the closure, the disjunction between the safety measures and distancing on display at the Palladium and the “crowds of people [...] standing outside bars, drinking in groups, no social distance” just around the corner on Regent Street and Oxford Street had been frustrating. “It just seemed to me to be irrational, totally wrong.”
Indeed Paige has little time for anyone flouting Covid guidelines. “I’m not a pilot, so I wouldn’t suggest that I fly a plane - so we shouldn’t suggest that we know better than the authorities or what they’re telling us about… I’m on my soapbox now!” she laughs, before striking a more serious note. “As soon as I get the call [for the vaccine], I’m going to be there and I think everybody should do the same thing. When I was very young, I mean, a toddler, polio was devastating, it affected people in the most dreadful, dreadful way. And they found a vaccine for it, and now we’ve [largely] eradicated polio.”
As we wait for the vaccination programme to step up a gear, it seems stage doors on the West End and beyond will remain closed for a few months longer - meaning that Paige will continue to use her show to spotlight fundraisers, Zoom performances and initiatives organised by industry pals like long-time collaborator Lloyd Webber. “It does always amaze me how the theatre industry and creative people in the arts always manage to come up with ways of continually being creative and finding means of getting their stuff out there,” she says. “It fills me with pride, really, to be connected to an industry that never gives up - there’s always that feeling that the show must go on, you know?”
Elaine Paige on Sunday airs every Sunday, 1-3pm on BBC Radio 2; Radio 2 Celebrates Musicals airs from January 29 - 31, with all programmes available on BBC Sounds. Musicals: The Greatest Show is on BBC One on February 7 and available on BBC iPlayer for a year