Second in a week-long series profiling the Kennedy Center’s Sondheim stars
The tears show up uninvited, slipping along her eyelids, pooling up over hazel irises, until they are swiftly beaten back by Elaine Paige’s flustered, mascaraed lashes.
“Oh,” Paige shudders, her silvery voice breaking as she blinks away the past. “A bit sad — the reflection, the memory of it all.”
She pictures, in front of her, the expectant emptiness of London’s Shaftesbury Theatre before audiences arrived for the 1968 production of the musical “Hair,” in whose ensemble she made her West End debut. Last year, the cast members from that original mounting were invited to opening night of the revival at the Gielgud Theatre, where producer Cameron Mackintosh instructed the veterans to find their young counterparts onstage and hold hands in a circle.
“It felt ridiculous,” Paige admits, and yet “it was an extraordinary experience. It was kind of like a ‘Follies’ moment. It was weird to see all these lovely, young, beautiful creatures. And, of course, we were young once as well. And to see ourselves, you know, as we were then and as we are now was pretty shocking, really, quite emotional and choking, you know, and quite upsetting. And I mean that in a sort of nice way, but it was difficult to deal with because, you know, it’s gone.”
Her left hand flutters upward, a silver watch sliding on her arm, her eyes following some apparition. Here’s where the spotlight would narrow and enclose her, where the muted trumpet would come in, its wry intonation raising the curtain on “I’m Still Here,” Stephen Sondheim’s showstopping cabaret aria to sheer endurance. It’s hers to sing — and to live — when the curtain goes up on “Follies.”
Good times and bum times —
I’ve seen ’em all and, my dear,
I’m still here.
Still here, and routinely out of breath, and her knees ache. She’s 63, just off rehearsal for an eight-minute tap-dancing number — the last time she seriously tapped was nearly 25 years ago in a London production of “Anything Goes” — and prone to the giggles. Whenever something tickles her fancy, she issues a husky, rat-a-tat chuckle that sounds like “huhuhuhuhuh.” Her flaxen hair and compact dynamism are pure Eva Peron in “Evita,” but she exhibits traces of Grizabella, the battered feline in “Cats” who mews the gooey, nostalgic “Memory.” Paige originated both roles in the ’80s and rode the wave of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s populist neo-musicals to become “La Paige,” or “the first lady of British musical theater,” a title she has practiced deflecting and embracing in the same breath.
“It is something that has been put upon me, but I have been doing this for over 45 years, and so I s’pose in a way it’s rather apt,” says Paige, who makes her home in Chelsea, on the River Thames, and says Washington’s little parks remind her of London. “It’s kind of the character I’m playing in this role [in “Follies”] — somebody who’s been around the block a few times and has done pretty much everything there is to do, especially in England. So it is earned. I am still here. Huhuhuhuhuh.”
Still here, still busy: A weekly radio show, a new album of duets that has sold more than 100,000 copies and a recently wrapped concert tour of the United Kingdom (“lively” and “dramatic,” reported a reviewer in Birmingham, though Paige was “struggling for breath”).
Memory, of course, butts in. The specter of the “good ol’ days” haunts anyone who’s closer to the end than the beginning, and “Follies” stirs up those ghosts. Her good times (platinum albums, copious honorifics) and bum times (battles with breast cancer and lupus) are practically written into Sondheim’s score. In this role, in this show, Paige can hear herself first listening to “West Side Story” as a girl in north London. She can smell the musty theaters of her youth, can feel the electricity of debuting in “Hair.”
“That’s gone forever,” she says. “So, that’s why I think [“Follies”] is such a wonderful musical — because it deals with things that have gone into the past, never to be retrieved. And it reminds you to live every day because this. Is. It. There is no rehearsal. It’s only once around. It only comes once.”
A swig of water. An intake of breath. Back to the tap dancing.
May 7-June 19 at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater. Tickets, $45-$150. www.kennedy-center.org. 202-467-4600.
More from The Post’s series profiling the Sondheim stars: