Dustin, Evita and my musical dream
As a DVD is re-released celebrating her 40 years on stage, Elaine Paige told Rachel Banham how a Hollywood actor helped her career, how Evita changed her life and why the UK will always be home.
She is known as the first lady of musical theatre – yet without the encouragement of one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, her career could have taken a different direction.
Elaine Paige has special reason to be thankful to actor Dustin Hoffman, and it’s clear that she’s as grateful to him today as she was when he advised her not to give up on her dream in the 1970s.
It’s fitting, then, that Elaine includes the song Shoot the Breeze, written by Dustin and Bette Midler, on her Celebrating A Life On Stage DVD. Elaine recalls how she met Dustin at a party, and he later suggested she sing Shoot The Breeze.
“He wrote the lyrics out for me, which was very kind of him, and so I did indeed learn this song – he played the piano and I sang it and that’s when he said to me ‘You must never, ever give up. You’ve really got a fantastic voice,’” she says.
“To hear that from him was what I needed at that low point in my career to give me the confidence really, I suppose, to know that I should stick with it.” She adds: “He inspired me to keep on and not give up because I was on the brink of giving it all up.
“He was one of those people who came along in my life at the time that I needed to meet somebody of his great stature, and someone kind enough to encourage me.
“He heard me sing and he was so encouraging and said to me ‘whatever you do, you must never give up. You must be like Edith Piaf and go out on the streets if necessary and sing with a hat at your feet’.
“The fact that he was such a mega movie star and that he was offering me this free advice… I thought ‘well if Dustin Hoffman thinks I’ve got something then maybe I’ll stick at it a bit longer’. And, of course, it wasn’t much longer after having met him that I did get Evita.”
Elaine performed in East Anglia in 2011, when she visited the Ipswich Regent Theatre as part of her Elaine Paige and Friends tour. Her Celebrating A Life On Stage DVD was filmed at the State Theatre in Sydney, Australia, during her sell-out 40th anniversary tour. It includes performances from Evita, Chess, Cats, Anything Goes, Piaf, Sunset Boulevard, The King and I and many more from the West End to Broadway.
Elaine says: “I wanted to do things that were integral to me getting the roles that I did – like Lennon and McCartney’s Yesterday, because that was the song that I did sing for the audition (for the role of Eva Peron in Evita) and I sang it as a three-act play rather than as a pop song.
“There are songs in there as well as the ones that I’m known for that are just stepping stones really for me to get to the roles that I did. I always think that if you can tell a story or give the audience some background to why you’re singing a song and the reasons behind it, it adds to their enjoyment of understanding the lyric that you’re singing because they know the reasons why.
“So that’s why we’ve included on the DVD the interview as well… so that you can get to know the ins and outs of everything really.”
Elaine played Eva Peron in Evita, a role that she admits changed her life. “It gave me a career in musical theatre. Nobody could have been more amazed really, that I’d actually got the job,” she says. “I always used to get down to the last two or three, then get the big heave-ho.”
Elaine has appeared in some of our best-loved musicals, and she has had many high points throughout her career.
“Chess, of course, was brilliant because Tim (Rice) wrote that show for me and I got a number one hit single (I Know Him So Well) with Barbara Dickson out of it, so that was brilliant as well,” she says. “There have been many wonderful moments in the shows.”
She recalls how, on the opening night of Evita, Dustin Hoffman was in the audience. “He knew me as ‘Ellie’. By the end of the performance the penny dropped, and he realised that I was the girl who had sung his song and who he had encouraged to stay in the business,” she says.
“In fact he was the first person backstage to see me after that first night performance of Evita. He opened the door for me and he said to me: ‘You got there, didn’t you?’
“That was a highlight for me because if it hadn’t have been for him I may well have given it all up.”
Elaine recently returned from performing in Australia, New Zealand, China and Singapore. She says that there are new things in the pipeline which will be “fun and interesting”. There is also the possibility of a British tour.
“I love to tour the UK because it’s home,” she says. “I travel around the world so much it’s always nice to have a reason to stay home.”
Elaine’s DVD, Celebrating A Life On Stage, is on sale now, released by Wienerworld. Weblink: www.elainepaige.com
Elaine was recently awarded an honorary degree from the University of East Anglia at Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts’ graduation ceremony in London. “Being part of a ceremony at which so many talented young people are starting out with a career in the theatre made it particularly special,” she says.
“I have been fortunate to receive many theatre industry awards during my career but this one really is very special and I’m very honoured.”