The seven-year itch

Elaine Paige may not have starred in a West End stage musical for seven years, but true to form, she will not be tip-toeing back in front of the footlights. As Anna Leonowens in The King and I at the London Palladium in 2000, she was all corseted romance on “Some Enchanted Evening”. But right now, on a rather hot and sticky April evening at a rehearsal room in Southwark, she’s dancing to an entirely different tune with The Drowsy Chaperone company.

There are around 20 cast members on the floor marked out with blue and yellow tape, although you have to imagine them all glammed-up on stage at the Novello Theatre as a stock company from the 1920s, including a pampered Broadway starlet eager to get married, a producer who sets out to sabotage her nuptials, a debonair groom, a Latin lover and a couple of gangsters disguised as pastry chefs.

You also have to conjure up David Gallo’s set, in which colourful scenery emerges from unlikely locations in a dreary apartment, and on which the ensemble gleefully slap-foot their way through the elaborate “Toledo Surprise” routine – with veteran trouper Anne Rogers up front throwing in some eye-boggling high kicks – to the combustible sound of pure mid-Twenties musical comedy. The sheer vaudevillian shtick of this spoof score (supposedly written by Jule Gable and Sidney Stein in 1928), makes Rodgers and Hammerstein’s lilting “Shall We Dance” from The King and I seem almost lame.

“So many of the roles I’ve done in my career have been tragic or melodramatic at some level or another, such as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard or Eva Peron in Evita,” Paige chuckles after the up-on-their-toes ensemble has reprised scurrying into the wings like cockroaches under the practised eye of the show’s original Broadway director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw. “Maybe I’ve reached an age when, as they say, ‘girls just want to have fun’,” she adds. “My big number, ‘As We Stumble Along’, is a glorious anthem to alcoholism. As I like a tipple myself now and then, maybe there’s no acting required.”

Looking cool and as dinky as ever in a decidedly un-1920s sky blue shirt and jeans, the diminutive Paige leaves you in no doubt that she hasn’t just stumbled into the production to play a belting Broadway queen of yesteryear. Quite clearly she’s already having a ball rehearsing the title role in the new London production of The Drowsy Chaperone, an unqualified smash on Broadway winning no fewer than five Tony Awards and numerous other accolades along the way. Indeed, Drowsy has been a winner, almost from the very first moment the fictional musical-within-a-musical began life in August 1998 as a jokey wedding present to Canadian comedian Bob Martin and his fiancée Janet Van de Graaff, gift-wrapped and performed by some of their life-long actor friends.

Difficult divas

Paige plays a reputedly difficult diva (playing tipsy chaperone to a starlet), “which might be a bit of a send-up of my entire career,” she says, leaving me in no doubt that Britain’s “First Lady of Musical Theatre” is relishing the idea of poking fun at herself. “Why worry about being sent up,” she beams, “you don’t often have an opportunity to do that – not in public anyway.”

During a breather, Nicholaw, who transformed what was a fringe phenomenon performed by a group of comedians in Toronto into full-blown Broadway show (with a cast including Sutton Foster as Janet), says the casting of Paige adds a new layer of irony to the spoof musical comedy that comes alive on stage when the lonely and depressed “Man in Chair” who never leaves his apartment (played by co-author Martin), listens to his favourite recording of The Drowsy Chaperone only to find the show bursting into colourful life before his eyes.

“It’s a multi-layered show, but basically it’s about these characters who pop up in his room, so we’ve tailored them in the London production to fit what the cast does best,” explains Nicholaw, who also choreographed Spamalot on Broadway and in the West End. He’s keen to point out that what we see at the Novello is not a complete replica of Broadway. “For instance, we’re playing around with the idea that Elaine Paige, a theatrical legend, is playing a character who is a theatrical legend. We’re even having fun with her height. John Partridge, who plays the groom, Robert Martin, was in Starlight Express, so the skating number has a lot more to it than in New York. Summer Strallen, playing his fiancée, Janet, has different strengths to Sutton Foster on Broadway. We’ve even found a way of making the Novello itself part of the spoof history of The Drowsy Chaperone.”

Ensemble energy

For Paige, being part of what already looks like a close-knit troupe of performers is a reminder of her own early career in musical theatre and what drew her into the theatrical world of make-believe in the first place. She attended Southaw Girls School in East Barnet where one of her teachers, Ann Hall, encouraged her to develop her vocal prowess.

“I loved singing because I felt as if I disappeared. As a flat-chested, frizzy-haired kid who couldn’t connect with the real world, it gave me confidence. I remember wearing a bright orange dress and singing an aria in The Boy Mozart. That was it. I knew then that I loved the fantasy world of theatre and being involved with people all working towards the performance.”

Working as part of an ensemble also brings back the thrill of Paige’s very first professional job, playing an urchin in the UK tour of the Anthony Newley-Leslie Bricusse musical The Roar of the Greasepaint, the Smell of the Crowd, and then joining the original West End production of Hair. “In recent years, my concert work has taken me all over the world, and I love everything about those tours, but singing on stage on your own can become a rather lonely life. Rehearsing with the Drowsy team reminds me of what it’s all about. Cats, for example, was an ensemble piece too. When I started as a kid, I couldn’t wait to get in to work every day to rehearse the dance routines, and that’s how I feel right now.”

A bit too serious?

During her absence from the West End, Paige has never stopped working, either singing her repertoire of signature songs in concert or presenting her Sunday afternoon radio show on BBC Radio Two. She faced what she describes as “easily one of the most difficult challenges of my entire career”, when she agreed to play Grand Guignol meat-pie maker Mrs Lovett in the 2004 New York City Opera production of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. “For the first time in my life I was scared. Stephen writes yards of lyrics without ever repeating a verse or a chorus and his melodic line is so intricate. In the end, it worked and it was fantastic to play such a dark, multi-layered, three-dimensional character. I’d love to do it again.”

One reviewer described Paige as “a killer pixie, petite but possessing a clarion musical-theatre voice and a powerhouse comic sensibility”, an observation that might well describe her unashamedly two-dimensional cameo in The Drowsy Chaperone, conjured up by the depressed, showbiz-obsessed Man in Chair. So what, I wonder, would happen if the roles were reversed and she became “Woman in Chair”. Which show recording would she put on the turntable to cheer herself up?

“I love West Side Story and My Fair Lady – the traditional musicals that I grew up with. But I guess for cheering myself up it would be The Producers. It’s so un-PC, daft, witty and funny and gives you permission to laugh and let yourself go.” Like The Drowsy Chaperone, perhaps? “Oh yes. Well, real life is all a bit too serious these days, isn’t it?”

The Drowsy Chaperone receives its UK premiere at the West End’s Novello Theatre on 6 June 2007, following previews from 14 May. A version of this article appears in the May issue of What’s on Stage magazine (formerly Theatregoer), out now in participating theatres. To guarantee your copy of future editions - and also get all the benefit of our Theatregoers’ Club - click here to subscribe now!!