Leading Ladies: Elaine Paige – 'In my head I still feel 25'

The ‘first lady of musical theatre’ on her decision to quit touring, and why she won’t be following Sarah Brightman into space

'I'm still here - hanging on, I think' - Elaine Paige

© Justin Downing/Sky Arts
'I'm still here – hanging on, I think' – Elaine Paige
© Justin Downing
We couldn't run a series of interviews titled 'Leading Ladies' and not include Elaine Paige. She is, after all, synonymous with the phrase, an actress who over a 50-year career has created and portrayed some of musical theatre's most iconic female characters.

The primary focus of our conversation, which takes place over tea in a plush London hotel, is the upcoming worldwide cinema release of her 2014 concert at the Royal Albert Hall, defiantly titled I'm Still Here. But inevitably we move to wider topics, ranging from Nicole Scherzinger's performance in Cats to Sarah Brightman's space mission (more on that later).

The concert was billed as Paige's "farewell tour". Is it really goodbye? "I decided that, after 50 years, I need to say no more tours. I hate to admit it and say it out loud, but it's just too tiring… In my head I still feel 25 but my body is telling me 'hey, you know what, you can't keep doing this'."

However, she will continue to perform occasional one-offs, and already has a few scheduled later this year. "I'm enjoying not being quite so busy as I was last year," she says with palpable relief. And, seeing that it's now possible for one-off performances to be shown in cinemas worldwide, the pressure to tour is perhaps less than it was.

Paige has watched several NT Live screenings and describes the initiative as "amazing".

"I thought it wouldn't be the same as being in the theatre but in a way it's almost better," she enthuses. "You've got that sense of being in an audience with others but you're up close and personal as well; you're not bobbing around as I always do, trying to see past the tallest person in the theatre who happens to be sitting right in front of you."

But, for all its popularity in theatre and opera, the NT Live model is yet to be extensively rolled out for concert performances. Paige is clearly excited to be at the vanguard, and is "intrigued" to see how it goes down (the screening takes place on 23 April).

How did it feel to watch the concert back? "I was nervous when I saw it, to be honest – the idea of seeing oneself on a screen that big! But the Albert Hall looks glorious, let's put it that way. As the title says, I'm still here – hanging on, I think."

I'm sure most people – particularly those who regularly listen to Radio 2 – would agree she's doing a lot more than just hanging on.

'Hanging on' - Elaine Paige performing I'm Still Here
Elaine Paige performing I'm Still Here

The concert includes a tribute to Queen, and sees Paige share her memories of collaborating with Freddie Mercury on an album she recorded in 1988. "He was a fantastic guy and that experience of making that album and of him being so supportive of me… It was a magical moment in my life."

It was to be a tragically short-lived friendship (Mercury died in 1991), but Paige nevertheless counts it as one of the most important of her creative collaborations. And it's no surprise that two figures known for their ability to fuse theatricality with pop sensibility had such a fruitful working relationship.

Paige's other notable collaborators include Tim Rice and Abba – during the concert she describes Chess as "the best original score of the 1980s" – and, of course, Andrew Lloyd Webber, whose blockbusters Evita and Cats elevated her to grande dame status (figuratively, if not yet literally).

I point out that both these ALW shows, with which she is so indelibly associated, recently made West End comebacks. She saw both productions, at the Dominion and Palladium respectively, and describes the experience as "weird".

"When that music begins and the orchestra strikes up it's kind of tingly because this time I'm sitting in the audience, not pacing up and down, a nervous wreck in the wings waiting to go on."

'I'm happier being beamed into cinemas than into space'

And what did she make of Nicole Scherzinger's Grizabella? "Nicole did a great job, she can certainly sing up a storm. But I was concerned as to why she hadn't been encouraged to play the role as it was written, as an old fading cat. To play it so young and glamorous made a slight nonsense of the song."

That song is of course "Memory", and it duly features during the climax of I'm Still Here. "The truth of the song wasn't there for me [in Scherzinger's portrayal], because the lyric is all about reflection of one's life, being older and marginalised by your friends. It's all about the past and ageing, looking back on your life, so it didn't make too much dramatic sense to me."

But she's effusive in her praise of Scherzinger's vocal talents ("there's no doubt the girl can sing"). Which prompts me to ask about her views of another pop diva, Lady Gaga, whose performance of a medley of Sound of Music songs at the Oscars was recently denounced by Stephen Sondheim as a "travesty".

"She's exotic and dramatic as a pop singer but I thought it was a rather straight and uninteresting performance," says Paige. "Good luck to her for doing it but it didn't do much for me." This taps into a wider feeling she has about classic musicals. "I don't think The Sound of Music or Gypsy would happen today, because the genre has changed too much. I realise that every Sunday when I play them on my radio show."

She also has concerns about the current state of British musicals, commenting that New York has a healthier hit rate of new shows, citing Hamilton as an example. "We don't seem to have that kind of desire and hunger from young people [over here] to write and get things on… There are very few new shows you can seek out."

Paige readily admits that she was extremely fortunate that her zenith as a leading lady coincided with Lloyd Webber and Rice's – she's unsure she could enjoy the same career today, particularly in light of what has happened to the recording industry ("it almost doesn't exist anymore").

She is however excited by the recent success of screen musicals including Les Miserables and Mamma Mia!, and suggests that Sunset Boulevard would be a "fantastic" film; the thought of her reprising Norma Desmond suddenly doesn't seem remote.

Rounding off our chat I can't resist asking what she makes of the other great British leading lady of the 80s, Sarah Brightman, and her £30million mission to visit the International Space Station and sing songs composed by Lloyd Webber.

Paige throws her head back and laughs in that way her radio listeners know so well. "I wish I had £30million for a start!" So she won't be following her? "Absolutely not. I'm happier being beamed into cinemas than into space."

I'm Still Here will be shown in cinemas worldwide on 23 April 2015

Read more of our Leading Ladies interviews