Elaine Paige on #MeToo, equal pay and never being a mum

It’s 1977 and Elaine Paige’s career is flatlining. After appearing aged 20 in the seminal musical Hair, in 1968, there had been sporadic small jobs but not the uplift she’d been hoping for. ‘I was on the verge of thinking I’d give it another year and if I hadn’t made a bit more of a mark, I’d pack it in,’ she says. ‘I was seriously considering becoming a nursery nurse or possibly a window dresser.’

The man who changed her fortunes was Dustin Hoffman, no less. They met socially when he was in the UK filming Agatha with Vanessa Redgrave. ‘He asked me what I did and I told him I was an out-of-work actor who sang a bit. I was trying to make my way in the business but it was proving difficult, not least because I was so short [4ft 11in].

‘That seemed to hit a chord with him and he started telling me how he overcame his own lack of height. He told me to keep on keeping on. He also revealed that he’d wanted to be a concert pianist and that he’d recently written a song with Bette Midler called Shoot The Breeze. Would I sing it for him?

Dustin Hoffman told Elaine Paige she shouldn’t even consider giving up. ‘He was passionate about what he said was my special talent,’ she says

‘We were at a party in a hotel and he said he had a piano in his suite. I wasn’t at all sure. It sounded like the best pulling line ever. But I decided to take the gamble. So he played me the tune and wrote out all the words. I learned the song looking over his shoulder and then sang it for all my life was worth. When I finished, he had tears running down his cheeks.’

Dustin told Paige she shouldn’t even consider giving up. ‘He was passionate about what he said was my special talent. It’s fair to say he was instrumental in giving me back faith in myself. He then went on to offer me lots of advice about audition technique, all of which I employed.’

Within the year, Paige had landed the eponymous role in Evita. ‘I had no money. There were holes in my shoes. And suddenly, I was an overnight star.’

Memories of that life-changing turn of events are uppermost in her mind courtesy of a new BBC documentary celebrating 40 years since the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice musical premiered in London on June 21, 1979.

Elaine, 70, was taken back to the rehearsal rooms in Primrose Hill where it all began. ‘It was such a strange feeling. All the memories came flooding back and particularly in the room where director Hal Prince worked with me on Don’t Cry For Me Argentina. He never stopped reminding me it was a political speech and not a love song.’

When it came to the cramped Prince Edward Theatre, she had to climb a ladder to the balcony each night, from which she’d sing the song. ‘And because Eva’s huge ballgown was so voluminous, a stagehand would climb the first steps of the ladder behind me, his head up my dress, holding the skirt at arm’s length to prevent me getting caught up in the netting and wiring and taking a tumble before I reached the tiny platform at the top.’

There have been contradictory reports down the years as to whose idea Evita was. ‘Whatever you may have read,’ says Paige, firmly, ‘Tim Rice came up with the idea. He heard a programme on the radio about the life of Eva Peron and eventually went to Buenos Aires to do his own research. Then he took the idea to Andrew.’

Which makes Lloyd Webber’s speech at the 60th Grammys earlier this year all the more mystifying. Before introducing Patti Lupone, who played the title role of Evita on Broadway, its composer regaled the audience with the musical’s origins. Bizarrely, he made no mention of either Rice or Paige.

Elaine Paige as Edith Piaf

Elaine Paige as Edith Piaf

‘So I believe,’ she says, carefully. ‘I’ve only heard this on the grapevine, I wasn’t there. But it does seem rather strange, doesn’t it?’

Her blue/grey eyes dance with mischief. ‘Tim did text me,’ she adds, ‘to say that of course he and I had nothing to do with the show.’

Landing the part, says Paige now, was like running a marathon against the stiffest competition. Barbra Streisand, Liza Minnelli and Shirley MacLaine were among the stellar names first mooted for the role. ‘Tim likened the search to the one for the actress to play Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind.’

Legend has it that Paige finally triumphed when, having been asked to sing Argentina for the nth time, she let out a four-letter expletive that convinced Lloyd Webber and Rice that they’d found their leading lady. ‘True,’ says Paige, ‘and my life was never the same again.’

She did a screen test for the movie version, but the part eventually went to Madonna. To this day, she’s never seen the film. ‘By the time it was released, I was busy playing the title role in Piaf plus making an album, and then I took over the part of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. Even so, I admit the desire wasn’t there. Why would I be interested in watching someone play the role I’d wanted so badly? As it happens, I have now seen the death scene and, I must say, Madonna did die well.’

It was all a far cry from her first big break in the chorus of the peace-and-love musical Hair, with its famous nude scene. ‘Initially, I was a terrible wimp about that. You didn’t have to take your clothes off if you didn’t want to but finally I decided I should. We were all under a huge piece of fabric while Paul Nicholas was singing his song.

Hoffman and Paige met socially when he was in the UK filming Agatha with Vanessa Redgrave

Hoffman and Paige met socially when he was in the UK filming Agatha with Vanessa Redgrave

‘I was standing next to a very tall man called Gary. When the moment came to emerge naked, and because I was feeling nervous, I reached out in the dark and grabbed what I thought was Gary’s hand. Except it was another part of his anatomy. Luckily, he had a good sense of humour.’

Paige went on to carve out a career playing strong-willed women – Eva Peron, Edith Piaf, Norma Desmond, the list goes on. ‘As a result, I’m sure some people think I’m a bit of a diva,’ she says. ‘But that’s not me. I call a diva someone who insists her dressing room is repainted pink or that it’s filled with 30 fluffy white kittens. Anyway, I think the word is overused – and it’s sexist. No one ever called a man a diva. I’m also called feisty but I find that a bit sexist, too. Again, have you ever heard that word applied to a man?

‘I was once on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? with Michael Ball and I was worried I wouldn’t know any of the answers. But we did all right. At the end, Chris Tarrant said, “There you go. You did much better than you thought, didn’t you?” And then he patted me on the top of the head. I was furious. I wish I’d bopped him.’

She’s been in the business now for more than 50 years. Much of the talk these days is of #MeToo. Has she ever been hit on by predatory males? ‘Of course I have! My God! I would be really embarrassed to sit here and say that it never happened to me.’

There have been contradictory reports down the years as to whose idea Evita was. ‘Whatever you may have read,’ says Paige, firmly, ‘Tim Rice came up with the idea' 

There have been contradictory reports down the years as to whose idea Evita was. ‘Whatever you may have read,’ says Paige, firmly, ‘Tim Rice came up with the idea’ 

She checks herself. ‘Listen, we’ve got to get all of this in perspective. Rape or any sort of assault is completely unacceptable. But come on, girls, if a man puts his hand on your knee or your bum, then deal with it. Are we really wanting to get to a stage when a man never flirts again? What a dreary life! In fact, I’m thinking of getting a badge made saying: #Cooee! I’m over here. It’s not too late.’

What about equal pay? ‘Oh, I’m very hot on that. If you’re doing the same job as a man, you should be paid the same. That Mr Humphrys on the Today programme made disparaging off-air remarks about his female colleagues’ pay and I found that absolutely appalling.’

Paige has become a bit of a dab hand at radio herself. It will be 15 years in September since she first fronted her show specialising in musical theatre, Elaine Paige On Sunday. She now has an audience of almost 2.5 million listeners.

She was 70 in March and is still quite driven. ‘I do put myself out there,’ she says. But then I’ve always loved my work. It’s given me a wonderful life.’

 I’m thinking of getting a badge made saying: #Cooee! I’m over here

But at what cost? ‘Well yes, I am sorry I didn’t meet a nice man and have a family. I once had a dog and I devoted myself to it almost to the exclusion of my social life. If I’d had children, I’d probably have been a terrible, smothering mother. In my child-bearing years, I was still too much of a child myself. I wouldn’t have known what to do with them.

‘But not being a mother is a sadness to me. There are children in my life, though. What more could a girl want?’ A man perhaps? There was an 11-year affair with Tim Rice during her 30s, about which she never talks other than to refer to it as ‘the Tim thing’. But the two remain friends. Indeed, he will be her guest on June 24 when she devotes an hour of her Radio 2 show to the Evita anniversary.

‘I think I can say I’ve got everything I want,’ says Paige. ‘Well, almost everything.’

She stops and then erupts into gurgling giggles. ‘#Cooee!’ 


Elaine Paige on Sunday ‘Evita’ special on Radio 2 June 24. A documentary celebrating 40 years of ‘Evita’ will be shown later in the year


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