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Michael Musto

Elaine Paige On Piaf, Lloyd Webber & the Gays

Elaine Paige
Photo by Justin Downing

Also: Award-winning director denied the chance to shoot the AIDS Quilt

Elaine Paige originated the role of Evita, as well as Grizabella in Cats, thereby becoming the first lady of British musicals. Her American appearances have been spare, but spicy--like her Broadway debut in Sunset Boulevard in 1996 and her angry Carlotta ("I'm Still Here") in Follies in 2011. Well, she's heading back to our shores. Paige will appear in Piaf: A Centennial Celebrationat Town Hall on December 19, honoring "the little sparrow" along with Marilyn Maye and Vivian Reed and other chanteuses, produced by Daniel Nardicio and Andy Brattain and hosted by TCM's Robert Osborne. Rather than regret anything, I rang Elaine up to talk about this development, as well as her previous achievements.

Musto: Hello, Miss Paige. We haven't seen you since Follies.

Elaine Paige: It's a show I love to do. For an English actress to play that role, a lot of research was involved. I didn't understand a lot of the references in the song. I had to google everything to find out what various things were. They were like the social history of America and it didn't mean much to me. It was a great learning curve.

I know. "Beebe's bathysphere"? I'm American and still had to look it up. Anyway, you originated Evita, Cats, and Chess, all in London.

Many years ago.

Are you proud of yourself? You should be.

The more years pass, I look back and think, "Who was that girl?" It seems a lifetime ago. I consider myself very lucky to have been part of the new musicals coming out of England. It was the renaissance of British musicals, so I feel very fortunate [to be involved] at the time Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice were writing those shows. Yes, I am proud.

Do you think you're a muse to them?

I might have been, a long time back. Certainly not anymore. He wrote Sunset Boulevard, and I made my Broadway debut in it. I don't see either of them writing any more musicals for older ladies. My days of being a muse to either of them are long since gone.

Maybe Sir Andrew can put you in School of Rock.

Only if there's a school teacher. [laughs]

You're part of an upcoming Edith Piaf celebration, which makes sense since you played Piaf in 1993.

That was another role I had great success with--in the Pam Gems play about Piaf's life. Researching for that role, I went to Paris and met with Charles Aznavour, who worked alongside Edith for many years--carried her bags, was in her life, but not a lover, or so he says. And I met with Charles Dumont, who wrote "Je Ne Regrette Rien" and I sang that song for him in his apartment, which was very frightening because I thought, "Oh my God, he's going to judge me." I'm glad to say I think I passed with flying colors and he was very kind towards me. He seemed happy I was going to try to play her life. I'm very much looking forward to being part of this evening.

I find that sometimes people impersonating Piaf reduce her to a set of mannerisms.

When I played her, I decided there was no point in trying to impersonate or mimic her. The only thing one can do is try to find some kind of essence of who she is. I've seen Christine Andreas sing Edith Piaf songs and she's the closest I've ever seen to anyone that captures Edith--the sound, the fast vibrato. But I don't even do that--I just sing as myself. Having played her and having been directed by the great Sir Peter Hall in that play, I feel I've got a handle on who she is.

She was more than a wounded bird. She was actually pretty strong.

She was a dichotomy, a bit of a wonderful mix. She was very strong, very determined, very driven, opinionated, had a great sense of humor, she loved to laugh. At the same time, she could also be very vulnerable and insecure. This is why I understand her because I'm not dissimilar to that myself. She was a strange mix. People seem to think she was a tragedienne. She wasn't. She loved life, to laugh, live, to drink, and live with her friends in Montmartre and Pigalle. She didn't like having to kowtow and be involved with the glitterati, if you like. She liked being with her own kind of people. And she loved young men. We all think of what a tragic life it was because she died so young, but actually she had a ball.

What will you sing at the concert?

"Je Ne Regrette Rien" and "If You Love Me (Really Love Me)," which she wrote after the loss of her lover. I believe she was in New York at the time. What I love about her music is she loved story songs and that's what I enjoy. It's like acting, only with music.

You are a gay icon, by the way.

Is that right? That's fantastic. I love it. I've got wonderful gay friends and played a gay club over in London [Heaven]. It's very famous, and to be asked to sing there last year was the piece de resistance. I didn't get onstage till 1:30 or 2 AM, and I did a short set and it was absolutely jam-packed with the gays. It was wonderful because they knew my music. I knew they'd know "Don't Cry for Me Argentina," but when I did "I Know Him so Well," they sang along! They were doing the Barbara Dickson part! Nothing could please me more.

What do you think is the biggest issue facing the gay community today?

I'm not gay, so I wouldn't know. With every passing year, things are getting better. At least now you're able to be together--you don't get jailed for being gay, as people like Noel Coward and Oscar Wilde were. You're able to marry one another. Every year, it's getting better and better. I can't think of anything negative. You'd have to ask a gay person.

Oh, I will! Anyway, see you at the Piaf show. Mwah.

School of Rock musical on Broadway

Photo by Matthew Murphy


Speaking of School of Rock, could they have used Elaine Paige? I don't know, but it's certainly a well put together crowd pleaser as is. With the tirelessly entertaining Alex Brightman as Dewey Finn, a washed up slob who pretends to be a substitute teacher and in the process galvanizes his students into rock stars, the show is Matilda meets Sister Act on the road to The Music Man, and tons of fun. (And there's a gay parent couple, a snatch of the drag-queens-in-the-back-room anthem "Walk on the Wild Side," plus the effeminate kid who reads Vogue, loves Barbra, and lives to be a stylist.) Congrats to Andrew Lloyd Webber (along with lyricist Glenn Slater) for wanting a hit so badly, and teaching himself how to get one--though the big "Stick It to the Man" song owes a melodic nod to Pink, I would dare say.

I got an extra bonus on opening night when I ran into three-time Tony nominee Sherie Rene Scott, who told me that Whorl Inside a Loop, the Off-Broadway play she recently cowrote and starred in, is moving to Broadway. In fact, she was with Michael Mayer, who directed it, and said, "We were working it out today. It's moving with a star," she added. "Huh? But you're a star!" I shrieked, ever the Broadway queen. Oh well. Glad her work is moving to the big time.


David Mamet might want to stay away from two-character plays from now on. In 2012, his TheAnarchist--with Patti LuPone as an imprisoned rebel and Debra Winger as her parole officer--was a talky, heady slog that died a quick death. Also quite iffy is his new one, China Doll, with Al Pacino as a rich schlemiel being hit with a five million dollar tax fee on an airplane as his underling (Christopher Denham) tries to fade into whatever scenery hasn't been chewed on yet.

As in the recent Glengarry Glen Ross revival, Pacino makes a grandstanding three-act show out of every line, using gestures, vocal inflections, pauses, volume changes, and other shtick in a desperate attempt to either be dazzling or to enliven the material. Long passages have him pacing around while talking on the phone, and since we don't hear the other person's voice, he has to repeat what they say for us. ("What do you mean they took you off the plane?"; "A cavity search! Looking for what, then?") The result--directed by the usually fine Pam MacKinnon--relies a lot on second-hand recapitulations of stuff that's already happened, a Mamet trope which here proves to be dramatically inert. But a funny thing happens in Act Two. Pacino calms down and becomes more slyly funny as his character tries to evade conspiracy charges, and the script has the two guys actually talking to each other, before Pacino gets on the phone again, God help us. It ends soon enough later, in a rather cuckoo manner, but I guess you have to admire Pacino's drive to entertain, while hoping he quickly returns to Shakespeare.


Anomalisa--Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson's imminent animated film--had an event at MoMA last week, and turned out to involve touchingly alienated people reaching out in a world where everything is taken care of and commodified except for feelings of longing and loneliness. After the movie, Kaufman revealed that they worked on the script first as a "sound play" onstage before it became a stop-motion work full of puppets on a mission. The fabulous Jennifer Jason Leigh does the voice of the title character (an anomaly named Lisa) and said, "For me, it was very surreal to see it because I've made movies before, but I've always seen myself in them. This time, I felt like I've never seen a movie before--it's so groundbreaking. I kept forgetting I was in it and forgetting they were puppets because she doesn't look like me."

At the beginning of the film, you might understandably feel like it's going to be a gay story, but then...Oh, you'll see. And here's another tidbit: Kaufman revealed that they couldn't get the rights to a scene from Casablanca, so they nabbed a bit from My Man Godfrey (which is public domain) instead. Also, "My Heart Will Go On" was too expensive, so Lisa ended up singing "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun." And the choices work!

As we dive into the pre-Oscar campaigning season, other big films are having events, like the brunch/discussion for Steve Jobs at the St. Regis yesterday, celebrating the Aaron Sorkin-written, Danny Boyle-directed account of the shady but savvy computer mogul. There, Sorkin said he wanted to avoid a traditional "cradle to grave" biopic, and though he knew Jobs is a hard character to like, he felt there's enough in the story and in Michael Fassbender's performance, "that we were going to be curious about him, even if we don't want to hug him till the end."

He smilingly added, "There's not a single fact about the life of Steve Jobs that has been distorted, perverted or invented--except Steve Jobs didn't have confrontations with the same five people 40 minutes before every product launch!"

Jeff Daniels--who's in the film--said he's liked playing icky people here and there through his career. "They're human beings," he offered, sagely. "Last time I looked, we weren't perfect."

Aids Quilt


Meanwhile, an award winner has gotten the shaft. David France won honors for his 2012 ACT UP documentary How to Survive a Plague, and he's currently working on a doc about LGBT legends Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera (which I was interviewed for). But he encountered a bizarre roadblock in getting some crucial footage for that film--on a symbolically important day, yet. What's more, even without a camera, he says, he was thrown out of the building. David wrote to me:

"We requested that the people at the NAMES Project, down in Atlanta, send up their AIDS quilt square for Marsha P. Johnson as part of their celebration of World AIDS Day in New York City. (This wasn't a special request. There's a page on their website to fill out.) They alerted us that it had been sent to the Terence Cardinal Cooke Health Care Center, on 5th Avenue. We made arrangements to shoot the quilt for our film, hiring crew and alerting the local contact person, who set a time for us to film on World AIDS Day from 3 to 5. The day before, things started shifting. The administer of Terence Cardinal Cooke -- named, by the way, for the man who founded Courage International, the Catholic organization to promote celibacy and lovelessness among homosexuals--said we couldn't bring in a camera. Odd, as the display was set up in the hospital's auditorium, not in the operating theater or the patient hallways. We appealed, but they turned down our appeal. So we went to see the quilt without cameras and found that a barricade had been erected at the main entrance, with three guards in tight formation making it impossible to get past the vestibule. I said I had come to see the quilt, and a guard asked me for my name. I said only 'David,' when a senior security official appeared from behind a column to throw me out. On World AIDS Day! I have no idea why they behaved so ratchit. I wonder if it had to do with my Our Fathers expose (book and Showtime movie) about sexual abuse in the church. But it certainly wasn't in keeping with the spirit of the AIDS Quilt, founded (according to its website) 'to promote awareness, compassion, healing, prevention education, and to encourage support and funding for organizations assisting people living with AIDS.'

"PS: Marsha's name was spelled wrong, as Marcia, no last name and no middle initial--though the photograph was certainly of her. And she didn't, of course, die of AIDS. Or did she? The mystery thickens."

Mark Blane, associate producer of the documentary, tried to see the quilt after France was sent away, but to no avail. Blane told me:

"I tried going in as a student and didn't give my name. I just said I saw the event advertised online and had no equipment, I just wanted to see the quilt. They said it was taken down already and was being sent back to Atlanta. There were three security people, plus retractable belt barriers. A security guy said that the quilt was NEVER meant to be seen by the public, only for residents in the hospital. But Brian Holman, the Quilt Operations Manager, says the quilt is to be viewed by the public and that's why people request it to be seen (the hospital paid money to have it brought there.)"

Jon Goldberg, who handles communications for the Center, responds:

"From what I've heard, there was some misunderstanding. [David France] had contacted some folks at TCC to arrange a time to shoot the quilt, but he only had one specific time he was available, and unfortunately they couldn't accommodate that and told him so, and he came anyway with a crew. He may have had some misunderstanding that this had been approved, but he was turned away because nothing had been set up and there was an event going on at the time. Had he been more flexible in his schedule, they would have been happy to accommodate him. My understanding is the folks who have custody of the quilt, the NAMES Project, are happy to arrange a time for him to shoot a separate display. He certainly has access to the quilt."

I ran that by David France, who replied:

"Many untruths here. The time was selected by them! We were open all week. What they told us Monday was we could not shoot the quilt because their lawyers said so, after setting the time at their convenience, and then when we showed up with no camera to at least see the panel, we were expelled. I sent in Mark 10 minutes later, and he was told the panels had been removed and packed up for shipping."

Hmm. Last time I looked, we weren't perfect indeed.

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Michael Musto