The First Lady of British Music Theatre called on our shores last night in a farewell tour of New Zealand. Elaine Paige has starred in more smash hit West End and Broadway musicals than anyone else of her generation. She was the first to present the roles of Eva Perón in 1978 in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita then Grizabella in his Cats. She rose to international fame in the mid 1980s with Barbara Dickson from the musical Chess with the musical duet I Know Him So Well which remains the biggest-selling record by a female duo. Her highly acclaimed appearance in Sunset Boulevard in 1996 led to her fifth Olivier Award nomination.
In 2014 Paige announced her 50th anniversary farewell tour marking 50 years since her first stage performance. Then in 2016 Paige put together a show initially entitled Stripped Back which featured music from the last 50 years, not necessarily from the theatre, it was this programme she brought to the Bruce Mason Centre in Takapuna, Auckland last night featuring songs by Harry Nilsson, Jimmy Webb, Fleetwood Mac, Carole King and even The Beatles.
Opening the evening was a selection of tunes from Paige’s touring band who she selected after she saw them perform in the basement of a jazz club in London. The John G Smith Band gave us a variety of beautifully arranged tunes including a great arrangement of Jim Webb’s Wichita Lineman and Billy Joel’s Always A Woman To Me as well as some originals of Smith’s accompanied by witty introductions. This was a nice showcase for these world-class musicians and their hugely versatile sound.
Then the shimmering star herself, Elaine Paige came on with her welcoming number Magic To Do by Stephen Schwartz. A dazzling 5-foot-nothing, she shimmied on in a lavender knee-length dress with trails of beads which sparkled as she flourished her phrases. A delightful first song was followed by Remember by Harry Nilsson which showed some sweet higher notes and the fabulous chest range for which Paige is renowned.
The evening unfolded as a personal travelogue of Paige’s years in music. Rather than being a vehicle for a starry music theatre pieces, Paige chose to entertain us with ‘a soundtrack to all our lives’. The audience of many white hairs probably related well to the era of music from the 1970s and 1980s. Paige has had her own television show for the last 15 years and she is a consummate entertainer. As much as being a great singer, she is a story teller and led us on some of her personal journeys.
Stories of her days listening to LPs on her hi-Fi system resonated with many of us. I noted wryly to myself that if you stick around long enough, good habits like vinyl parties come back around again. Paige recalled spending two pounds of hard-earned cash on Eagles’ Desperado of 1973. And not only the stories but she pulled out the actual LP out to show us, it was like being in her living room and being able to rifle through her music collection. She pulled out The Everly Brothers, Bread, The Beatles, and Fleetwood Mac as well.
Breaking out into Bread’s Guitar Man was an unexpected blast from the past. It was a far cry from music theatre to sing a rock classic from the band Bread. This gave guitarist James Graydon a vehicle for a very decent guitar break and a mini showcase to this extraordinary musician.
One of the stories she recounted was being whisked off in the limo of Paul Simon and remembering her days as a ‘doo-wop’ backing singer in between music theatre shows. Although I wasn’t convinced of her shift in style to Simon’s Fifty Ways To Leave Your Lover, it was still fascinating to hear a new take on a song that’s been in our heads forever.
Carole King’s One Fine Day was turned into a great ballad that allowed us to hear Paige’s expressive capabilities which also featured a fabulous solo from Paul Booth on saxophone. We can’t go too much further without mentioning the unmentionable... a ladies’ age. A programme like this would stretch an average singer but Paige is now seventy years old. I’ve been lucky enough to hear quite a few septuagenarians in the last few years - Joan Armatrading with full rock band and Grace Jones performing on a pole with astonishing style and youthful exuberance. With Elaine Paige, we heard a voice almost as fresh as a twenty-year old... she has an astonishing command of her vocal tool box and an extraordinary ability with story telling through song.
Midway through her set and the audience was granted one of the iconic numbers that made Paige famous, I Know Him So Well... and this fairly quiet audience audibly rumbled. Secure, controlled vocal phrasing and Paige’s impeccable theatrical timing rolled out this favourite number. The audience broke out into the first big applause of the evening. Warming up into her set well and truly, Paige followed this with a shiny version of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s Windows Of The World.
Paige related the tale of being a young singer in 1964 and going on tour to Liverpool. On her time off from the show, she remembered shopping for a green leather jacket in the Mod style and stopping in at The Cavern Club, the venue where The Beatles gained popularity. A huge Beatles fan, she brandished her LP of Sergeant Pepper’s Hearts Club Band to a grumble of recognition in the audience before launching on a very polished medley of Beatles’ early hits. John G Smith’s ability as an arranger and music director really shone here with the changing tempi and the switch from song to song. And it seems Paige can sing anything to which she turns her talent.
One of the more touching moments of the evening were two songs in which Paige reminisced about growing up in Barnet, Hertfordshire in her childhood home. Jimmy Webb’s In These Walls and Carly Simon’s My Sister were related from the heart and created a lovely mood of honouring her growing up years. Cracking up the pace again was a surprise once again, to hear a rock n roll classic, Fleetwood Mac’s Don’t Stop rocked out in fine style.
Paige is a huge fan of Jim Webb’s songwriting and there has been a wealth of writing that musicians have explored over years. She chose one of his hugest hits better known in the disco realm via Donna Summer’s 1978 version.
This isn’t her usual ballad or music theatre style which is Paige’s normal arena. MacArthur Park of 1967 was a surprise package which she delivered with fantastic belt and sustained high notes. This was a total treat of a performance and a delightful genre-busting moment to finish the set.
But we could not be finished before we heard the finest moments from her music theatre past. And we were not disappointed. Paige soft-shoe-shuffled off the stage only to reappear for an encore of the one and only Memory from Rice/Lloyd Webber’s Cats. A tune that will forever be her tune. It was astonishing to hear this delivered with such mastery of tone and expression. We also had opportunity to hear a beautiful Spanish-style guitar intro.
Following this with Don’t Cry For Me Argentina from Evita, these two songs more than any in the evening nailed her legendary status. What a privilege to hear this icon of theatre presenting these last two songs with the freshness and spontaneity as if she was singing them for the very first time.
What a touching farewell by Elaine Paige... this was a personal and generous sharing of the lifetime of a truly astonishing vocal star.