Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Birthday Girl: Everybody's Playing the Game

Over in his splendid corner of the universe, dear Jon has pointed out the momentous birthday today of Miss Elaine Paige, quite improbably 65 today.  A prima donna assoluta of the stage in London, she has had less impact in the U.S. despite several valiant tries, including a go at Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd at the old New York City Opera and, more recently, a gala appearance as Carlotta in the Washington Follies.  Still, she was indelibly printed on the consciousness of a significant subset of American gay men in the '80s, when she headlined a series of videos that heralded the coming of Chess, a musical that has throughout its history always been more admired in bits than as a whole.  Jon picked the the cream of that particular crop by featuring "I Know Him So Well," a number, as he points out, that "every queen in the universe...can sing word for word."  I can attest to the truth of that; I'm sure that, if woken unexpectedly some dark night, I could come in just on time with "Mo-o-o-o-re security," and I bet you could, too.

Here she assays the rather fiercer "Nobody's on Nobody's Side," the impact of which is only slightly undercut by her appearance, which recalls nothing so much as Sybil Fawlty going New Wave.  Heard for the first time in 1985 or so, this song seemed the very last word in world-weary cynicism, an attitude that, hard on the heels of one's first or second heartbreak, seemed very attractive indeed.

After all these years, though, I'm more drawn to another Chess staple, one that Miss Paige didn't originally sing, but which also percolated through the latter part of countless piano bar evenings in those years:


"Someone Else's Story" is a wistful sort of song, more fragile than the other Chess anthems, and hearing the older, wiser Miss Paige sing it here (at, apparently, the gala celebration of her forty years on stage, in 2009) gives me an odd feeling.  Because it's not a song I've really thought of much, if at all, in the last decade or more, it makes all the years that have passed seem all the more noticeable.  Still, I think it holds up rather well; it becomes truly the story of both the girls it talks about, not to mention of the boys who admired it so, once upon a time.

All the sturm und drang of those years (which made songs like "I Know Him So Well" feel so melodramatically true - "it's just like [fill in the blank] and me!") now really do feel like someone else's story, and, having taken my own chances further down the line, I rather wish I could indeed advise the boy "who looked a lot like me."  I think I'd tell him that, if you wait long enough, somebody in fact does turn out to be on your side, and if you're not careful you find yourself living halfway 'round the world with an endlessly patient Egyptian and a couple of terribly spoiled terriers, still from time to time surprised by the sheer happenstance and good luck of it all.  Who knew?

In any case, Happy Birthday, Miss Paige - and congratulations on recovering from that '85 hairdo.  We've all got moments we're not proud of, I suppose...


  1. The description "Sybil Fawlty going New Wave" made me spit my cider out! (A rare occurence for a connoisseur of the amber nectar.) 'Tis true, we all have our own 80s hairspray memories...

    Miss Paige was always high on camp melodrama - lest we forget, she was the first Mrs Peron on stage way back in 1978, and scored another "let's all do the hand gestures" moment in many a gay bar with Memory from Cats. She was also the first Miss Desmond on Broadway in Sunset Boulevard.

    I saw the grande dame in the West End camping it up to the hilt in The Drowsy Chaperone in 2007, parodying her own stage persona as much as playing the title role. In all, I think she is a bit of a gay icon... Jx

  2. Uh... On Broadway, Miss Paige came in third and last, after Glenn Close and then Betty Buckley. She is so short they had to raise the stair treads so that she could be seen over the railing.

    Just sayin'.

    1. I stand corrected, as, apparently was Miss Paige! Jx

    2. I saw yet another UK half-pint as Norma on a rather dire national tour - believe me, by about half-way through the first act, it would have been a relief had they lowered the treads on Miss Petula Clark - preferably two or three stories. The memories of Swinging London never seemed so distant as when the poor dear tried to wail her high notes. Whatever you think of the piece, that's not a role that it's possible to coast through on fond thoughts of "Downtown"...

  3. I saw Chess when I was in London back when the original production was running and thought it and Elaine Paige were amazing. I know when it was transported to the states they didn't stick to the original staging and the appeal didn't translate, a shame. I was very excited that when I finally was able to return to London many years hence she was appearing in the King and I at the Palladium and was equally brilliant.