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...