Today is the 70th birthday of one of Britain’s best-loved entertainers – singer, actress and radio host Elaine Paige.
Born Elaine Jill Bickerstaff on March 5th, 1948, she grew up in Barnet, Hertfordshire, where her father was an estate agent and her mother a milliner. Both her parents had links with entertainment in that her mother had been a singer in her youth and her father was an amateur drummer.
As a teenager, Elaine’s ambition was to be a professional tennis player and she showed considerable promise, but at just under five feet tall she lacked the stature. At 14 her ambition changed when, after hearing the soundtrack to West Side Story, she fixed on a career in musical theatre. She was encouraged by her school music teacher, who recognised and nurtured her singing and acting talent and supported her in early but challenging stage roles.
Later she moved to the Aida Foster Stage School, in Golders Green, which she initially disliked but came to enjoy as her confidence grew. After graduating she initially found some modelling work, but often for children’s clothes due to her petite size. Her first professional stage role was in a 1964 touring production of musical comedy “The Roar of the Greasepaint – the Smell of the Crowd”.
After failing her first audition she was encouraged to try again under a different name. Scouring the telephone directory for ideas, she became aware of the page in her hand and decided to add an ‘i’ to make Elaine Paige. Other productions followed and she gradually made her way from the chorus line to more prominent roles, making her West End debut by joining the cast of “Hair” in 1968, at the age of 20. She stayed with the show for 18 months and caught the eye of several producers, appearing in shows including “Oliver!” and “Jesus Christ Superstar” before winning the lead role of Sandy in the original West End production of “Grease”, opposite Paul Nicholas as Danny.
There were also a few minor film roles in the 1970s, but her big break came when she was cast in the lead role of a new musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice – “Evita”. She won huge critical acclaim, and a string of awards, for her portrayal of Eva Peron, a role which she played for 20 months and which made her famous at the age of 30. She also released her first studio album, “Sitting Pretty”, in 1978.
Later, in interviews, she revealed that she had considered giving up showbiz and training to be a nursery nurse because she was perpetually hard up and believed her height prevented her from getting lead roles. Winning the role in “Evita” was a make or break moment for her, and one which changed everything. Now producers were wooing her with offers of starring roles, a situation which would continue throughout the next three decades.
In the 1980s she enjoyed tremendous success in stage musicals such as “Cats” and “Chess”, which brought her success in the pop charts too, with memorable songs such as “Memory” and her duet with Barbara Dickson, “I Know Him So Well”. It was also the decade when video sales of stage musicals made their debut and really took off. More albums followed, and more awards.
In 1993 when she starred in “Piaf”, playing troubled French chanteuse Edith Piaf in a demanding role stretching to almost three hours on stage and with 15 songs, several in French. She eventually left the show suffering from exhaustion, but only after her fourth nomination for an Olivier Award for Best Actress in a Musical. In 1995 she was awarded an OBE for her contribution to musical theatre.
The 1990s also brought a successful West End run in Sunset Boulevard, which she continued despite undergoing treatment for breast cancer, never missing a show. She later transferred to the Broadway production of the same show, earning positive reviews and standing ovations. Now a major figure on both sides of the Atlantic, she was regularly giving concerts in her own right as well as starring in musicals.
In 2002 she sang at the opening of the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City and in 2004 began a new venture by presenting a weekly radio programme, “Elaine Paige on Sundays” on BBC Radio 2. Her warm personality, easy manner and infectious laugh made her an instant hit with listeners, despite some early unfavourable reviews. Although appearing less frequently in stage musicals, she was always busy on concert tours, recording best-selling albums or appearing on TV, including some non-singing acting roles.
In 2014 she embarked on a concert tour which marked her 50th anniversary in show business and was advertised as a farewell tour. It was sold out at all venues. Since then she has appeared in various concerts, often alongside special guests, and continues to present her popular and long-running Radio 2 show. Today we join with fans throughout the UK and the world in wishing Elaine Paige a very happy 70th birthday.