Norma Desmond, Reno Sweeney and Eva Perón are all larger-than-life theater characters, and Elaine Paige, the diminutive queen of British musicals who makes her San Francisco cabaret debut at the Venetian Room on Friday, has played all three to great success.
A visit to the West End star’s fan-friendly website offers snapshots of the award-winning singer-actress with a wide range of celebrities including a comical juxtaposition of Paige with another recent Bay Area Cabaret guest, the 6-foot-plus Tommy Tune.
“That really is chalk and cheese, isn’t it?” she jokes. For the record, Paige stands 4-foot-11½ tall. “The half is very important to me,” she adds, laughing.
While her size allowed her to play younger characters — “I majored in urchins. I played adolescents until I was 29!” — it was a serious casting challenge in her adult career. At least, that is, until Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice wrote “Evita,” about the wife of the Argentine dictator.
“Luckily for me Eva Perón was only 5-foot-2,” she says. “At last a character had come along in my career that I could genuinely play and not get the old heave-ho at the final audition.”
Paige’s other musical credits run the gamut from “Hair,” “Grease” and “Cats” — she introduced “Memory” to the world — to “Chess,” “Sweeney Todd” and “The Drowsy Chaperone.” The latter marked her 40th year on London’s West End stages in 2007.
Though she recently appeared in a revival of Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies” that originated at the Kennedy Center, moved to Broadway and then played Los Angeles last summer, Paige is keen to focus on other career directions. “I’ve spent so many years in the theater playing characters that I do feel that my concert life is just beginning.”
A popular recording artist, Paige is looking for new musical idioms to explore. “I’ve been mucking around with some jazz things and thinking I might head down that road.” She’s also entering her ninth year hosting a weekly musical theater program for BBC Radio 2, and she says the experience enhances her performance style.
“I used to be such a worry-guts when I was younger. I think interviewing people for the radio show, particularly ones like Bette Midler and Liza Minnelli who had been icons for much of my life, helped to free me up and relax because you learn that at the end of the day we’re all just people!”