One night in 1981, Elaine Paige came home to a surprise guest. “I get to the front door,” she says, “and I see this dilapidated, rather thin, scraggly, mangy black cat strolling toward me. It really was pathetic. It looked on its last legs, to be honest. So I gave it a saucer of milk. Needless to say, it stayed the night.”
The next morning, Paige was woken by a frantic call from producer Cameron Macintosh. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s new show Cats was just days away from opening in London’s West End and Judi Dench, slated to play Grizabella, the Glamour Cat, had injured herself. Could Paige, who had originated the role of Eva Peron in Webber’s Evita to tremendous acclaim, take on the role? Oh, and they opened in less than a week.
“It was all such a rush,” says Paige. “I had only a matter of days to learn what this show was all about. It seemed so odd and peculiar to me when I first saw them rehearsing in these wonderfully painted jumpsuit skins, with this wild makeup and mad hair. It was sort of like Disney on stage.”
Paige put a lot of thought into how Grizabella would present. “Her song, ‘Memory,’ is all about reflection and looking back on her life of glamor that it was,” she says. “It’s an emotional appeal about loneliness and longing for something that’s gone.” Paige used the black stray, which ultimately lived out its life with her, as inspiration. “She was really thin and dilapidated and straggly and everything. So I based my character on my first vision of that cat.”
Paige asked director Trevor Nunn if she could give Grizabella a limp. “I remember saying, ‘Do you think it’s a bit much? I don’t want people to think I’m playing Richard the Third in a cat outfit.’ And he said, ‘No, no, add it!’ It helped me age her up a bit, because I was obviously much younger then. I wanted Grizabella to have some kind of weight and age to her, to make her song land.”
The response at the time was phenomenal. “Nobody had ever seen anything like Cats at all. It was completely fresh and new and innovative. John Napier, who designed the show, is a master. And Andrew managed to pull out all the stops musically in that there’s every kind of style: rock, jazz, and the haunting melody of Memory, which I think is probably one of his greatest melodies ever written.”
Paige revived her now legendary rendition of Grizabella in 1998 for a special filmed version of the theatrical production, which will be livestreamed free for 48 hours starting Friday, May 15, part of a weekly series of Webber’s works that has already showcased the hits Phantom of the Opera and Jesus Christ, Superstar.
“The 1998 film is as it should be seen really — it really is probably the best version,” says Paige, gently dismissing the 2019 movie derided by critics and audiences alike. “If you’re not able to see Cats live in a theater, then this is the version to see. Because it is presented where it belongs: in a theater.”
The 1998 version of Cats will stream for free starting on Friday, May 15, at 2 p.m., and will be accessible for 48 hours, through Sunday, May 17. Visit www.youtube.com/theshowsmustgoon.
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