Elaine Paige on Follies

Elaine Paige
Thursday, March 28, 2024

Elaine Paige on the brittle emotional pain of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies and delving into a catalogue of obscure historical references to master the famously tricky ‘I’m Still Here’

Elaine Paige (photography: Nicky Johnston)
Elaine Paige (photography: Nicky Johnston)

‘Good times and bum times, I’ve seen them all and, my dear, I’m still here...’

It’s become something of a catchphrase for me, burnt on my memory from when I played the showgirl-turned-film star Carlotta Campion in the Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman’s Follies in 2011. It’s the opening line of Carlotta’s anthem of showbiz survival ‘I’m Still Here’, and boy, was it a sing and a half. But more on that later.

Circling back to 1971, there had been something of a trend towards musical comedy escapist nostalgia on Broadway, as experienced in lighthearted shows like 70, Girls, 70; You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown; and No, No, Nanette.

Oh, but wait – here comes Follies… a great big heft of a piece that centres around the bittersweet reunion of a chorus line of ageing showgirls.

I sang ‘I’m Still Here’ after an eight-minute tap routine. The very thought of it made me shudder in the wings

Thirty years after their final act, the Follies girls meet up at the derelict, soon-to-be-demolished theatre where they used to perform. They have a few drinks, sing a few songs and rake up a few long-forgotten memories. It sounds like a cosy night out – but no, no, Nanette... this is Sondheim! Scenes of past and present intertwine, triggering feelings of missed opportunities and unresolved desires.

Do they have regrets? You bet. Did they marry the wrong person? You decide.

The original production went on to win seven Tony Awards, including Best Original Score, though it was infamously beaten in the category of Best Musical by the rock musical Two Gentlemen of Verona.

When I think about why Follies is a game-changer, aside from the score, which is a sensational, swirling mix of pastiche, character songs, camp Broadway belters and angst-ridden ballads, I think it’s because of what it was able to foretell.

The Weismann Theatre serves as a metaphor for the demise of the traditional Broadway show; the glory years of Gershwin, Porter and Rodgers and Hammerstein. Sondheim has arrived – and he’s about to reinvent the wheel.

Follies starts at the opposite end of the Golden Age musicals – they tended to wrap up with all the youngsters skipping off into the sunset.

The character I played, Carlotta, possesses true grit and determination. She’s experienced a lot of hard knocks and there’s a vulnerability too. ‘I’m Still Here’ sees Carlotta look back on a tumultuous career. A wordy mix of a packed life and a rundown of a nation’s headlines from the Depression to 1971... Send help!

Of course, I researched the living daylights out of all the references that we Brits aren’t so au fait with so that I could create a backstory. But the most important insight came from a conversation with Sondheim.

He told me that he wrote it about Joan Crawford. And, like Crawford, Carlotta is somebody who could reinvent herself.

I’d also like to mention that I sang it after an eight-minute tap routine. The very thought of it made me shudder in the wings.

I must have got away with it, though, because Ben Brantley wrote in The New York Times that I sang it with ‘a galvanising fierceness that makes this much-performed song sound fresh and stinging’. Phew!

Three years later, in celebration of my 50th anniversary in showbusiness, Sondheim was happy for the lyrics to be revised to reflect my life and career – and he asked the wonderful lyricist Anthony Drewe to assist.

‘First I’m Evita, then I’m a cat with a limp’ was far easier to remember than ‘I got through Abie’s Irish Rose, five Dionne babies, Major Bowes’!

The show was first performed in London in 1987, when Cameron Mackintosh’s production, directed by Mike Ockrent, won the Olivier for Best Musical. It didn’t have a full London revival until the glorious 2017 National Theatre reinvention staged by Dominic Cooke and with a fantastic cast including Imelda Staunton, Janie Dee and Tracie Bennett as Carlotta.

Of Sondheim’s six or so masterpieces, Follies is the one that sets the bar impossibly high, in my view. Loaded with brittle emotional pain, it deals with what’s gone and can never be retrieved. It reminds us to live every day because this is it.

I find that our reactions to the show change as we get older. You respond differently every time.

Just don’t ask me to elaborate on my heebie-jeebies for Beebe’s Bathysphere. I’ve blanked them out!

‘Elaine Paige on Sunday’ is on BBC Radio 2 at 1pm; follow her on X @elaine_paige

This article originally appeared in the February/March 2024 issue of Musicals magazine. Never miss an issue – subscribe today