FOR a woman known as the First Lady of musical theatre, it has been a while since Elaine Paige actually appeared in a stage musical. Apart from a brief stint in Sweeney Todd in New York three years ago, Elaine hasn't had a starring role in a musical for five years.

"It's not a deliberate thing," she explains. "I've never planned my career particularly. It's just sort of happened that way. But there's been nothing that I've wanted to do, and if you're going to commit to a year at the theatre, six days a week, and have no life, then it's got to be something that you want to do with all your heart."

This is not to say she hasn't been busy. There's been the acting - she made appearances recently in both Where The Heart Is and one of the Marple films - and there's been her Radio 2 show, where she's indulged her enduring love of the songs from musicals, as well as film scores.

Now the 58-year-old singer (who looks much younger than her years) has switched her focus back to her own recording career. Having recorded 20 solo albums, she's about to add to her canon with a selection of songs taken from the public's Top 20 favourite musicals, as voted for on her Radio 2 show.

She's promoting it with a lengthy tour of the UK, something she's approaching with mixed feelings.

"Am I looking forward to it? Not particularly," she says with her raucous laugh. "No, I am. I'm quite excited about it because it's going to be a new show for me. There'll be a lot of new material I've not performed before from shows like Les Miserables, The Sound Of Music and Guys And Dolls. And we're going to be doing them in a new modern way.

"But touring is jolly tiring," she adds. "It's much more difficult than doing musical theatre in the West End, say, because you're travelling to different venues all the time, and you're constantly working with the variables. But I've done it several times now and the more I do it the simpler it seems to get."

Talk of touring produces tales of plenty of successful shows and regular standing ovations - "On the very rare occasion when they don't all jump up out of their seats I'm always mortified," laughs Elaine - but of course there's always the gigs that don't go quite as well.

Steel factory

"One of the most peculiar gigs I've ever done was in a steel factory in Vienna last year," recalls Elaine. "This steel company is a major working place for a lot of people in the city and outlying areas and every year the owner gets an orchestra and big name artists to come and sing.

"But we had to rehearse in the factory as that's where the concert was being held, and it was just impossible. They were making steel while we were rehearsing and you couldn't hear what you were doing because of all the crashing and banging.

"That was only last year. It just goes to show," she laughs, "I've been doing this for nearly 40 years now and there's always another first looming round the corner."

Elaine's first professional appearance was in the musical The Roar Of The Greasepaint - The Smell Of The Crowd, with which she toured the UK.

"I loved it," recalls Elaine. "We would rehearse in this dark theatre, unaware of the sunny day outside, and be immersed in the magic of creating something from our imaginations."

Elaine's parents noticed her potential when they saw her perform in school productions, and offered to support her through stage school. From then on she never looked back, breaking into musical theatre to eventually become a household name being the first Evita when Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's musical first arrived in the West End 28 years ago.

The sudden fame that came with the role wasn't something that Elaine was prepared for, however.

"It was terribly difficult," she says. "It's not something I ever wanted in my life. Naively I just thought, `oh I've got this great part'. I never thought about the reality of all the stuff that went with it. I'm actually quite a shy person when I'm not on stage.


"But over the years I've learnt how to manage it, and now I know that there are, of course, several perks to be had. It's all right now, it's fun."

Elaine's career has simply gone from strength to strength ever since, earning her her First Lady nickname - "I don't know who invented that phrase but I do like it," she grins - but her successful career has meant sacrifices in other areas of her life - namely she's never had a family.

"I suppose there have been possibilities for me to have that in my life," she says, "but I've been too busy doing theatre and doing what I do. It wasn't an absolute choice, I didn't make that decision, it just sort of never came up.

"I would have liked to have had kids, and had a family, but I think in my profession it's quite difficult to achieve because you're always working. I think I'm the kind of person as well, had I had kids, I wouldn't have gone on working. I would have jacked it all in."

"But it's a wonderful life I have, so I'm very fulfilled in other ways. Am I ever bothered by it? Well it's too late now," she laughs.

That said Elaine's recent hiatus from musical theatre has seen her get something of a social life back and she's been dipping her toe back into the dating scene.

"Sometimes my friends set me up," she says with a grin. "But I find you meet people through hobbies mostly. I like to play tennis, I clay pigeon shoot, and I go on painting courses.

"You meet like-minded people through things like that, and in a way there are more people in my life now that are not connected to my work than ever before. Which is really rather refreshing."

But the pull of musical theatre is still there, and Elaine says she is still looking for what will be her next stage role.

"I still have a lot of passion for what I do," she says. "It's amazing after all these years. I can't believe I'm still that driven, it's mad. I'm not a normal person," she laughs. "I just know I'm not. I still behave as if I'm 25 years old and each job is the first thing I've ever done. There's a lunacy about that."

Elaine Paige's new album Essential Musicals is out on Monday, October 23. She plays the Bridgewater Hall on Tuesday, November 21. é27.50 - é33.50. Call 0161 907 9000.