background and analysis by Scott Miller
Harold Prince, director of masterpieces like Cabaret, Company, Follies, and several more, is one of the true geniuses of the American musical, as responsible for its dramatic evolution in the second half of the last century as anyone. But sometimes even geniuses make mistakes. And Prince arguably made some, on both Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita and on Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. In both cases, Prince made it clear to the authors that he didn’t like what they were aiming at, so he aimed somewhere else entirely when staging these shows. The end products may have been good but they weren’t what the creators intended. Prince said about Evita, "It’s not about politics. Media manipulation, that’s what it’s about. And the fact that we have next to no idea who really lives in the White House, for whom we’re voting, what’s going on. We’ve learned too well how to package things, and now, people."
Except that’s not what it’s really about.
It’s about storytelling. It’s about truth versus perceived truth. It’s about the public perception of political movements and radical social change. Underneath, it’s about the childhood damage that drives some people to great heights, for better or worse. If we didn’t know better, we’d think this story is really just a metaphor for the rise of Barack Obama. Or Glenn Beck. Or Sarah Palin. But it’s not about media manipulation. The media barely make an appearance in the show. It’s about storytelling. The show succeeds despite breaking one of the cardinal rules of the theatre – to show action, instead of describing it. So much of Evita is narration that some labeled it an oratorio rather than a musical or opera. But this story must exist primarily as narration, because the central conflict of the story is the real-life conflict between the two surviving narratives of Eva’s life and career. Those on the bottom of the economic ladder remembered her as a saint. Those on the top remembered her as a destructive and dangerous villain. This is why the show’s narrator is also its antagonist. The battle here is over how to tell this story. It’s all about storytelling.
In the liner notes to the original cast album, Rice and Lloyd Webber wrote, "This is a story of people whose lives were in politics, but it is not a political story. It is a Cinderella story about the astonishing life of a girl from the most mundane of backgrounds who became the most powerful woman that her country (and indeed Latin America) had ever seen."
At its heart the content of the narrative, at least as told by Tim Rice, is a double love story. One is the obvious romance between Eva and Juan Perón, and though their relationship may have been more father-daughter than sexual, they did apparently love each very deeply. (One politician who knew them both said that they were not really in love but were "two joined wills, two commonly expressed passions of power," though this may have been merely a reason to excuse them living together before being married in very Catholic Argentina.) When Eva flew to Europe for the Rainbow Tour, she wrote Perón a letter (terrified of flying, thinking they might be her last words) telling him how deeply she loved him. Reading her letters and his memoirs, it’s hard not to believe their love. But this story is also a love story between Eva and the people of Argentina, the working class descamisados ("the shirtless ones"), with whom Eva grew up. They loved her deeply and she loved them back. In their excellent book Evita: The Real Life of Eva Peron, authors Nicholas Fraser and Marysa Navarro write, "No matter how organized the crowds became, they could relive that first ‘sacred moment’ of Perónism [the night of October 17, 1945, dramatized in the song ‘A New Argentina’] and its sequel, the creation of Perón and Evita. For Perón and Evita did not just act on their behalf, they became them." Perón was the first national politician in Argentina to even acknowledge the existence of the working class, much less to make them promises and most astonishing to declare himself one of them. He had been one of the powerful as a member of the military, but he publicly threw off this role to identify with the workers. The unions saved him from political imprisonment on October 17, 1945, they literally gave birth to Perónism, and they never left his side.
The Act II opener, "Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina," is the fulcrum of the entire story, a song and scene entirely about Eva’s relationship with the people. The melody from the song appears over and over throughout the entire show, reinforcing its centrality to the story – even as it is much transformed as Che’s opening number, "Oh, What a Circus." The parallel to Obama and his movement is obvious, as is the associated hatred and adoration.
But those two love stories are only part of the show’s point. The other part is Che, the never objective narrator, who continually tells us what a manipulator and liar Eva is. Originally, Che was intended to be an anonymous Everyman, not the revolutionary Che Guevara. But since Hal Prince’s Broadway production, he has been Che Guevara (although the film returned him to his original conception). The brilliance of Tim Rice’s lyrics and narrative structure lies in this dichotomy between the cold, political, Brechtian world of Che and the passionate, romantic, melodramatic world of Eva. With few exceptions, these two central figures exist in opposing styles and theatrical philosophies, as different as their political and social philosophies. And only when these two come together at last, in the Act II "Waltz for Eva and Che," does the lush romanticism of the music tangle together with the hard-edged Brechtian political debate of the lyrics. Though they probably never met in real life, in Evita, Eva and Che are linked by destiny, both wanting a populist revolution, though he wanted to discard the existing power structure while she worked inside it (despite the pervasive sexism there). Both were flawed and controversial leaders, both were considered saints by their followers, and both became cultural icons around the world.
This antagonistic narrator figure was a device Lloyd Webber used more than once, in Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, and Sunset Boulevard. But friends of the team thought that the friction between Eva and Che mirrored the real-life friction between Lloyd Webber and Rice. Like Eva, Andrew grew up in financially modest surroundings, while Che and Tim both grew up comfortably middle-class. Perhaps it is this parallel friction that fuels some of the heat in Evita.
Lloyd Webber said in an interview, "Evita was Tim Rice’s idea. He was very intrigued by the fact that she was mentioned in the context of a whole load of fifties figures who were very successful, including people like James Dean, and I think he was curious to find out why she became this kind of cult figure, this huge figure in Argentina. And I think he became very attracted to the story." He went on, "The biggest problem for me as the composer of it is that of course I could have let the whole thing go as a high romance. I could make everybody cry their eyes out at the end of all this, but that was not the point of the piece. In a way, the piece had to keep this slightly Brechtian approach to the whole thing, where you have the Che character able to comment on the quite grisly things that she did."
Richard Green wrote about New Line Theatre’s 2010 production of Evita on BroadwayWorld.com:
For better or worse, Rice and Webber never take the particular politics of the matter very seriously: sure, there are icons of ambition and an icon of cynicism, but no believable icons of poverty, or hopelessness or inequality, beyond the worshipful mob. And why should there be? The show is more universal when the issues are tertiary, at best. The scenic design does create a sort of proscenium lined with posters to remind us of our own recent would-be icons, though we may never know what single force unifies them all.
And perhaps the nature of rock opera itself brooks little or no introspection. Just as most of the songs race one into another, or into recitative, with little or no breaks for applause, there's also no time for internal conflict or deep reflection in the show. And, in a way that may be clever, that remorseless pacing lulls us into the same state of passive observance as those Argentineans, sitting there hypnotized in that movie theater.
The fun of Evita is that Rice and Lloyd Webber give us these conflicting views of who Eva Perón was, and neither view conquers the other. We are left at the end not knowing which to believe. Just like the people of Argentina. Just like historians. Was she a saint and accidental political activist, as the people believed? Was she a devil, as Che apparently thinks? Or was she just a very talented woman struggling against the rejections and deprivations of her childhood, finding that she had been given the power to change those underlying causes and conditions?
An American journalist named Fleur Cowles wrote, after meeting Eva, "She was not a woman’s woman with a warm remembrance of moments spent like any woman with her friends, and not a man’s woman either, even if she may once have been, but a woman politico, a woman too fabled, too capable, too sexless, too driven, too overbearing, too slick, too sly, too diamond-decked, too revengeful, too ambitious – and far, far too under-rated far, far too long by our world," echoing some of the same charges leveled against Hillary Clinton during the 2008 Presidential campaign. It was said that she never had children because the poor people of Argentina were her children, helping to burnish her image as the pure, virginal, mother figure, alongside Perón as national father.
Eva Perón was certainly complicated. It’s that conflicting legacy – and our inability to know for sure one way or the other which is more true – that makes her story so fascinating. But as a character she’s not the cold-hearted bitch that Patti LuPone portrayed on Broadway. That’s just not what Tim Rice wrote.
What’s New, Buenos Aires?
When Rice came up with the idea to write Evita, there was a miner’s strike going on, pretty much paralyzing England, workers in the streets, an unstable stock market, and England’s first woman Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, who came from humble beginnings, took elocution lessons (shades of My Fair Lady!), married a millionaire (and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes), and became a powerful political leader. Rice saw obvious parallels to Eva Perón’s Argentina. At the time of the show’s London premiere, there were rumors that there could be a British revolution. But the show was also about Eva’s sex appeal, that same strange combination of sex object, political figure, and savior ("a fantasy of the bedroom and a saint") that has made Sarah Palin such a popular figure today.
In 1972, right off the worldwide success of Jesus Christ Superstar, stage and film producer Robert Stigwood suggested that Rice and Lloyd Webber write a new musical version of Peter Pan, but they weren’t interested. Rice then heard a radio play about Eva Perón and her meteoric rise to fame and political power. Rice even traveled to Argentina to research Eva’s life and legend. At first Lloyd Webber, the classically trained composer, was somewhat intrigued by the idea of building a Latin-flavored score, incorporating tangos, paso dobles, and other Latin forms, but he said no. As he told a friend, "I really don’t want to do another piece about an unknown who rises to fame aged thirty-three and then dies." Lloyd Webber instead opted to write Jeeves, with playwright Alan Ayckbourn, an old-fashioned 1920s-style musical comedy, based on the famous characters created by humorist P.G. Wodehouse (pronounced wood-house). Lloyd Webber’s Jeeves score was an excellent 1920s musical comedy score, but 1970s audience weren’t interested in that. Jeeves was a big flop, So Lloyd Webber returned to Rice and agreed to write Evita. (He would end up using two pieces of music written for Jeeves in his Evita score, becoming "Another Suitcase in Another Hall" and "Goodnight and Thank You.")
Rice’s narrative appears to have been based on Mary Main’s biography The Woman with the Whip, hardly an objective view of the Peróns, but maybe that slanted perspective is what inspired Rice to create this central stylistic and narrative conflict between the two competing visions of Eva and her legacy. It was Rice’s idea to create the narrator "Che," but originally the character was not Che Guevara. According to Wikipedia.com:
Che is a Spanish diminutive interjection commonly used in Argentina. A form of colloquial slang used in a vocative sense as "friend", and thus loosely corresponds to expressions such as mate, pal, man, bro, or dude; as used by various English speakers. As a result, it may be used both before or after a phrase: "Man, this is some good beer", or "Let’s go get a beer, bro." It can be added to an explicit vocative to call the attention, playing the role of "Hey", for instance: "Che Pedro, mirá!" ("Hey, Pedro, look!"). Che is also utilized as a casual speech filler or punctuation to ascertain comprehension, continued interest, or agreement. Thus che can additionally function much like the English words so, right, or the common Canadian eh.
In other words, Rice’s Che was an anonymous Everyman, very much as he was in Alan Parker’s later film version of the musical. It was Hal Prince who later decided this narrator was specifically the Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara, right hand man to Fidel Castro during the Cuban revolution.
Rice and Lloyd Webber began writing the show in 1974, after several years of worldwide success with Jesus Christ Superstar. There are certainly parallels between Superstar and Evita, both in form and content. Not only do the central characters have much in common biographically, but so do their relationships with The People. Does that make both stories inherently political? Perhaps the answer is in the eye of the beholder. Director Robert Brustein once wrote, "The political implications of Evita are the least convincing aspect of the work, just as religion was the one thing missing from Jesus Christ Superstar. What apparently attracts the authors to Eva Perón is her surefire blend of sex, show biz, and ambition; she is, in short, another superstar who experiences a similar rise from poor beginnings to great influence. I suspect that the real subject of Rice and Webber is success, its rewards and human cost, and that has about as much political, religious, or intellectual significance as one finds in Aida or Madame Butterfly."
The team recorded the finished score in 1976, playing it for friends at Lloyd Webber’s private Sydmonton Festival. They first released a single of "Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina" (originally titled "It’s Only Your Lover Returning"), which reached Number 1 on the UK pop charts in February 1977 for a week, selling almost a million copies in the UK. They followed that by releasing the entire score on a double album, starring the untrained, raw-voiced Julie Covington and Colm Wilkinson (who would win worldwide acclaim years later as Jean Valjean in Les Misérables), and the double album eventually went gold. Hal Prince then joined them and shaped the material into a slightly more focused, if less emotional, narrative. Prince initially intended to cast several actors as Eva, each one to play a different "role" that Eva played in her life – the young peasant girl, the rising actress, the First Lady, the saint and martyr – an really only because they couldn’t find the women to play all those roles, they finally settled on one actor playing Eva.
The first stage production opened on June 21, 1978 at the Prince Edward Theatre in London with Elaine Paige in the title role (Covington turned it down), where it ran eight years and 2,900 performances. Derek Jewell in The Sunday Times called the show "magnificent, original, compelling," and "a masterpiece," and wrote, "Lloyd Webber is perhaps the most remarkable musical child of his generation." Jewell went on, "The score is an unparalleled fusion of twentieth-century musical experience. Echoes of the past, Tchaikovsky, Puccini, and church choral music, shimmer hauntingly through. But it is the interweaving of pop, rock, jazz, Broadway, Latin and other elements which make the brew so astonishingly potent." The magazine Classical Music called it "serious art." Still, Prince wanted changes. London critics complained that the show was too infatuated with Eva, but as Rice said at the time, "If your subject happens to be one of the most glamorous women who ever lived, you will inevitably be accused of glamorizing her. The only political message we hope will emerge is that extremists are dangerous and attractive ones even more so." So Prince responded to the criticisms by going too far the other way and he took all the warmth and emotion out of the story, while also expanding and developing the character of Che from anonymous Argentine to the world-famous Marxist revolutionary.
Following pre-Broadway tryouts in Los Angeles and San Francisco (apparently to give American audiences the feeling that this was an American show, not a British one), a much colder Evita opened on Broadway in September 1979, with Patti LuPone as Eva and Mandy Patinkin as Che, running almost five years and an impressive 1,567 performances (more than twice as many as Jesus Christ Superstar). The show was nominated for ten Tony Awards and won seven, including Best Actress (LuPone), Best Actor (Patinkin), Best Director (Prince), Best Lighting Design (David Hersey), Best Book, Best Score and Best Musical of the year. The show was also nominated for ten Drama Desk Awards, winning six of them, including Outstanding Musical, Outstanding Lyrics, and Outstanding Music. It also won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. In 1981, the Evita cast recording won a Grammy Award.
Still, many of the critics didn’t like Prince’s ice-cold production. Clive Barnes wrote in The New York Post, "Evita is a stunning, exhilarating theatrical experience, especially if you don’t think about it too much. . . This pop opera is wonderfully entertaining in everything but the aftertaste of its pretensions." Of the changes between London and Broadway, Barnes wrote, "They have upped the Brechtian atmosphere – but unfortunately, Brecht himself was not around. The fault of the whole construction is that it is hollow. We are expected to deplore Evita’s morals but adore her circuses. We are asked to accept a serious person onstage, and yet the treatment of that person is essentially superficial, almost trivial. The gloss of the surface is meant to be impenetrable – and it is." But that was the fault of Prince, not of the material. It’s worth noting that after Prince’s missteps with Evita, he had a string of greater missteps, including Merrily We Roll Along, Grind, A Doll’s Life (a sequel to A Doll’s House, if you can believe it), and Roza. The New York critics hated that so much of Evita was narration. They hated the construction of the show, showing obvious bias toward the Rodgers and Hammerstein model. The Broadway musical was still mostly working under that model in the 1980s, but European musicals were taking Bertolt Brecht’s more experimental pieces, like The Threepenny Opera and Mother Courage as their models.
Almost all of the New York critics also complained that the music was bland, a criticism rock musicals suffered for years from older critics who had not grown up on rock and roll.
A Magical Moment or Two
Since those first productions, Evita has been performed all over the world, in Austria, Spain, Mexico, South Africa, and elsewhere – although it’s been banned in Argentina. Three national tours crisscrossed the United States for three and a half years after the Broadway run. After years of speculation over who would star in the film – Barbra Streisand, Meryl Streep, John Travolta, and Elton John were all mentioned at some point – director Alan Parker’s film version was released in 1996 with pop star Madonna as Eva and Antonio Banderas as Che. They restored one song from the London production, "The Lady’s Got Potential," though with smart new lyrics from Rice chronicling the political history of Argentina leading up to Perón. Madonna was mostly dismissed but Banderas surprised many with his smoldering performance and his strong pop/rock singing. A new production is slated for Broadway in 2011 with pop star (and Broadway veteran) Ricky Martin as Che.
With Evita, Rice wrote what he was best at, smartass, acerbic, and deeply intelligent lyrics. When asked if his shows are rock musicals, Rice replied that they could have only been written in the rock era: "I suppose you could say they are ‘rock-culture musicals’." Like Superstar, Evita is at least partly about the idea of authenticity, the watchword and foundation of rock and roll. For Evita, Lloyd Webber wrote the most mature score of his career – one he would sadly never equal. In Superstar, Lloyd Webber had sometimes reused musical ideas for dramatic purposes, creating musical leitmotifs (musical themes or phrases that represent characters or ideas) but sometimes he just reused them at random. In his later scores, like Cats and Phantom of the Opera, his reuse of music would become increasingly random and nondramatic. But here, in Evita, he took care to follow the precepts of Wagner and Sondheim, only reusing musical material to make a connection, to develop character, to add subtle commentary on the action. Evita proved Lloyd Webber was capable of this kind of mature writing, and his later shows may prove only that he doesn’t always care. Interestingly, though the writers were British, most of the creative staff in London and in New York were Americans. But the era of the Pop Opera – The second British Invasion – was coming.
Today many people don’t like Lloyd Webber’s work, but the composer of Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita is a different Lloyd Webber from the one who wrote Phantom of the Opera and Sunset Boulevard. When he began his career, he wrote in the rock and roll idiom, a musical language he knew and loved. No one can deny that he can write a beautiful melody, but his musical vocabulary has always been limited. Consequently, he excelled in the relatively simple, repetitive language of rock and roll – Joseph, Superstar, Evita, Song and Dance, even Cats – but when he tried later to write in a more classical, more sophisticated style, his limitations showed through. What seems driving and primal in Superstar sounds merely repetitious and bland in the classical European sound of Phantom or the clumsy pseudo-jazz style of Sunset Boulevard. In his ongoing quest to be taken seriously as a composer, Lloyd Webber has turned his back on rock and roll, the only musical language in which he writes really great music. After Joseph and Superstar, his first instinct was to write Evita in that same language, but some part of him decided instead to make parts of it faux classical, particularly in his orchestrations. Then after a brief return to rock/pop with Cats, he made the same mistake with Phantom. His insecurity left us with the bloated, overwrought Phantom that wrings emotion out of its audience with its sets and orchestrations, instead of with character and story. People feel moved at the end of the show, but they don’t realize they’re being emotionally manipulated by a very skillful director, designers, and orchestrator. Instead of being moved by truth, they are being moved by accessories. (Try reading some of the Phantom lyrics out loud and you’ll see how dreadful they are without all the trappings.) Lloyd Webber’s writing ability hasn’t diminished, but when he changed styles his limits were thrown into sharper relief. Our expectations changed and he couldn’t. Most critics believe that, unlike other theatre writers, Lloyd Webber has not grown as a composer over time. Luckily, we can still enjoy Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita, both set on the brilliant, literate, and provocative lyrics of Tim Rice.
People of Argentina
We're used to believing the narrator in a show or novel. But like the Leading Player in Pippin and the Balladeer in Assassins, Che is a narrator with an agenda. He can lie. He is hardly impartial. We soon realize that we’re getting two diametrically opposed points of view in Evita. Can we know that Che’s accusations are true? We see no evidence that Eva stole money from her foundation (in real life, Juan Perón did most of the dirty work). And if the poor are so much worse off, as Che claims, then why do they love Eva and Juan so much? Maybe no one on stage is telling the whole truth, including Che as narrator. He is both narrator and antagonist, and once the character became Che Guevara, he’s also a parallel historical figure, with a parallel trajectory. But if this is indeed Guevara, that raises more questions. Since the show starts in 1952 and then flashes back to 1934, Che as narrator must be speaking from the point of view of 1952. In real life, Che left Argentina after Eva’s death and discovered his real political self in his travels throughout South America (as chronicled in The Motorcycle Diaries). So is this narrator the older, more political Che? Is he the 24-year-old Che in 1952, whose political consciousness is just being awakened? Or is he a kind of idealized version of Che existing outside of time?
Stephen Sondheim has often articulated one of rules of storytelling: the Ten-Minute Rule. The idea is that a story can use any device, can break any rule, can establish any rules of its own, as long as those ground rules are established for the audience in the first ten minutes. The opening of Evita, with the announcement of Eva’s death in a small movie theatre, follows that rule beautifully. It establishes the dark, intense, emotional tone of the piece and also immediately sets up Eva's relationship to her people, the path she will follow on her meteoric rise to power and fame. Without the unconditional love of her people, what would she have been?
The show’s opening scene in the movie theatre really happened – upon the news of Eva’s death, movies and plays were stopped, restaurants and bars closed down, and the entire country went into deep mourning, praying, performing masses and funeral chants, But this opening is a very clever fake, because it feels to the audience as if the woman theses people are mourning must have been some Great Lady to elicit this much extreme, inconsolable grief. And then the music switches from funeral dirge to rock and roll as Che starts railing against her in very harsh terms. The audience is left to wonder, Well, which is it? Great Lady or brilliant scam artist? And with that ambiguity, Tim Rice has directly involved the audience in the story without their even realizing it. That's the point of the show, for as we watch the story unfold for ourselves, we must form our own conclusions – and we realize the answer is she’s both those things! Hal Prince and Patti LuPone missed this rich ambiguity in the original production and opted instead for a rapacious, one-dimensional ambition that doesn’t do justice to Rice’s work or the complexity of Eva’s legacy.
A New York Times review of two books, Eva Perón and In My Own Words, went into depth about this ambiguity:
Evitas are raining down on us: saint, martyr, socialist, feminist, fashion plate, fascist, adventuress, whore, witch, wandering corpse. Evita the Good, Evita the Bad and Evita the Everything in Between. (And all of this before the Madonna movie opens!) The astonishing fact is that she managed to bequeath us this plethora of Evitas in such a short period of time, for she died, horribly, of uterine cancer at the age of 33. Born in 1919, Eva Maria Duarte was the illegitimate daughter of a small-town seamstress who had a very expedient attitude toward men. Eva's grandmother also supported her family by selling her favors, which leads [the author] Ms. Ortiz to speculate whether Eva’s bed hopping in Buenos Aires – where she went at the tender age of fifteen to seek her fortune as an actress – was ‘an ancestral defect,’ an aptitude to survive by ‘satisfying passions’ that she carried in her blood. Please. The only thing Evita carried was a very large chip on her shoulder against the Argentine oligarchy for ostracizing her as an out-of-wedlock child. This resentment shaped her life and lent true feeling to the ten famous, hankie ‘litany’ speeches (her repetitious rhetoric) she later made as the wife of President Juan Perón. ‘There are some oligarchs who make me want to bite them just as one crunches into a carrot or a radish,’ Evita is purported to have said. One knows what she means."
So why is Che so critical if he and Eva both believe in raising up the poor people of Argentina and bringing down the rich? Because he doesn’t approve of her methods or motivations. From his point of view, she acts from selfish motives, like revenge. Fraser and Navarro quote Eva herself: "As far as I can remember, the existence of injustice has hurt my soul as if a nail was being driven into it. From every period of my life I retain the memory of some injustice tormenting me and tearing me apart." Perhaps Che and Eva cannot find common ground because he comes from a position of political philosophy and she comes from a position of emotion. Fraser and Navarro quote one American reporter who wrote about the Peróns at the time, "In Argentina today it’s love, love, love. Love makes the Peróns go round. Their whole act is based on it. They are constantly, madly, passionately, nationally in love. They conduct their affairs with the people quite openly. They are the perfect lovers – generous, kind, and forever thoughtful in matters both great and small."
Eva actually called herself "The Bridge of Love." Fraser and Navarro write:
Where Perón’s lengthy and raucously delivered speeches might deal with any matter of policy or contain an explication of his ideology or this theories of leadership, Evita dealt essentially with herself, with Perón and with the descamisados. She would speak on Perón’s behalf to the crowd or on the crowd’s behalf to Perón and then for herself, the person who brought the leader and his people together. . . Eva dealt, not in political terminology, but in that of the emotions. Her language came from her own feelings and the conventions of the soap operas [in which she had acted], and they made the notions of love and loyalty to Perón vivid and urgent. These were important in Perónism because for many people they were the content of Perónism.
Screw the Middle Classes
Eva once told a priest, Father Hernán Benitez, that her acting had been "bad in the cinema, mediocre on the stage, and passable on the radio." But she was a genius at rousing the people of Argentina to political action and at winning hearts and minds. Maybe it was pure coincidence that Eva’s own life story mirrored that of the radio soap opera in which she had starred and which made her a household name. Fraser and Navarro wrote about the Argentine soap operas:
They carried factitious but intense emotion to a high pitch and held it there, whatever the incidentals of time or place. . . Their formula was love frustrated, usually over a great number of episodes, then love fulfilled in the final one. As the vehicles of their provincial audience’s fantasies, the heroines were always young, always poor and obscure, always hopelessly in love with men beyond their station, and always chaste – though there might be moments when they were led astray. They suffered endlessly and then they were rewarded. Eva was good at conveying suffering. When she found the soaps she found her acting career.
In May 1944, a radio program aired called "The Soldier’s Revolution Will Be the Revolution of the Argentine People," and as the star of the show, Eva told her people, "The Revolution did not come without reason. It came because something painful and hard had grown in the country, deep down, where there is hate and passion and the sense of injustice that makes the blood rush to one’s hands and head . . . The Revolution was made for exploited workers . . . It was made because of the fraud of the dishonest politicians and because the country was bankrupt of feeling, at the verge of suicide . . . There was a man who could bring dignity to the notion of work, a soldier of the people who could feel the flame of social justice… it was he who decisively helped the people’s Revolution." She was not interested in appealing to the intellect; she wanted to stir emotion. It’s hard not to see parallels to American politics today.
It’s this skill at rousing emotion that is why her story begged to be musicalized, and why rock opera was the perfect form. As Joseph Kerman wrote in his book Opera as Drama, "Even the most passionate of speeches exists on a level of emotional reserve that music automatically passes. Music can be immediate and simple in the presentation of emotional states or shades. In an opera, people can give themselves over to sensibility; in a play nobody every quite stops thinking."
Nearly every moment in the show (apart from the presence of Che) is based in reality, from Eva’s brief fling with Magaldi, to her climb up the Buenos Aires social ladder, to meeting Perón at the fundraiser, to the night of October 17, 1945, to the promises of "A New Argentina," to the Rainbow Tour, the Eva Perón Foundation, her final broadcast, all the way through to her death from cancer. All of it happened. As the real life counterpart to the song "Rainbow High," Eva was once quoted as saying, "Look, they want to see me beautiful. Poor people don’t want someone to protect them who is old and dowdy. They all have their dreams about me and I don’t want to let them down." As self-involved as that may sound, there was some truth to it. The working poor of Argentina had invested their dreams and fantasies in Eva. She was Cinderella for them. The real-life insult in the song "Rainbow Tour," in which Eva’s tawdry past is referenced, also really happened though it happened in Buenos Aires. Fraser and Navarro tell us:
When the women were out of the room, jokes were told, unfunny and mildly obscene: for example, Perón the caudillo [i.e., military dictator], Evita, his bejeweled wife who was really a tart, before of them before St. Peter at the seat of judgment. While they wait for judgment, Perón steps on St. Peter’s toe, St. Peter exclaims, "Puta!" [i.e., whore] and Evita steps forward. Or the one in which Evita is in an elevator with a retired general. The operator is saying under his breath, "la Gran P," a common abbreviation of puta. As they leave the elevator, Evita, enraged, says, "That man must be punished. Did you hear what he said?" "Think nothing of it, Excellency," the general replies, "I’ve been retired from the Army for five years, and people still call me General."
All the other details of the Rainbow Tour are almost exactly how it really happened. One news commentator on the trip said, "She was better at being brilliant with short, evasive phrases, and circling the question without actually answering it." Shades of Sarah Palin! And the rich ladies of Argentina did indeed keep Eva out of their philanthropic societies because they thought she would be a bad example for the orphans, so Eva started her own philanthropic foundation, which had assets totaling about three billion pesos, the equivalent of about two million dollars, and which employed 14,000 workers. The foundation gave out 400,000 pairs of shoes, 500,000 sewing machines, and 200,000 cooking pots per year. It’s also true that the foundation was funded in large part by manipulation and extortion, but that was Perón’s job, not Eva’s. Once she started working at the foundation, she stopped wearing flashy clothes and was now often seen in tailored black suits.
In temperamental opposition to Eva, the character of Juan Perón is surprisingly passive throughout the entire show, a man who’s happy to be in the position of power in which he finds himself, though more concerned with self-preservation than political power. Perón spends much of the show standing back and watching Eva work or allowing her to drag him into their next triumph. He has far less music than either Eva or Che. But he’s also much more cynical. He understands political realities in ways that Eva does not. Because her own meteoric rise happened with very few obstacles, she did not learn on her way up how to navigate the minefield of national politics. We see this play out in the Act II song, "Dice Are Rolling," as the more politically savvy Perón tries to explain to the unusually naïve Eva the substantial danger of her running for Vice President. He has seen many coups d’état come and go. He was even the victim once, and he doesn’t intend to be one again.
Authors Fraser and Navarro write about the night when Perón met Eva at the charity concert for the victims of the San Juan earthquake in January 1944, dramatized in the show in the song "I’d Be Surprisingly Good for You." Fraser and Navarro quote Perón’s own memoir: "There was a woman of fragile appearance, but with a strong voice, with long blonde hair falling loose to her back and fevered eyes. She said her name was Eva Duarte, that she acted on the radio and that she wanted to help the people of San Juan. I looked at her and felt overcome by her words; I was quite subdued by the force of her voice and her look. Eva was pale but when she spoke her face seemed to catch fire. Her hands were reddened with tension her fingers knit tightly together, she was a mass of nerves." Ultimately, Perón gives her access and she gives him the people of Argentina in return. This is Evita’s "obligatory moment," the moment to which everything before it leads, and from which everything after it follows. Without this encounter, nothing else in the story is possible.
Sing, You Fools
The score for Evita is the most mature music Andrew Lloyd Webber ever wrote, beyond the brilliant Jesus Christ Superstar and light years ahead of his later, less interesting, less sophisticated scores for The Phantom of the Opera and other shows.
How does Lloyd Webber use music to tell this story? First, he can write a melody line as beautiful as George Gershwin or Harold Arlen. But he also wrote for Evita a harmonically adventurous, sometimes disorienting musical language that fits the story like a glove. A terrific example is the song "Dice Are Rolling" in Act II, which is actually a reprise of the first section of "A New Argentina" in Act I. This piece isn’t really a song, so much as a conversation, and the music changes as quickly as the content and the emotions do. It begins with Perón warning Eva that they have enemies, that they to be careful. (In reality, several coups d’état were being planned.) The music here is primarily a bass line, a restless, driving beat with a Latin accent in it. This only lasts six measures, when Eva interrupts with lush long chords as she reassures him that they are as loved and safe as they can be. When Eva mentions the generals, her music turns martial, though sort of off. Perón reasserts the danger they’re in, danger that can’t be prevented by The People, set to the beat of war. Or is that the pounding of his heart? They continue to talk and the music follows right along, getting short when one of them gets short with the other. The music turns warm and romantic as he tries more gently to dissuade her. The music slows slightly as he gets closer to telling her the truth – that she’s dying. She tells him she feels fine, to the music of "There is no one, no one at all…" the music of survival. Finally Eva gathers her strength and the music begins to drive again, the more excited she gets, the higher the melody drives, rambling from key to key, from time signature to time signature, and from major to minor, as her mind darts back and forth. But before she can climax musically, her weakness returns, the music slows, the melody lowers, the tempo slows. And the orchestra bursts into a romantic quotation of "I’d Be Surprisingly Good for You," their song, and at this moment of crisis, the music reassures us that yes, they really are surprisingly good for each other. Finally, the piece ends with Juan and Eva’s a cappella vocal quotations of the mistress’ final lines in "Another Suitcase in Another Hall." But this time, it’s Eva who’s being dismissed. And Juan is standing there just watching. Just like last time.
This is really artful, expressive composing. This is what Andrew Lloyd Webber is capable of. Like Adam Guettel’s later musical Floyd Collins, Evita uses two different styles of music to differentiate between elements of the story. In Floyd Collins, Guettel (rhymes with kettle) uses bluegrass music above ground and his own dissonant pop style below ground. In Evita, Lloyd Webber similarly uses two styles: Latin forms to accompany less sincere, more manipulative moments; and his own rock/pop musical language for expressions of honest emotion, fear, love, passion, anger. The one exception is the melody that is the spine for the entire score, "Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina," which straddles both worlds in its fullest expression at the beginning of Act II. We’ve already heard this music and we’ll hear it again, but this is the moment the whole story rests on, appropriately set on the day of Perón’s inauguration as President, after a remarkably clean, democratic election, in which the people actually felt enfranchised for the first time. Perón would not become the repressive dictator until years later when the country’s problems began to overwhelm him. Here, Eva is expressing real emotion – she is genuinely afraid of losing the love of the people – but she’s also making a political speech. To make that distinction clearer, Rice and Lloyd Webber have her actually speak the more political content, to contrast with the very emotional musical language of "Don’t Cry for Me."
The real emotional surprise of that first scene in Act II is midway through Eva’s "Don’t Cry for Me." She is so emotional that she starts to break down and can’t keep singing. But the people take over for her, carrying on her melody, supporting her musically, singing her love song back to her. Michael Coveney writes about this moment in his biography Cats on a Chandelier:
[Lloyd Webber] thought of Judy Garland’s last, tragic London concert at the Talk of the Town in the late 1960s. He had been there to see her mess up ‘The Trolley Song’ and stutter through ‘Over the Rainbow.’ He noted how her anthem had turned around to destroy her – ‘And that was the genesis of how I felt we should make the big song work," he said.
The whole is scored tied together by the use of leitmotifs, a common device in opera and in more sophisticated musical theatre. Examples of other shows that use this device include Sweeney Todd, Passion, Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods, Bat Boy, Rent, Ragtime, Les Misérables, Andrew Lippa’s The Wild Party, Jesus Christ Superstar, and quite a few others.
The central leitmotif here is the melody to "Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina." We hear it first as Che’s "Oh, What a Circus," making the audience think this is his music, but it’s not. He has taken Eva’s signature tune and "corrupted" it, turning her soaring ballad into angry rock and roll. But within the same song, we hear Eva sing her version; and before the first number is over, Lloyd Webber has linked these two characters with the same melody. Lloyd Webber is following the example of Meredith Willson’s The Music Man, in which Marian’s song "Goodnight My Someone" share its melody almost exactly with Harold Hill’s song, "Seventy-Six Trombones." In The Music Man, this device tells us that Harold and Marian belong together. In the more ambiguous Evita, these two central characters are drawn by their shared music into an existential relationship neither one wants. This music returns midway through Act II with "Santa Evita," in which the Argentine people express the love for Eva that she expressed for them in "Don’t Cry for Me." Eva returns to it again in "Eva’s Final Broadcast," and it becomes a tragic love song now as she says goodbye to her people. Finally, in her last moments, as her life passes before her in the "Montage" number, Che’s "Oh, What a Circus" returns. He gets the last word, musically speaking. He takes her love song away from her and leaves us with his more cynical indictment of her. He has the last word.
And there are other leitmotifs. The instrumental sections of the opening "Requiem" echo the melody of the final song, "Eva’s Lament," the two numbers in the show directly about Eva’s death. In the "Lament," as she sings her final wishes to the people of Argentina, the meter is regular, the accompaniment pretty; but after her death, in the show’s opening "Requiem," this time sung by the people about Eva, the music becomes fractured, out of regular time, just as the magic of her national life is shattered by her death.
Likewise, the casually sexist tango singer (i.e. pop star) Agustin Magaldi sings, "Eva, Beware of the City," early in Act I, trying to dismiss her, warning her not to go to the big city of Buenos Aires, and warning her of the hazards of her own outsized ambition:
This in a man is a danger enough,
But you are a woman,
Not even a woman,
Not very much more than a child…
This is South America in the 1930s, after all. But Eva takes this melody back two songs later, and uses it to dismiss her own line of lovers in "Goodnight and Thank You," as she climbs her way up in Buenos Aires. This music comes back again in the "Montage," as Eva’s life passes before her eyes, as she lay dying.
Likewise, the melody to "I’d Be Surprisingly Good for You" shows up in "A New Argentina" and "Dice are Rolling," in every case as Eva tries to convince Perón to do things her way. The first time we hear the leitmotif that accompanies "There is no one, no one at all…" Che, Eva, and her discarded lovers are singing. One scene later, Eva and Perón are singing it. In Act II, Eva and Che are singing it again. All three moments are about justifying selfish behavior, but we also get a glimpse of how she sees men and relationships with them. There is literally no one – no one at all, she tells us, never has been and never will be – who is selfless. Love is a business deal to Eva, even with Perón. The last time we hear this leitmotif is in Eva and Perón’s Act II conversation, "Dice Are Rolling," but this time, it’s not about denying the powerlessness of romantic love. This time, it’s about denying the powerlessness of her illness. It’s sad this time, more desperate, lacking the confidence of its earlier quotations.
Just as interesting is the rejection/survival leitmotif that we first hear from Perón’s mistress in "Another Suitcase in Another Hall," just after Eva has kicked her out; and then again in Act II, from Eva herself in "The Actress Hasn’t Learned the Lines You’d Like to Hear," as Eva faces the rejection of the aristocrats. But though the mistress has been defeated when she sings this music, Eva has not. Her last line to the aristocrats in "The Actress" is "She’ll simply take control as you disappear." Quite the opposite of "Another Suitcase." But the last time we hear this melody, Perón is the one asking, "So what happens now?" This time, the lyric isn’t about losing a lover or losing political power; it’s about Eva losing her life.
This is, after all, a tragedy.
Richard Green wrote in his 2010 review for TalkinBroadway.com, "So, the looming question remains: why are people so vulnerable to such blatant manipulation, by icons like Eva Perón or, for that matter, like Sarah Palin? The answer seems to be hidden in that theatrical bookending device itself, with all of those people sitting (together but alone) in the dark. Each one seems to build all of his or her hopes and dreams on some bright flashing images on the screen, instead of on the reality of their own lives. And, combined with Eva Perón's own rise from poverty to splendor, it makes for a shocking conclusion: such icons are born from the hubris of the mob."
Copyright 2010. Excerpt from Scott Miller's upcoming, untitled book on musical
theatre. All rights reserved. Miller is also the author of
Strike Up the Band: A New History of Musical Theatre
Deconstructing Harold Hill
Rebels with Applause
Let the Sun Shine In: The Genius of HAIR
From Assassins to West Side Story
, and Sex, Drugs,
Rock & Roll, and Musicals.