Oh, What a Circus – The Ballyhoo of Evita Continues
This week one of my favourite musicals, Evita, returns to the West End. The show is somewhat of a guilty pleasure, but is one that even people who dislike Lloyd Webber can usually get on board with. I have always found the score to be his most exciting, driving and forthcoming, and teamed with Tim Rice’s lyrics, it purveys a somewhat difficult subject matter in a thoroughly engaging way.
Evita as a musical has become somewhat of a legend, thanks to many factors which maintain people’s fascination with the show and keeps audience returning to it time and again. Fans of the show have their favourite productions, their favourite Eva is a common topic for discussion, (for the record mine in descending order reads Patti, Elena, Elaine, Madonna), along with frequent laments concerning the star casting of Che.
Before the original London production had even opened the press campaign had become so aggressive that many were wondering if the show would live up to they hype. Reading Michael Billington’s first night review suggests many critics had similar thoughts, but were actually surprised to find themselves backing a new British musical which such a tricky subject:
“After the ludicrous ballyhoo, there was a danger the show itself would be an anti-climax. But the first thing to be said about Evita at the Prince Edward is that it is an audacious and fascinating musical…” [Michael Billington]
Much of his praise is levelled at the genius of Hal Prince, whose staging of the original production certainly played a large part in its overall success. As much as the show was a triumph for British musicals, Prince’s very American style lifted the show to such heights that many consider his staging of the show to be in many ways definitive.
The ‘ballyhoo’ with which Billington fondly refers in many ways concerns the casting of Elaine Paige who went from being a virtual unknown to leading lady overnight. The actress has herself described the agonising audition process leading up to her being cast in the most sought after role of the day, and she found herself catapulted into the public eye, and the rest as they say is history. Paige has often spoken how she was about to leave the profession altogether, but just as opportunity finally knocked and she had her heart set on the role:
“It was the show that changed my life – overnight. I hadn’t wanted to take on another musical. I’d just told my agent I wanted to concentrate on “serious” acting. But when the Evita LP came out, she said I had to listen to it, the part was perfect for me. I rushed out and bought it and saw exactly what she meant. Eva was a wonderful actress: strong, forceful, but with a vulnerable side. I just had to play her.” [Elaine Paige]
Paige received solid notices for her portrayal, in a role that British audiences would always associate her with. She managed to handle the demanding vocal score, reducing her performances to only six a week (giving the lesser-known Marti Webb, who would later become synonymous with Lloyd Webber’s Tell Me on a Sunday, a chance at the role) in order to provide sufficient vocal rest. She went on to win the Society of West End Theatre Award for Performance of the Year in a Musical, along with the show itself which won the award for Musical of the Year.
After the success of the 1978 production, Prince’s eyes turned firmly to Broadway. It was expected that Paige would reprise her award-winning role, but troubles with the Actors Equity Association meant that a non-American couldn’t play the role in New York, despite the insistence of most of the creative team. Patti LuPone originated the role when it opened at the Broadway Theatre in 1979, later describing the experience as “the worst experience of my life”. The show was met with a certain level of disgust in America, with many criticising the heroism the show places on the Perons, who were in some people’s eyes nothing more than Nazi sympathisers. Protests and pickets outside the theatre played into the hype, and the show won the Tony Award for Best Musical, with LuPone taking home the award for Best Actress in a Musical.
LuPone’s history with Andrew Lloyd Webber is both fruity and exhausting (I encourage anyone even remotely interested to read LuPone’s book ‘Memoirs’ which is one of the most entertaining reads you’ll ever have), but her relationship with the score, despite her triumphant delivery of it night after night, was rocky:
“I was screaming my way through a part that could only have been written by a man who hates women. And I had no support from the producers, who wanted a star performance onstage but treated me as an unknown backstage. It was like Beirut, and I fought like a banshee.” [Patti LuPone]
When it was decided to turn the musical into a film, the Evita question once again was raised over who would get to play the part on-screen. LuPone was ruled out for being too old, but was offered the part of Eva’s mother (just imagine being her agent making THAT phone call…) and Tim Rice was pushing for Paige, after the pair became romantically involved, and she was screen tested twice but discounted, ironically down to her lack of “star quality”, to quote Mr Rice himself.
Barbara Streisand was originally touted for the role (“Peron can you hear me?”) and Liza Minnelli was reportedly “excellent” in her screen tests, for the original director Ken Russell, who later quit the film. As the years went on, Lloyd Webber attached names such as Meryl Streep, Cher, Glenn Close, Olivia Newton-John, and Michelle Pfeiffer to the role – each one seeming to be as ridiculous as the next. As we all know, the role ultimately went to Madonna, who championed herself for the part through a persuasive letter to the new director, Alan Parker:
“What drew me to the role from the beginning was the story of this remarkable woman, where she came from, how she came up in the world, the incredible amount of influence she had over an entire country and the impact she had on the whole world.” [Madonna]
Madonna’s story is testament to the fact that persevering can pay off, as Parker described her letter as being “extraordinarily passionate and sincere. As far as she was concerned, no one could play Evita as well as she could, and she said that she would sing, dance and act her heart out, and put everything else on hold to devote all her time to it should I decide to go with her. And that’s exactly what she did do.” [Alan Parker]
Film critics almost unanimously thought differently, and fans of the stage productions were quick to criticise Madonna’s change of keys and even demands that no one outshine her, stripping the part of Peron’s mistress of one of the most memorable songs for the show, “Another Suitcase in Another Hall”, leading to re-writes in the story itself to incorporate the star’s demands. Both LuPone and Paige have thrown considerable amount of shade on the film and Madonna’s performance, although both claim to have not seen it the whole way through:
“People are always asking what I think of the film version. Well, I haven’t seen it, not all the way through. It came out 16 years after, when I was in another show on Broadway. The last thing I felt like doing on my day off was going to a cinema to watch Madonna in a part I’d originated. From what I saw, she did a good job. She certainly died well.” [Elaine Paige]
Not that Madonna would mind. She said, whilst preparing for the role, that “previous portrayals of Eva Perón have been rather one-dimensional”. Ouch.
Bickering aside, one thing every Evita would agree on is the difficulty of Lloyd Webber’s score. The vocal range spans two octaves in many of the songs, reaching down to an E3 up to the top G5 in “A New Argentina”, with frequent passages of sustained belting. The entire show is sung through, with Eva onstage around 90% of the production, giving little opportunity to rest.
It is a formidable woman who takes on the role, and I’m hoping the West End’s latest Evita, Madalena Alberto is up to the challenge. Here’s hoping there is enough ‘ballyhoo’ 37 years later for this production to be able to fill the vast Dominion Theatre.