Rock Musical Explosion “Evita” Still Resonates 40 Years Later
Updated: May 18, 2021
The Western Stage Offers “A Touch of Star Quality”
TWS concludes its 2019 season with Tim Rice’s and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s revolutionary rock opera, “Evita,” the true story of an ordinary woman’s meteoric rise to power. “Evita” follows the life of Eva Perón from her humble beginnings to the extraordinary wealth, power, and status which ultimately led her to be heralded as the ‘spiritual leader of the nation’ by the Argentine people. Performs Nov. 9 – Dec. 7, 2019 on the Mainstage at the Hartnell College Performing Arts Center (Building K), 411 Central Ave., Salinas. Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m.; Sundays at 2:00 p.m.
I confess – all my life until just recently, I really didn’t like “Evita.” And like most things we THINK we dislike, the root cause is more often than not, a result of one’s own misunderstanding of the object at hand.
I grew up with the music of the impresario Andrew Lloyd Webber. As a kid amusing myself in my living room (with the help of my parents’ vast CD collection of Broadway’s best), I pretended to be the fair Christine from “Phantom of the Opera,” angelically singing along to “Think of Me,” “All I Ask of You,” and getting goosebumps EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. that organ pumped out Phantom’s signature theme. I pounced and scrambled atop the furniture with the delightfully nonsensical music of “Cats.” I even have embarrassing VHS evidence of myself as a gangly petrified 6th grader performing my rendition of “Memory” for my school talent show.
But I could never understand why the music from “Evita” didn’t move and thrill me in the same way other show tunes did. The subject of the musical, the life of Eva Perón, is significant enough, but the music never nestled itself nicely in my brain. The reason, as I have recently discovered, is that “Evita” was conceived to do more than titillate the musical palette, and its style and format have meaning beyond the usual fluff and sparkle of your average musical. To understand “Evita,” one first needs to be familiar with the style known as Brechtian theatre.
This guy Bertolt Brecht (1898 – 1956) was a German playwright who developed a politicized form of theater he called “epic drama,” a style that relies on the audience’s reflective detachment rather than emotional involvement. The term ‘Brechtian’ is often used to describe certain devices used in this type of performance, such as direct address to an audience, the use of placards or signs, or displaying the mechanics of the production, instead of hiding them behind illusionist aesthetics. The form forces audiences to focus on the message conveyed by the story by constantly reminding them that they are watching a piece of theatre, rather than allowing them to get carried away with feeling for the characters.
“Evita’s” narrative revolves around a double-love story. One is the romance between Eva and Juan Perón, Argentine Army General and three-term President of Argentina. The other is a love story between Eva and the people of Argentina, the working class descamisados (“the shirtless ones,” underprivileged workers), with whom Eva grew up. They loved her deeply and she loved them back. The Act II opener, “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina,” is the hallmark of this relationship, a melody that echoes throughout the show. But those two love stories are only part of the show’s point. The other part is Ché, the antagonistic narrator, who continually tells us what a manipulator and liar Eva is. Originally, Ché was intended to be an anonymous Everyman, not the revolutionary Ché Guevara. But ever since Hal Prince’s Broadway production, he has been Ché Guevara.
The brilliance of Tim Rice’s lyrics and narrative structure lies in this dichotomy between the cold, political world of Ché and the passionate, romantic, melodramatic world of Eva. With a few exceptions, these two central figures exist in opposing theatrical styles, as different as their political philosophies. Though they probably never met in real life, in “Evita,” Eva and Ché are linked by destiny, both wanting a populist revolution, though he wanted to discard the existing power structure while she worked inside it. Both were flawed and controversial leaders, both were considered saints by their followers, and both became cultural icons around the world. It is this opposition that is reflected in the music and lyrics of “Evita.” The central conflict of the story is the real-life contrast 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. Thus, “Evita” was never meant to be a toe-tapping frivolous romp; rather, it is a rock ‘n’ roll musical manifestation of a very specific message: truth vs. perceived truth. It’s about the public perception of political movements and radical social change.
For “Evita,” Rice wrote what he was best at, ironic, 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’.” “Evita” is at least partly about the idea of authenticity, the watchword and foundation of rock and roll. Lloyd Webber wrote the most mature score of his career for “Evita.” He took care to follow the precepts of Wagner and Sondheim, using musical leitmotifs, to make a dramatic connection, to develop character, or to add subtle commentary on the action.
The fun of “Evita” is that Rice and Lloyd Webber give us 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 Ché apparently thinks? Or was she just a 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?
Theatre friends, I am now a bona fide “Evita” convert. I love that the show runs deeper than surface level. It’s ambitious, yet cynical. Romantic, yet lustful. The rock opera, by nature, leaves little room for reflection or introspection, as each song melds into the next, taking one on a hypnotic roller coaster. I venture to say it may even be Rice’s and Lloyd Webber’s best. There, I said it (Sorry, “Cats” lovers). But don’t take my word for it. Come see “Evita” and decide for yourself.
Cast list: Malinda DeRouen (Eva), Justin Gaudoin (Ché), Jeff Hinderscheid (Perón) Jared Hussey (Magaldi), Sarah Horn (Perón’s Mistress), Ensemble: Angel Dratz, Tom Hepner, John Fair, Lanier Fairchild, Pat Horsley, Jaime Jones, Ben Larsen, Kaatia Larsen, Levi Larsen, Calvin Lopez, Celia Madison, Stella Melone, Joshua Reeves, Jeff Richman, Pete Russell, Briana Sandoval, Ashley Tripp, Amanda Vollema, Eric Wishnie
The Western Stage’s production is directed by Joanne Gordon; music direction by Don Dally; choreography by Megan Tan; technical direction by Theodore Michael Dolas, costume, hair, and makeup design by Maegan Roux; lighting design by Derek Duarte; and sound design by Jeff Mockus.
From the Director, Joanne Gordon: ‘Forty years ago “Evita” exploded on Broadway and musical theatre was changed forever. Andrew Lloyd Webber, Tim Rice, and Hal Prince created a theatrical miracle that was meaningful, smart, and vastly entertaining. “Evita” is perhaps even more relevant today. As the rifts in our body politic grow wider – questions about dictatorship, democracy, and demagoguery have become increasingly urgent. “Evita” sings and dances and in an evening of high octane power exposes the corrupting force of political cult worship.’
Source material: “Inside Evita: Background and Analysis for New Line Theater” by Scott Miller: http://www.newlinetheatre.com/evitachapter.html
“Evita” performs November 9 – December 7, 2019 on the Mainstage. Hartnell College Performing Arts Center (Building K), 411 Central Ave., Salinas. Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m.; Sundays at 2:00 p.m. www.westernstage.com/tickets or call (831) 755-6816 (Wed – Sat, 5:00 – 8:00 p.m.)
*The views and opinions expressed in this blog belong solely to the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Western Stage*