"Don't cry for me Argentina," Evita sings to her people; "the truth is I shall not leave you/Though it may get harder/For you to see me/I'm Argentina/And always will be."* So ends the tale of Eva Duarte Peron, as transformed into stage opera by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice.
Evita has played, is playing, or will play in virtually every country in the Americas, not including Argentina, in most of the great cities of Europe, and now throughout the United States and Canada. It holds enough awards to bring any trophy shelf crashing to the ground, and like its predecessor by Webber and Rice, Jesus Christ Superstar, it crashes deafeningly on the ears and in its best moments pounds on the mind and tugs at the gut. Evita cannot truly be called a great work of music and lyrics, but it is intensely powerful theater. Harold Prince is responsible for the occasionally brilliant and always satisfying direction, and a string of splendid casts has brought the show to huge audiences everywhere. Evita is becoming the adult road show of choice, as Annie a few years ago became the road show for the family and kiddie trade.
Annie, however, is nicey-nicey; Evita is a downer, gloriously depressing and more than a little propagandistic; more than a little interestingly viewed in the context of current American politics, too. Argentina in the late 1940s and early 1950s had its actress at the center of power; for America in the early 1980s the analogy is facile, too facile, but perhaps instructive. The show, which began as a double record album before it was staged in 1978 in London, was obviously not designed as a commentary on an American presidency that had not yet materialized and that appeared in 1978 only a dim possibility. But something about the early career of Ronald Reagan—radio announcing, then, later, screen acting—comes to mind, perhaps almost automatically nowadays, while watching the rise of Eva Duarte from nightclub and stage actress to highly paid radio star, this on the way to the presidential palace in Argentina.
Evita is not a cry against actors in politics, but it helps us see the connection between acting and politics, rarely so successfully effected, if briefly, as in the careers of Juan Domingo Peron and his wife. Peron was one of many contending would-bes in the early 1940s; Eva saw in him perhaps more than he at first saw in himself. She certainly knew how to dramatize the moment and make it hers, and theirs. In October 1945, Peron was arrested and imprisoned. Eva, by then his mistress, organized popular demonstrations on his behalf. Five days later he was released, and the temporarily unfortunate vice-president was on his road to the presidency, which he won in February of the next year. Six years remained for the Perons together. She died of cancer in July 1952; Peron survived another three years in power and then fled to Uruguay and eventually to Spain. Peron's story goes on for two decades more, but Evita ends with Eva's death, when the fizzle went out of Peron if not, quite yet, out of Peronism.
Evita is highly stylized drama, truly operatic—not musical theater as we know it primarily through musical comedy. There are moments of comedy in Evita, but they are few: this is the story of an ascendant and descendant wielder of influence and power, and it is grimly told. Che Guevara, born in Argentina though only 24 when Eva Peron died, performs the function of commentator and clarion of the people, as well as symbol of the oppressed, throughout Evita. Though we think of Che because of his close association with Fidel Castro and with the cause of modern Cuba, and that of revolution throughout Latin America in his (presumably) last days, his family in Argentina was anti-Peronist and he, too, expressed anti-Peronist sentiments during Eva's life. Though there is no reason to think that they ever met or exchanged glances, the presence of Che in Eva's story seems neither forced nor inappropriate.
This is Eva's life, but it is also Che's political evaluation bubbling up to the surface. Evita begins with Eva's death, with Che appearing almost immediately to scoff: "Oh what a circus! Oh what a show!/Argentina has gone to town/Over the death of an actress called Eva Peron."* Eva's first appearance is as the voice singing "Don't Cry for Me Argentina," the show's most—some would say its only—memorable tune, which returns in various versions several times. Eva urges Argentina to cry not just for Eva but for everybody and to share her glory and her coffin. To which Che responds: "It's our funeral too." By the end, when she tells Argentina not to cry for her, she informs the world that she is Argentina "and always will be."*
Between those two moments, a life has been episodically recreated, its essence beautifully, pointedly captured, the lines of that rise from obscurity to the top sketched in a series of bold strokes: the girl conning a second-rate entertainer into taking her to Buenos Aires; her use of various men for favors; her meeting with Peron and quick intrusion into his life; her manipulation of his career for their benefit; her triumphs. The decline is less successfully portrayed, perhaps because we have been drawn into a wildly improbable affection for this scheming, single-minded woman, whose demagoguery is clear to us even if it wasn't to the Argentine masses. Admiring her, we recoil from her illness and death. Only Che retains his distance throughout, sneering at the masses whose queen is dead, whose king is through: "She's not coming back to you!"*
Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice have mined some of this territory before, in their story of Jesus, the superstar. They stand firmly in opposition to the powerful simply, even almost simplistically, as champions of the dissenters, determined to pound home that message. The success both of Jesus Christ Superstar and of Evita demonstrates at once the wide appeal of that stance in the contemporary theater and the skills of these two talented young men in capitalizing upon it.
Contributing Editor David Brudnoy is arts critic for WNEV-TV (CBS) News and WRKO-AM (ABC) in Boston. He hosts a nightly talk program on WRKO, writes regularly for the Boston Herald American, and syndicates a thrice-weekly newspaper column.
*Lyrics by Tim Rice, Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Copyright © 1976, by Evita Music, Ltd., London, England. Sole Selling Agent Leeds Music Corporation, 445 Park Avenue, New York, NY 10022.