I have a confession to make. I’m a massive, and I mean massive, musical theatre fan. Throughout my life I’ve become passionately besotted with a range of productions, from Rent to Wicked, but there’s one musical that I adore more than any other. This is Evita, the first musical I ever watched and indeed, the production which kick-started my lifelong relationship with this genre of entertainment. Sit back, relax and keep reading, as I narrated the story of my enduring love affair with Evita…
Life and lies
Created by the legendary Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, Evita is a musical which tells the story of the controversial, yet much-loved, Argentine First Lady Eva Peron. Born in 1919 Eva, who would later be nicknamed ‘Evita’ by her adoring masses, didn’t have it easy growing up. She was the product of an illegitimate relationship between a poor, rurally-based woman and a married middle-class man, in a time where illegitimacy was a serious social stigma the world over. An ambitious girl, who dreamed of making it big as a star, Eva didn’t let her circumstances stop her from achieving her dreams.
Moving to Buenos Aires when she was around 14/15, Eva eventually made a name for herself as a radio actress. It is rumoured that she often had clandestine relationships with powerful men to climb the career ladder and reports have since revealed that she was ambitious yet could be difficult to work with. Eva’s life changed forever when she met seasoned-general Juan Peron, who was at that time a minister in Argentina’s military government, at a benefit concert. The two struck up an affair, fell passionately in love and even married, despite the vast differences in their social stations.
Peron was a magnetic figure, a true populist with serious political ambitions. As he fell in love with Eva, Peron started positioning himself to become the next President of Argentina, attracting disaffected workers to his cause by preaching a message of social equality. Peron was elected to the office of President in 1946, making Eva his First Lady and the Argentine population fell in love with her as quickly as her husband had. The Peronist government was noticeably authoritarian in character, but Eva was its attractive face, winning acclaim among the people for her charity work.
As quickly as Eva’s star rose, it faded. When Peron ran for re-election in 1951, many – including Eva – wanted his magnetic First Lady to be his running mate. This was too much for a military class which had long-despised Eva as a poor girl who had ‘ideas above her station’ and eventually she decided not to run. Although she was given the nominal title of ‘Spiritual Head of the Nation,’ which must have been some consolation. It emerged soon afterwards that Eva was suffering from cancer and Argentina’s brightest star died in 1952, prompting a mass outpouring of grief among the population.
Peron’s regime may have been despotic, one which suppressed dissent via often brutal means, but the story of the young starlet turned saint-like First Lady continued to entrance people all over the world long after her death. Andrew Lloyd Webber was one of these people and throughout his early career went about creating a musical loosely based on her life. After releasing a concept album of songs exploring the life and lies of Eva Peron in 1976, Lloyd Webber used the songs from this collection to stage a musical which he titled Evita, which soon became a roaring success.
Evita was first staged in the West End in 1978, starring Elaine Paige in the title role, Joss Ackland as Juan Peron and David Essex as Che, the show’s narrator who is rumoured to have been based on Che Guevara. Boasting a string of hits, including most notably ‘Don’t Cry For Me Argentina’, Evita soon gripped the imagination of the world. It eventually went on to Broadway and even became a film in the 1990s, with these productions starring the likes of Patti LuPone, Madonna, Mandy Patinkin, Antonia Banderas and Jonathan Pryce, winning critical acclaim and a slew of awards along the way.
I was a relative late comer to the global phenomenon that is Evita. My mother Felicity Davis, the woman who would go on to create her own critically acclaimed work Sins of the Family, took me to see the film when it came out in 1996. I was immediately entranced; the glamorous 1940s fashion, the drama, the mix of upbeat and melancholy music numbers, they all captured my imagination, turning me into a lifelong fan. When I got home, I made sure mum bought me the album and I fell so in love with the enchanting music of Evita that I still listen to it to this day.
I was fortunate enough to see Evita on stage during my early 20s when I was living in Sheffield. The film is incredible enough, but seeing Evita on stage allowed me to find a new appreciation for this amazing production. There’s one number, ‘Buenos Aires’, where Eva first moves to the Argentine capital and it’s a fantastic high-energy piece, full of passionate Latin dancing and scintillating lyrical gems. Let me tell you, seeing ‘Buenos Aires’ performed live was something I’ll always remember, as the stars of the show wowed their audience with their frenetic yet passionate dancing, making this classic number truly come alive. Ever since that day, I’ve called myself an Evita super fan.
So why has this production endured to become a seminal classic? The music itself certainly played a part. When its characters regale us with songs like ‘Another Suitcase in Another Hall’, where Eva realises just how hard it is to make it in the big city, we as the audience are pulled into her world, identifying and even rooting for our tragic heroine. But I believe it is the story itself, one coloured with love, loss, passion, drama, intrigue, struggle and above all glamour, that has truly made Evita a timeless musical. It indulges our love of drama whilst making us come to care for the protagonist by tapping into common human emotions. After all, who hasn’t struggled at some point in their life?
Evita has gained a new relevance in the current political climate. Following the election of Donald Trump as US President, our politics have taken on a populist bent, with many leaders positioning themselves as champions of the people whilst engaging in politically dubious practises and promoting distrust of the free press. Anyone see any parallels between Peronist Argentina, where a general framed himself as the man who could stand up to both the all-powerful military and the oppressive upper classes, and Trump’s America, where a billionaire positioned himself as the man who could drain a ‘swamp’ of corruption? There are even parallels between Donald and Eva; they’re both media stars who became polarising political figures. Evita serves as a warning, illustrating how populism may give the masses political stars to adore but it can also erode said masses’ civil liberties.
I have loved Evita ever since I was eight years old. As a child I adored its glamour and drama, whilst as an adult I am enthralled by its incredibly complex heroine, timeless musical numbers, gripping story and enduring cultural relevance. If you are the type of person who turns their nose up whenever the words ‘musical theatre’ are mentioned in polite conversation, I implore you to place your scepticism to one side and watch this seminal production; you’ll soon love it a much as I do.