As the first Broadway revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's Evita officially opens on April 5, all eyes will be on the Argentinian star of this new production, Elena Roger. At age 37, Roger is making her Broadway debut as the ambitious First Lady of Argentina alongside Main Stem veterans Ricky Martin (as Che) and Michael Cerveris (as Juan Peron). Since relocating to London six years ago to play Eva Peron, Roger has won an Olivier Award for Piaf and picked up two other Olivier nominations for Evita and Passion. During a two-show-day dinner break, the magnetic star invited Broadway.com into her dressing room to share stories about her journey with Evita, working with Ricky Martin and meeting previous Evas Patti LuPone and Elaine Paige.
At the time you were cast for the London revival of Evita, you spoke little English. How did you prepare to tackle this massive role?
In Buenos Aires, I have a very close friend who speaks very good English, and she taught me. It was quite difficult because the muscles of your mouth are used to your language, and then when you want to speak another language they don't go to the place they need to go to make the sound. Then if you've listened to "Buenos Aires," there is the section "fill me with your heat/with your noise/with your dirt/overdo me" [and] it was like, "Oh God, why did he write all those words and fit it in only a little bit of music?"
As an Argentinian actress, what does it mean to play Eva Peron? Any extra pressure?
I think sometimes people say, "Oh why'd they chose an Argentine actress when any of our lovely New York actresses can do this?" But the fact that I did it is because when the director [Michael Grandage] saw my audition he felt that there was something different about my performance. It's my story; it's my history; it's the history of my country; it's in my blood. When I mention the streets like Rio de la Plata or Nueve de Julio, I have been in those streets since I was born so I know what they look like. When I say Buenos Aires, I know what I am talking about, and I think that was in my eyes. All that emotion was there; that's why they chose me. I want to give to the American audience the best I can give.
You’ve been doing this show off and on for almost six years. What has kept it fresh for you?
Well, I did it six years ago, and then I did other shows and I forget Evita. Then I had to think, "Oh god, do I want to do Evita for a year again?" And [in the end] I had to do it because my acting is more mature and I think that being on Broadway is amazing, so that is the best part of it. Now that my English is better, I'm able to talk to the cast and tell them stories about my country. It was quite tough when I went to London: They couldn't understand me too well, and I couldn't understand them too well. It improved through the year, but at the beginning when rehearsals are going and you want to speak—my God, it was so frustrating.
The Perons are considered by many people to be villains. Do you find yourself defending Evita? How has your view of her and her husband changed from being part of this musical?
It impossible to judge and criticize someone and just put a wrong or right. It's gray, it's not only white or black. The character has a lot of complex things: She is a woman; she is tough. I am still reading biographies, and every day I read something and say "Oh, whoa!"
You’ve had leading roles in Argentina and London, but what does it mean to be on Broadway? Was Broadway always a goal for you?
I never thought I could be on Broadway [and] I never thought I was going to go to London, because my English wasn't very good and I have an accent. But when the universe wants you to do something, they open the door and you are there. It wasn't a goal, but it is great!
What is it like working with Ricky Martin and Michael Cerveris? What do they bring to the roles of Che and Juan Peron?
Because he is Latin, I think Ricky brings something [extra], and he has been in Argentina a lot so he knows what he is talking about. He is so professional. He has such a light onstage! He is like an angel. He is also a wonderful person [and] to be working with him is great. He is amazing in the role. Michael Cerveris did so much research about Peron that I am amazed. Every day he comes in and says, "Look what I bought, look what I got, look what I've seen." I really appreciate and thank Michael for understanding my country.
Have you had any contact with any of the ladies who did the role before you—Elaine Paige, Patti LuPone or Madonna?
I met Patti LuPone and Elaine Paige in a party. I didn’t speak too much with Patti, but she was lovely with me. Elaine Paige gave me some advice…it was a secret, but it was something like, "You know when I used to do the part, I used to this..." I appreciated that.
Evita, Edith Piaf and Fosca in Passion—why do you think you keep getting cast these super-dramatic roles?
It's not me, it's the universe trying to bring me all this stuff. Piaf I did it because I wanted to do more theater instead of only musicals, and someone gave me the book and said to me, "You have to do it." Maybe because I'm tiny or something [laughs]. I started reading the book and said, "Oh, this is very difficult but it could be a great challenge." Then Fosca—well, I love that story.
Which of those three parts feels closest to you?
I think the three characters are great, and they [each] have something. I love the power of Evita and the fact that she was an actress. With Piaf and Evita, I try to understand what it was like to be a woman in those times, in a man's world. It was very difficult because they were vanguards—they opened doors for other women. There was something that attracted me to Piaf because she was a singer and the strength she had about that profession. It was like, "Oh my God, this woman really loved to sing and to be a performer." And with Passion, I love the story of that hopeful woman because society is hard if your beauty is not the stereotype, but that doesn't mean anything. What matters is how you are inside, and that's why I love Fosca. She wasn't pretty, but she could have that man too.
Which is more challenging to sing: Sondheim’s Passion or Lloyd Webber’s Evita?
Evita is harder.
In Patti LuPone's memoir, she talked about the extreme vocal demands of Evita. How are you maintaining your voice?
In London, I have a reflex problem and I lost my voice for about 10 days. It's tough because it's an emotional show too. We have alternates that perform two shows because it's so emotional—it's not something you can sing cold. You have to scream and cry. When I started rehearsing again, I thought, "Am I going to be able to sing this?" But because I did it a year in London, it was in the muscle memory.
What do you miss most about your home city [Buenos Aires]?
The people I know there, and the streets. And my family, that's the most important thing I am missing. I have a new niece and I don't know her so I would like to go and meet her.
What is something you are dying to do while you spend a year living in New York?
I am living in Chelsea and I think it's a lovely neighborhood. I would like to study some theater here. I would like to go to some museums and walk around, know the city as much as I can.
You’ve spent most of your 30s living and working in London, and now New York. Does that make it difficult to maintain a life outside of the theater?
I am very lucky: I have my family, my friends and my profession. My life is this—it's all together.