After the success of their 1970 concept album-turned-rock musical Jesus Christ Superstar, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice teamed up again to create a rock opera about the controversial political figure Eva Peron, the First Lady of Argentina. The two young collaborators scrapped plans to write a musical adaptation of Peter Pan after Rice became mesmerized by a 1973 radio program about the glamorous blonde known as Evita. Soon, the librettist saw a TV movie titled The Queen of Hearts by Argentine director Carlos Pasini, and he was hooked.
The Lady’s Got Potential
Eva Peron was born Eva Duarte, a fatherless child in the village of Los Toldos in 1919. At age 15, she moved to Buenos Aires to pursue dreams of stardom. The young actress attracted the attention of rising political figure Juan Peron, and by age 26, she was her country's globe-trotting First Lady. A popular figure as head of the charitable Eva Peron Foundation, she led the effort to win Argentine women the right to vote. Urged by adoring workers to run for Vice President on a ticket led by her husband (much to the military's dismay), she declined due to ill health and died of cancer at age 33 on July 26, 1952.
Rice traveled to Buenos Aires in 1974 to research Peron and her culture (he even named his first daughter after Eva). After some convincing, Lloyd Webber began work on the score. Although never confirmed, it is generally believed that the duo used the strongly anti-Peronist 1952 novel The Woman With the Whip as the main source for the musical.
The double album was recorded from April to September 1976 at Olympic Studios in London and was released in November of that year. Julie Covington sang the role of Eva Peron, and her rendition of the power ballad "Don't Cry For Me Argentina" reached number one on the U.K. charts in February 1977. Future Les Miserables star Colm Wilkinson (then going by the name C. T. Wilkinson) sang the part of Che. In Britain, Australia, South Africa, South America and various parts of Europe, Evita outsold Jesus Christ Superstar.
Director Harold Prince joined the creative team and made a few notable changes to the musical. He replaced Che’s rock anthem “The Lady’s Got Potential” with a more plot-driven “The Art of the Possible,” which charts Juan Peron's rise to power. He also changed Rice’s generic narrator Che into the real-life revolutionary Che Guevara. (The current Broadway revival as well as the movie adaptation revert Che back to an everyman narrator.)
After Julie Covington turned down the stage role because she thought the impact of her singing would be lost in a theater, relative newcomer Elaine Paige won the role in Prince’s London premiere of Evita, joined by pop singer David Essex as Che and Joss Ackland as Juan Peron. The musical opened at the Prince Edward Theatre on June 21, 1978, and received mixed reviews, but it went on to win the Society of West End Theatre Award (now Olivier Award) for Musical of the Year and Paige took home the award for Performance of the Year in a musical. The London production played 2,900 performances before closing in 1986.
A Little Touch of Star Quality
“The height of anticipation over the Broadway production of Evita was pretty much the first of its kind for a musical,” actress Patti LuPone wrote in her 2010 memoir. “Every actress in the country wanted this part—Barbra Streisand, Ann-Margret, Meryl Streep, Faye Dunaway, even Raquel Welch.”
Despite the odds against her, LuPone, a virtual unknown, won the role of Eva in the Broadway premiere of Evita. Directed by Hal Prince and co-starring Mandy Patinkin as Che and Bob Gunton as Peron, Evita opened at the Broadway Theatre on September 25, 1979, and played 1,567 performances before closing in 1983. As in London, the show received mixed reviews, but audiences didn't care. “It made me a star,” wrote LuPone. “It was the most difficult role I had been given to play.” Evita took home seven 1980 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Book, Best Score and awards for Prince's direction and LuPone and Patinkin's performances.
You Must Love Me
“The rumors for a movie of Evita began after its London opening,” Tim Rice wrote on his website. “Of all the women considered for the title role, the two who had proved how well they could play Eva Peron—Elaine Paige and Patti LuPone—seemed to have been barely thought about.”
Although actresses ranging from Meryl Streep to Michelle Pfeiffer were at one point attached to the film, pop singer Madonna fervently campaigned for the role. “I remember sitting down during Christmas of '94 and writing an impassioned letter to the director, Alan Parker, listing the reasons why I was the only one who could portray [Evita], explaining that only I could understand her passion and her pain,” the singer told Vanity Fair. “I can honestly say that I did not write this letter of my own free will. It was as if some other force drove my hand across the page.”
Duly impressed, Parker cast Madonna opposite Antonio Banderas as Che (seven years before his Broadway debut in Nine) and Tony-winning Miss Saigon star Jonathan Pryce as Juan Peron. The movie was filmed on location in Buenos Aires in 1996, including the famous scene in which Evita sings “Don't Cry for Me, Argentina” from the balcony of the Casa Rosada. For the film, Rice and Lloyd Webber wrote a new song, “You Must Love Me,” which won the Oscar for Best Original Song. Madonna won the 1997 Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy, though she did not receive a coveted Oscar nomination.
What's New, Buenos Aires?
In 2004, Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh began planning an Evita revival for the West End. They envisioned a production that was more authentically Latin and that would include “You Must Love Me.” After a worldwide search, Argentine actress Elena Roger won the title role in Michael Grandage’s production, which opened at the Adelphi Theatre on June 21, 2006 (the same date as the original 1978 production). “She's so outstandingly good,” Rice said of Roger in the Los Angeles Times. “Her Evita veers toward the sympathetic; after all, it's her country.”
Roger won rave reviews and an Olivier Award nomination, sparking speculation about a Broadway revival of Evita. Almost six years later, the actress signed on to reprise her Olivier-nominated performance opposite international singing sensation Ricky Martin as Che and Tony winner Michael Cerveris as Juan Peron, with director Michael Grandage and choreographer Rob Ashford re-creating their work at the Marquis Theatre. More than three decades after she first electrified Broadway audiences, the lady on the balcony is back.