Who Is This Santa Evita?

I never wanted to work on Evita.

Mandy Patinkin and Patti LuPone on BroadwayDon't get me wrong -- I always loved the show. I saw the original Broadway production with Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin, and listened to the cast album for hours on end. In fact, I think I always liked Evita a little more than Jesus Christ Superstar because it's a better, more interesting score. But the original production of Evita was massive. Director Hal Prince blew Evita up to ridiculously huge proportions, just as he would do to Sweeney Todd a year later (and now New Line has undone it to both shows). And La LuPone and Mr. Patinkin both gave us the most profoundly unlikeable characters I have ever seen on stage. Interesting, sure, but blocked off from any real emotion or empathy. LuPone delivered almost every line sarcastically. She was angry, bitchy, and scheming. Who wants to spend time with that?

Then not too long ago, I heard the original 1976 concept album with Julie Covington and Colm Wilkinson (who would later create the role of Jean Valjean in Les Miz), and I was quite shocked to hear a very different Evita. This was rock opera, like Superstar. It wasn't the massive, heavily orchestrated spectacle I had seen in New York. And it was romantic. After all, this is really a double love story, not a political story. One romance (which is quite possibly non-sexual) is between Eva and her daddy figure Juan Peron. The other romance is between Eva and "her people," the working class Argentines that she grew up with, who genuinely love her as much as she loves them. But all that emotion was stripped out on Broadway. Which is, I think, a big reason why the idea of working on it never appealed to me. I like working on theatre that is emotional.

This afternoon I was watching a behind-the-scenes documentary about Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera. Now, I really hate this show. I think it's banal and badly written, with truly some of the worst, most awkward, most cliched lyrics I've ever heard on Broadway. But as I watched the documentary, I found out that Phantom also started out much more rock and roll, and much funnier, more ironic, and that Steve Harley, a British rock/pop singer had been hired first to play the Phantom. And I can hear now how cool some of these songs might have been -- there's footage in the documentary of Harley singing the title song and it works so much better with a rock voice, instead of Michael Crawford's heavy, labored, pseudo-legit scooping and sliding.

Other songs, like "Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again" and "All I Ask of You," are pretty bland, but with rock voices and less strict adherence to the very straight, syncopation-free melody lines, those songs could have been much more interesting and much more emotional. If you look at the Superstar music on the page, it looks pretty straight and bland, and if you sang exactly what's on the page, it would suck. But it's rock music, so people take liberties with it and give it personality and passion. They add ornaments and shift rhythms. Evita works straight, but it works better as rock. Phantom doesn't work straight at all (in my opinion), but it might have been better had he allowed it to be rock.

And I realize now that in Lloyd Webber's ongoing and fairly desperate quest to be taken seriously as a composer, he has turned his back on rock and roll, the only musical language in which he writes really great music. After Joseph and Superstar, his first instinct was to write Evita in that same language, but some part of him decided instead to make parts of it faux classical -- and not really as good. Then after a brief return to rock/pop with Cats (a score I like very much), he made the exact same mistake with Phantom. Yeah, I know what you're thinking... that's some mistake that made him a multi-millionaire! But his insecurity left us with the bloated, overwrought Phantom that wrings emotion out of its audience with its sets and orchestrations, instead of with character and story. People feel moved at the end of the show, but they don't realize they're being emotionally manipulated by a very skillful director, designers, and orchestrator. Instead of being moved by truth, they are being moved by accessories. (Try reading some of the Phantom lyrics out loud and you'll see how dreadful they are without all the trappings... )

I think this is a potent illustration of the dangers of commercial theatre. When Rice and Lloyd Webber had no idea if anyone would produce their work on stage, they wrote cool, inventive scores like Joseph and the really brilliant JC Superstar. But once Lloyd Webber became too aware of himself as a "Broadway composer," and of the expectations that he and others imposed on his work, his music suffered. Evita was right in the middle of that change, so luckily it still works as real rock opera.

We're going to show people what Evita can be, with honest performances, genuine emotion, and that sense of authenticity that comes from rock and roll. Tim Rice's lyrics don't really fit Hal Prince's cold, nasty vision of the show (the same was true for Sweeney). What I hope we bring our audiences is what Rice really wrote: a show that presents both sides of the myth of Eva Peron and lets the audience choose sides. Was she a saint, as the people believed? Was she a devil, as Che 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 things? She is certainly complicated. It's that conflicting legacy -- and our inability to know for sure one way or the other which is more true -- that makes her story so fascinating. But she's not the cold-hearted bitch that Patti LuPone gave us. That's just not what Tim Rice wrote. If we do our job right, we'll show you what Tim Rice wrote.

Stay tuned.

Long Live the Musical!