Don’t cry for me, Argentina

Starring as Eva Perón, Tina Arena is backed up by the ensemble as they perform What’s New, Buenos Aires in Evita. Photo: Sophie Deutsch

IF there was ever an Academy Award for best political musical, Evita would surely be a hot contender.

Depicting the tumultuous life and times of Eva Perón, the second wife of Argentinian president Juan Perón and played by the legendary Tina Arena, Eva’s dynamic personality polarised Argentine society in the 1930s and 1940s.

Throughout the decades since, and still to this day, the first lady’s legacy continues to divide Argentinian society, perhaps as much as it will unite audiences in Australia, when the iconic Broadway musical Evita appears at the Sydney Opera House from September 13, and then at Arts Centre Melbourne from December 5.

Resident associate director to Broadway legend Harold Prince – whose musical directorship includes Evita, The Phantom of the Opera and Sweeney Todd – Daniel Kutner commented: “Eva and Juan Perón represent the first media or political stars of their age … There are people that come out every day and put flowers on Eva’s tomb [and say], ‘she built my grandmother’s house’ or ‘she rescued us’ … The two of them, in their fascist regime, depleted a country that was rich in beef and agriculture, and had a huge gold reserve. For every dollar they put in, they put two dollars into their own coffers. Did they do some good? Yeah. Did they do a lot of bad? You bet!”

Such polarising figures hit close to home in the current climate of deep political divisiveness.

“Just like Eva, for every person that hates Donald Trump in America, there is someone that loves him, as misguided as that might be,” remarked resident director Pip Mushin. “Eva Perón just polarised the entire country.”

But perhaps more concerning than the polarising power of both Eva and Trump, are the similarities that some have drawn between the leadership practices of Trump and Juan.

In an analysis that appeared in The Washington Post, professor of modern history at the University of Sydney, A. Dirk Moses argued: “Peron valorised the police and the armed forces against imagined enemies of the people both inside and outside Argentina … Meanwhile, Trump’s Make America Great Again slogan suggests that the American character is in decline, and his repeated observation that ours [America] is a divided nation that he intends to unify underscores the sense of alienation and danger that fuels his populist message.”

While there aren’t Jewish references in the musical per se, Mushin remarked: “Whenever there is a mention of a date in the show, I can’t help but think [about] what is happening in Europe at the time.”

Yet there is no mention in Evita of any upheaval plaguing Europe during this period.  “The Peróns are too busy repressing their own people,” said Mushin.

Against this politically fractured landscape, the socialist, revolutionary character of Che (played by Kurt Kansley), who, in many ways, represents Che Guevara, actively opposes the regime, holding the Peróns accountable to the Argentine people and reminding them that making decisions in the best interests of the people should be their utmost priority.

In the role of Juan will be Paulo Szot, and Michael Falzon is set to star as Magaldi, the tango singer who brings Eva to Buenos Aires, while Alexis van Maanen plays Juan’s mistress.

Though political parallels ensure the musical remains relevant today, creative ingenuity and a culture of collaboration have made Evita a musical masterpiece that transcends the ages.

“It has an impeccable score, is highly entertaining and moves like gangbusters,” said Kutner. “I love The Phantom of the Opera, but there are some spots in that show where I lose a bit of interest. Evita doesn’t stop. I love every moment of it and that’s not a soundbite, that’s for real.”

Ensemble cast member Alie Coste concurred, “I love being in the ensemble, representing who the people were at that time. There are so many different characters that we play,” while Anton Berezin, also in the ensemble, remarked: “It is very skilled, crafted, efficient writing, so it runs at a cracking pace, but every song, every lyric tells you ­something.”

Ensemble cast members Alie Coste (left) and Anton Berezin (right), resident associate director Daniel Kutner (second from left), and resident director Pip Mushin.

In a technically complex production like Evita, the importance of a strong ensemble cannot be overstated.

“Even though we are honed in on a few principles, it’s the society that was really affected. The ensemble plays a multitude of characters and is really the motor by which the show works,” explained Kutner.

Tracing Evita back to its origins in the 1970s, it is evident how the musical has grown to be a worldwide success.

“The legendary Hal Prince, the brilliant choreographer Larry Fuller, [composer] Andrew Lloyd Webber, [lyricist] Tim Rice were at the very top of their game [in the late ’70s] and that’s why this piece stands the test of time,” said Kutner.

On the stage itself, the culture of collaboration filters through to all elements of production.

“Hal is the type of director who doesn’t understand the piece until he can visualise it, so the scenery is first and foremost built right into the DNA of the piece, so he brings on his designers immediately,” explains Kutner.

He keeps in mind the storytelling, the musicality, the staging. It was built together.”

In most musicals, including Evita, there is often one climactic point that captures the story arc, and remains ingrained in the public memory.

In Les Misérables, at the end of Act 1, the main characters each perform solos before marching in unison, creating one of the most enthralling moments in musical history.

“There is one pivot in a good play that shows you more than it tells you,” commented Berezin. “Good writing puts layers of detail in on top of the words, so the audience actually discovers and owns it. In Les Misérables, at the end of Act 1, you get 100 pages worth of story in a three-minute song because it is so well written.”

According to Mushin, One Day More in Les Misérables is what A New Argentina is to Evita.

A New Argentina is everything that we love about musical theatre – an ensemble full of characters, coming at us with those voices and that incredible image,” remarked Mushin. “What is interesting is that when you compare it to One Day More at the end of Act 1 of Les Misérables, that is only four or five years after Evita … That’s how good it is, that one of the greatest, Les Misérables, has used the same device while it is fresh in everyone’s minds [after] Evita.”

SOPHIE DEUTSCH

Evita is being staged at the Sydney Opera House from September 13. Bookings: www.evitathemusical.com.au