DIVA TALK: One of the Greatest Diva Roles Ever -- Evita

DIVA TALK: One of the Greatest Diva Roles Ever -- Evita On December 25, 1996, more than fifteen years after its Broadway debut, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's Tony Award-winning musical, Evita, will finally hit the silver screen. The Grammy-winning superstar, Madonna, will portray Eva; the Latino heartthrob Antonio Banderas will play Che; and Tony winner Jonathan Pryce, he of Miss Saigon fame, will play Juan Peron. The upcoming film has frequently made the gossip columns, so I thought I would devote a DIVA column to this show, since it provides one of the greatest diva roles ever written.

On December 25, 1996, more than fifteen years after its Broadway debut, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's Tony Award-winning musical, Evita, will finally hit the silver screen. The Grammy-winning superstar, Madonna, will portray Eva; the Latino heartthrob Antonio Banderas will play Che; and Tony winner Jonathan Pryce, he of Miss Saigon fame, will play Juan Peron. The upcoming film has frequently made the gossip columns, so I thought I would devote a DIVA column to this show, since it provides one of the greatest diva roles ever written.

My fascination with Evita began when I was in sixth grade, and it always remains on my short list of favorite musicals, and it also was, career-wise, the breakthrough show for both London's Elaine Paige and N.Y.'s Patti LuPone.

It was during the 1970's that lyricist Tim Rice heard a documentary on the life of Eva Peron on his car radio, and approached his then-collaborator, Andrew Lloyd Webber, about turning her life into a musical. What resulted was Evita, a concept album (the "white album") starring Julie Covington as Eva Peron and C.T. Wilkinson as Che (C.T. would later call himself Colm Wilkinson and go on to star as Jean Valjean in Les Miserables). This first recording contained more of a rock feel than the inevitable stage version would; however, most of the score remained intact during the transition from album to musical theatre stage.

When the original album was released, "Don't Cry for Me Argentina" soared in the charts in the UK (it failed to do so in the U.S.; only the disco version a few years later reached the masses), and it was decided that Evita would be first staged in London's West End. Julie Covington, who was offered the chance to reprise the role onstage, declined (not one of her better career moves; actually, a few years later, it was announced that she would open the Australian production, but she never did). When Covington thankfully declined the role (she has a vibratoless voice that doesn't thrill as it needs to), an all-out search was made, and Elaine Paige, who would later go on to star in Cats, Chess, Anything Goes, Piaf, and who will make her Broadway debut this August in Sunset Boulevard, won the part. Hal Prince was hired to direct, and his staging added enormously to the success of the show. Evita opened in London in 1978, and the show became the hit of the season, winning the SWET (Society of West End Theatre) Awards for Best Musical, and Paige also was voted Best Actress in a Musical. Other ladies who would go on to play Eva in the West End include Marti Webb (later to originate the "Tell Me On a Sunday" song cycle that would eventually become the first half of Song & Dance; Marti is currently on a European tour of Evita), Kathryn Evans (who currently tries to "Tap Your Trouble Away" in the London Mack & Mabel revival), Stephanie Lawrence (who starred in London and New York in Blood Brothers), and many others.

Some of the lyric changes that were made before the show opened in London include the following: In the first act, there was the addition of the song "The Art of the Possible." During this song, the audience is introduced to Juan Peron as he plays a game of musical chairs with other members of the Argentine army. "The Art of the Possible" replaced "The Lady's Got Potential" from the concept album, which had a good tune but some strange lyrics about Che's involvement in the production of an insecticide. In fact, all references to Che's insecticide were deleted for the stage version. Some other minor lyric changes from album to stage include the scene where Eva encounters Peron's mistress. She sings "Hello and Goodbye. I've just unemployed you/you can go back to school/You've had a good run/I'm sure he enjoyed you/Don't act sad or surprised/let's be friends civilized/Come on little one/Don't sit there like a dummy/The day you knew would arrive/is here you'll survive/So move funny face/I like your conversation/You've a catchy turn of phrase."

This part remained in the staged version; however, there were a few lines that were cut, although the music that accompanied them remained. The lyrics were: "You're obviously going through some adolescent phase/Maybe you've got something more than just a pretty face/maybe not."

Also, there were several changes in the "Dice Are Rolling" sequence in the second act. There was an additional verse that Eva sings (to the tune of "I'd Be Surprisingly Good For You"): "This is not a gambler's final show/Forced upon us by those bastards who've/Only longed to see us up and go/This is not a forced or final move/Which just goes to prove/I'd be good for you/I'd be surprisingly good for you." There are many other minor changes as well.

When it was announced that Evita would move to New York, there were as many actresses vying for the title role as there have been for the part of Norma Desmond in another Lloyd Webber show, Sunset Boulevard. Some of the names mentioned for Evita were Meryl Streep, Ann-Margret and Liza Minnelli.

But the role, as we all know, went to a little-known stage actress, Patti LuPone. Mandy Patinkin, who would go on to star in Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George and The Secret Garden was cast as Che, and Bob Gunton played Peron.

The U.S. production of Evita debuted in Los Angeles at the Dorothy Chandlier Pavilion, and there were rumors throughout this time that LuPone's performance was not satisfactory and that she was going to be replaced by Paige. However, thankfully for New York audiences, she was not, and, in fact, she went on to win the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical. Other Broadway Evas included Derin Altay, Loni Ackerman (also a Grizabella in Cats) and Florence Lacey (recently the vocal highlight of the Hello, Dolly! revival).

The score to Evita is probably the most challenging Broadway score written for a belter. Eva is onstage for most of the show, and there are a few really high belting sections--the "He supports you/for he loves you/understands you/is one of you" sections of "A New Argentina," the "We are tired of/the decline of/Argentina with no sign of" section of "The Art of the Possible," and, of course, the almost-lethal "Rainbow High." You can always tell the good Evas from the bad by how they sing "Rainbow High." The show is so demanding, in fact, that, an Eva alternate played matinee performances in both London and New York.

There have been many recordings of Evita in a number of different languages. The English-language recordings include the original white album starring Julie Covington, which was a two-record set; the recording of the original London cast with Elaine Paige, Joss Ackland and pop star David Essex as Che (unfortunately this recording is only a highlights recording, which Tim Rice has since admitted was a mistake and should have recorded the entire show; he explains that the producers and the creative team didn't think there would be a demand for another two-album set after the original, so only one disk was issued); the Broadway recording starring Patti LuPone, Mandy Patinkin and Bob Gunton (the Broadway cast was actually recorded in Los Angeles before the show ever hit New York); a highlights recording from the European tour starring Florence Lacey; and another recording called "Songs from EVITA" starring Marti Webb. There are also numerous foreign language recordings, ranging from good to, well, bad. If you like to suffer through bad recordings, try picking up the Korean cast of Evita, featuring the first, and hopefully last, operatic Eva.

The movie, which has had more false starts than you can count, is scheduled to open first in New York on Christmas Day and then around the country January 10. It seems as though the film will adhere closely to the original concept album, restoring "The Lady's Got Potential," but with mostly different lyrics for this song. Also, Madonna will sing "Another Suitcase in Another Hall," usually sung by Peron's mistress. Many of the keys have been lowered to fit Madonna's range, which is not a high belt range. Before recording the score, she had been working with a vocal coach, and sources say people will be surprised by her sound. MTV will broadcast a special about the making of the film of Evita, which is currently scheduled to air on June 13.

To tide the many Evita fans over until the movie, the last licensed production of the musical will begin performances June 5 at New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, NJ. Judy McLane, who has starred on Broadway in Aspects of Love, Chess and Kiss of the Spider Woman, will play Eva. For more information or tickets, call (201) 376-4343.

That's all for now. Happy diva-watching.