The snow was falling, work was cancelled and I was snuggled up on the couch watching New York turn milky white. By noon, I'd emptied my DVR and wanted to close my eyes and let Broadway take me away. I've often boasted that I know the Original Broadway Cast album of Evita (with Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin) so well, I can choose a track and listen in my mind anywhere anytime, but the truth is it's been decades since my high obsession peaked and I've filled my head with other Evita recordings. The not-so-great blizzard of 2015 seemed like the perfect time to revisit this iconic musical theatre recording.
I'm instantly transported by the ominous opening strains, the hushed Spanish dialogue (of actual Eva Peron B-movie footage), and then the grinding to a halt as Evita's death in announced first in Spanish, then in English. Boom, the "Requiem Evita" blares out stridently, with sopranos screeching. I'm enthralled and kind of incredulous that this big, hit musical — possibly my favorite — begins with such a dark, frankly unpleasant number. Did I forget about this? I'm haunted as the melody of the "Lament" Eva will sing later makes its appearance. No wonder it's so powerful, despite its short length; when she sings it at the end of Act Two we've already been introduced to the tune in this powerful way.
Just when the shrieking of the Requiem becomes almost too much to bear, we're into the light rock groove of "Oh, What A Circus," and the clear-as-glass cloud of Mandy Patinkin's singular tenor. God, he's good. I've definitely taken him for granted all these years. He sounds so beautiful and yet is so conversational, immediately involving me in the story. Then he gets harder and bitter and his voice is big and exciting, and I'm right there with him. When he climaxes, the Salve Regina chorale comes in as sweet and serene as anything ever and in the most extreme contrast to the harsh opening sounds, we hear Patti LuPone, for the first time, singing the peasant girl trio of "Don't Cry For Me, Argentina." Her sound is so fluid and natural and so full of heart, I'm entranced. As the final line, "So share my glory, so share my coffin" fades out, you know this is the voice of a legend on two levels, Peron and LuPone.
Mandy comes back in, "Now Eva Peron had every disadvantage you need if you're gonna succeed," and the tone of the show is firmly established in the Tim Rice idiom of self-consciously ironic anachronism pulling historical people and events into contemporary context, making them accessible and relatable, as in Jesus Christ Superstar and Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. He introduces Magaldi's campy crooning and then the three-act mini-opera, "Eva, Beware Of The City" takes us to a new level of musical dramatization. Patti is lewd and crass, fearless and relentless in her pragmatism. Magaldi ostensibly gets the last word, ending the song on "whatever you say, I'll not steal you away," but I remember how years before I ever saw the show, I could hear the in the musical transition into "Buenos Aires" that Eva gets her wish. The force of Patti's personality blossoms into joyous abandon as she belts out "Buenos Aires," and I'm elated hearing her effortless young voice leap the intervals seamlessly soaring into the high bridge section without a hint of Broadway harshness, just pretty and clear and strong. "Goodnight And Thank You" makes a galvanizing leap into a presentational Brechtian song style where Che sings to the characters, but remaining mostly outside their reality and mainly telling the story to the audience, with Patti increasingly vampy counterpoint building into a spine-tingling C-section ("There is no one, no one at all…") whose fierce power hints at the less playful plot points on the horizon. Indeed, the menacing "Art of the Possible," sung by Peron and his competitive colleagues in the military is made even scarier (and also thrilling) by Patti's stratospheric chorus, the self-effacing lyrics of which belie the moment's significance as Eva's first political statement.
In the "Charity Concert," I remember how warm and disarming Bob Gunton is as Peron and how romantic the pair's first meeting is via the luscious seductive tones of Patti's "I'd Be Surprisingly Good for You." This heat is drenched in cold water when Eva dumps Peron's mistress in a musical echo of her own mistress days before Jane Ohringer's sunny soprano "Another Suitcase in Another Hall," a simple, folky antidote to all the fires of LuPone. "Peron's Latest Flame" is irrestistible in its uptempo Broadway panache and dumps us on the doorstep of the mammoth "A New Argentina," as good a first act finale as there ever was. Patti's lyrical, languid pillow-talk brilliantly realizes the transition from post-coital intimacy to shrewd manipulation, even managing to earn an L.O.L. from me on "We'll — you'll be handed power on a plate," all these years after first hearing it. Similarly, the decades haven't dampened my goosebumps at her ferocious wailing blasting through the bedroom scene and out to the populace. This is Eva coming into her full strength, and no one can touch Patti's potency as Mandy's passionate posturing and the thunderous chorus bring the first half to a resonant conclusion.
Act Two also begins with a dramatic sequence to hurl the listener into action as Peron works his magic over the roaring throngs until they demand their heroine. The majestic sweep of "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina" is so intoxicating, the world drops away as Patti's inevitable and iconic rendition begins. At first, the singing is so restrained, it's almost timid and then the notes start to sear through the pitches, without a trace of artifice and rising to a powerful climax, although still somehow sensitive, demure. Patti is spine-tingling in thrilling sequence that follows, with her whipping the crowd into a frenzy.
Again, another of Mandy's major Che moments is preceded by unpleasant transition sounds setting up a start contrast when he sings "High Flying, Adored," bright as a blue sky, building to fervent heights and crowned by Patti's shimmering final verse. Her sudden shift into drop-dead seriousness then electrifies the proceedings and explodes into "Rainbow High," with a pulsating chorus providing exponential momentum Patti meets and exceeds at each verse. She is nothing short of regal as the number pays off triumphantly.
"Rainbow Tour" is another musical theatre storytelling number in the milieu of "Goodnight And Thank You, Magaldi," but even more of a showcase for Mandy Patinkin's many talents, keeping the comedy coming with accents for each of the countries Eva visits. I'm embarrassed to say I don't think I realized that was Mandy doing all those voices when I was a kid! The partial failure of the tour leaves Eva down, but not out, and Patti's precision focus, shifting from bitter to soothed to ruthless, dazzles as she moves from tension to trills to take-no-prisoners toughness.
"And The Money Kept Rolling In" is as rollicking as I remember, "Santa Evita" even sweeter than the chorale in the opening and the "Waltz for Eva and Che" a meeting of the musical masters that retroactively recalls the chemistry of Broadway's An Evening with Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin. "She Is A Diamond" may be the Evita track I've listened to the least over the years, and it's moving to revisit the heart of Bob Gunton's layered performance. And then I have new insight into "Dice Are Rolling," it sets us up by recycling the melody of "A New Argentina," but without delivering the victorious pay-off. I am pulled into the tragedy of Eva Peron. I can see why people bristled at the show as a glorification of a fascist. No matter how much sharp commentary is offered by Che, the Andrew Lloyd Webber music soars and sears deeper into your heart than any thoughts about the ramifications of these events as depicted.
An even more moving recontextualization of a song is "Eva's Final Broadcast," which I read years ago was inspired by Judy Garland's late-in-life performances of "Over The Rainbow," when her life and career were in dire straits. This thought brings me to tears as Patti crumbles on "Though it may get harder for you to see me, " and then shores up strength, declaring forcefully, "I'm Argentina and always will be." The "Montage" is a sort of maddening Evita "remix" and I can't help but stay in a "Wizard of Oz" mode, picturing Eva in her death bed, all the scenes of her life floating by, like Dorothy in the tornado. And then there is "Lament," perhaps Eva's most honest moment and given chilling vulnerability by Patti. The final "Rainbow High" chorus comes in to embalm the corpse and Che's strange statement about the posthumous saga of Eva's body ensures an affecting lack of resolution even as the music ends. (Ben Rimalower is the author and original star of the critically acclaimed Patti Issues, currently on a worldwide tour. His new solo play, Bad with Money, performs through Feb. 27 at The Duplex in NYC. Read Playbill's coverage of the show here. Visit him at benrimalower.com and follow @benrimalower on Twitter.)