In the late seventies, Evita made stars out of its two original leading ladies — Elaine Paige in London and Patti LuPone on Broadway — while helping launch or solidify the careers of such future Evas as Marti Webb, Florence Lacey and the late Stephanie Lawrence. Earlier this year, a relatively unknown actress-singer-dancer by the name of Elena Roger landed the title role in the first major West End revival of the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice musical, which officially opened at the Adelphi Theatre June 21. In what may be a career-making performance, Roger — who was born and raised in Argentina — garnered rave reviews from the critics, who also applauded director Michael Grandage's new production. In fact, Roger could not have penned better reviews herself. In The Telegraph Charles Spencer said, "Elena Roger's tiny and apparently frail Evita dominates the stage with tremendous presence, a wonderfully expressive mouth and eyes and a strong, sometimes rough-edged voice. In short she has exactly the star quality the role requires." And, Paul Taylor in The Independent wrote, "The piece not only survives but thrives on the violent eruption of reality that comes in the diminutive shape of Elena Roger. As she charts the anti-heroine's progress from trashy opportunist to second wife (and First Lady) of the fascist Juan Peron and then to folk saint, Roger is simply sensational." Via e-mail I recently chatted with London's newest Evita; that brief interview follows.
Question: Before this role came about, what were your thoughts and impressions of Eva Peron?
Elena Roger: This is not the first time I [have] come across this role. Four years ago, a well known Argentinean composer, Alberto Favero, asked me to play Eva in a musical he wrote a long time ago. Unfortunately, the project did not go ahead in the end. But when this opportunity came up, I revisited my research about Eva’s life and although there are a lot of grey areas, I totally admire her love and dedication for the humble people, also her strength to battle against the establishment at a time where women didn’t have a say in the Argentinean society.
Q: When did you first hear that there was going to be a major revival of Evita? Was this a part you had always wanted to play?
Roger: The first time I heard was through my Argentinean friend Ana Moll, who happened to work for the production company (Really Useful Group). Although the role is so amazing, it was never my goal to play it.
Q: Tell me about the audition process for the role. When did you find out you had won the role? What was your initial response to hearing that news?
Roger: I sent a DVD to show my work, and they allowed me to come for an audition. I flew to London three times, between September 2005 and January 2006. In my last trip, after the last audition, [director] Michael Grandage gave me the good news, and I only said, "Really??!"
Q: Eva is probably one of the most vocally demanding roles in the musical theatre. How do you prepare for the role each night? How do you go about protecting your voice?
Roger: It is very hard to sing this role six times a week. [Like previous productions of Evita, an Eva alternate (Abbie Osman) plays the title role twice a week.] So I try not to be nervous or worry about that. I also try to sleep well and stand on my own two feet if you know what I mean! I also arrive two hours before the show starts to vocalize, and have plenty of time to prepare myself and concentrate well.
Q: Did you listen to any of the prior Evita recordings before learning the score yourself? If so, which version(s)?
Roger: I listened to Elaine Paige [the London cast recording], Julie Covington [the original concept recording] and "You Must Love Me" [performed] by Madonna [on the film's soundtrack].
Q: How do you think your Eva differs from the women who have played the role before you?
Roger: I think that we are all very different actresses, different human beings, and we are also being directed by different directors, which means that everything in each production is different. However, one thing that differentiates me from previous performers is that I am Argentinean and lived there all my life, so the Argentinean people are already "under my skin" as well as our history as a country.
Q: Much has been written about Rob Ashford's dazzling choreography. Are you a trained dancer? Do you enjoy the dancing sequences?
Roger: Oh! I love the dancing sequences of the show! Especially the tango ones. I like to tell stories through dancing and singing. I used to be a trained dancer, [but] I had to train again for this role.
Q: Tell me about working with director Michael Grandage. Were there any specific things he told you about playing Eva that stand out in your mind?
Roger: I loved working with him. It was a very rich process. We talked a lot, looked for every moment to be alive. He gave me confidence and lots of freedom. He trusted me — I trusted him. We had wonderful feedback. For some of the scenes where I struggled, he gave me clues that showed me the way, and those words are still very present in my mind.
Q: "Don't Cry for Me Argentina" has been performed by so many people. Was it at all intimidating when first approaching this song? How did you go about learning the song? What do you think Eva is trying to say in the song?
Roger: I always sing that song as my own. I say the words as though I’m doing a speech. This is Eva’s first direct contact with her people. She is trying to touch their hearts and somehow feels embarrassed to be "dressed up to the nines" in front of all of them.
Q: Do you have a favorite song in the show or a favorite moment in the show as Eva?
Roger: My favorite songs and moments vary depending on how I feel that day. I always find a new enjoyable moment.
Q: This new production includes the one song written for the Evita film, "You Must Love Me." How do you think the song helps the piece as a whole?
Roger: That song gives Eva another interesting moment where she can show her vulnerability. It shows the depth of the relationship between her and her husband, Juan Peron. It also shows how much she tries to hold on to life.
Q: There has been buzz that this production may come to New York. Have you heard any news about that? Would you like to play Broadway?
Roger: I [have] heard this little buzz but nothing confirmed. Of course, I would like to play Broadway!
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