Evita has enjoyed worldwide success, partly due to the 1996 film version starring Madonna and directed by Alan Parker. However, the musical isn’t without its critics, which is inevitable considering the polarizing nature of its subject. Like many of history’s most fascinating women, such as Margaret Thatcher or Hillary Clinton, people either immensely loved or strongly disliked Eva Peron. Some saw her as a saint-like figure who understood the needs of the poor; others accused her of being a fascist. Born into poverty as the illegitimate child of a wealthy man, Eva was eager to become a star and strove at all costs to earn her place in history. Perhaps this is why the juicy role of Evita has brought so many actresses success and fame.
Eva Peron’s “Star Quality”
Born Maria Eva Duarte in 1919, Eva was the youngest daughter of Juan Duarte and Juana Ibarguren. Though her father was a wealthy man, he already had another family and abandoned Eva’s family when she was one year old. Raised in extreme poverty, she left for Buenos Aires at the age of 15, hoping to become an actress. At the time Buenos Aires was considered the Paris of South America, and she quickly began auditioning for radio and acting jobs all over the city. She worked as an actress in touring companies and in radio shows, including a radio drama called Great Women of History, in which she voiced roles such as Elizabeth I.
In 1944, after starting a political radio station, Eva met Secretary of Labor Juan Peron at a fundraiser. She took to the airwaves to build support for Peron’s political career. Government officials feared Peron’s power and influence with the working class and had him arrested. Soon afterward 300,000 people gathered outside Casa Rosada, the executive mansion, to demand Peron’s release. After he was set free, Eva addressed the crowd in a landmark speech that relied upon both her appeal as an actress as well as her potential as a dynamic political figure. Despite negative reactions from Peron’s social circle, Eva and Juan married in 1945. A year later in 1946, Peron was elected president of Argentina.
Eva was popular with the working class as first lady, garnering the nickname “Evita,” which means “Little Eva.” Because of this, many thought she resented the middle class and the aristocracy. Despite her emphasis on her humble beginnings while campaigning, she developed a lavish public image. She traveled to Europe on a goodwill trip that would be nicknamed the “Rainbow Tour.” After running for vice president in 1951, Eva was diagnosed with cancer and withdrew from the race. She died on July 26, 1952, at the age of 33. The nation of Argentina mourned her, with the Peron government enforcing daily periods for remembrance.
Making the Actress Sing
Twenty years after Eva Peron’s death, lyricist Tim Rice listened to a radio biography about her. Immediately fascinated by her quick rise to fame and her controversial legacy, he enlisted Andrew Lloyd Webber to set his libretto to music and released a concept album in 1976. Two years later, the show premiered in the West End with Elaine Paige in the starring role. Webber’s score for Evita is notoriously difficult for any actor to sing.
Though the musical doesn’t cite source material, many believe it is based on the book Evita: The Women With the Whip by Mary Main, which portrays Eva in a harshly negative light. Both Rice and Lloyd Webber assert that they tried to present the story in a neutral yet compelling way, but the emphasis on Eva’s promiscuity and hunger for power has angered many Argentine officials as well as historians.
The play’s major framing device is a narrator named “Che,” who tells the story of Evita’s rise and comments on the action of the drama. The original London production directed by Hal Prince presented Che as Argentine Che Guevara, in an attempt to place Evita in the context of Che’s Marxist principles. Most other productions, including the current Broadway revival starring Ricky Martin as Che, present this character as merely an everyman who reflects the sentiment of the working classes.
The Story of Evita
The plot of Evita begins at a cinema in Buenos Aires on the day of Eva’s passing. When the announcer shares the news of her death, the music turns ominous and Che sings “Oh What a Circus,” commenting on the pandemonium that takes place. This number captures the Argentine people’s loss of hope over Eva’s death as well as the unfulfilled promises during her time as first lady.
The complications surrounding Eva Peron in both life and death are why Rice and Webber open the show with “Oh What a Circus.” After Eva’s death in 1952, her body was embalmed and displayed for two years. Three years later, Juan Peron was overthrown and fled Argentina. The new government made it illegal to display any photos of the Perons, and during the 16-year military reign, Eva’s body disappeared. Eventually, after a brief time in Europe in Juan Peron’s possession, her body was sent back to Argentina and finally buried in the 1970s.
Two numbers in Evita‘s first act demonstrate Eva’s desire for attention and power: “Buenos Aires” emphasizes her natural star quality, and “I’d Be Surprisingly Good for You” is about how she can help Juan Peron politically. Many critics of the musical dislike this portrayal of Eva as manipulative. However, other scenes where Eva is criticized by the aristocracy, such as in “Peron’s Latest Flame,” demonstrate the huge obstacles that someone with her impoverished background had to overcome in order to succeed.
The most iconic moment of the musical is when Eva Peron appears on the balcony at Casa Rosada and sings “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” to a crowd of Peron supporters. In reality, Eva’s speech was made on the night of Juan Peron’s release from prison, while the musical places this scene on the night Peron is elected as president. Other songs in the second act like “The Actress Hasn’t Learned the Lines” highlight how political figures must perform for their base, even if they’re sometimes less than genuine.
“Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” has become the biggest hit from the Evita score and is synonymous with the legacy of Eva Peron. Evita, much like Eva Peron, has a mixed reputation among critics. But after 30 years of success, the musical continues to endure, with the Broadway revival breaking box offices records only a month into its run. Fifty years after the death of Eva Peron, her life, legacy and contributions to women’s suffrage still remain an intriguing story and a source of fascination for people all over the world.
Pictured below, left to right: Elaine Paige in the 1978 original London production; Patti LuPone in the 1979 original Broadway production; Madonna in the 1996 film; and Elena Roger in the 2012 Broadway revival.