Throwing Out My CDs by Ben Rimalower: EVITA
ErI Woof. This week is the biggest decluttering task I've attempted yet-throwing out my Evita CDs. I got 99 problems and Evita CDs are all of them. And that's not including the vinyl and the bootlegs on audio cassette. And the strange flash drives people handed me in dark bars muttering something about Elaine Paige and "A New Argentina."
Perhaps it's no coincidence that I was born in 1976, the same year the "White Album" came out (not the one by The Beatles, I'm talking about the Original Concept Recording of Evita!). My early childhood was haunted by the 1979 Broadway production's iconic television commercial.
Indeed, Evita was an institution in New York City at that time, and as I pore through my CDs (and T-shirts and buttons and posters and hats...), I'm reminded that this is also Donald Trump's favorite musical. Suddenly, all the the glamor and bling and décolletage has me feeling like a sexist pig. But no, I'm gay, that's not my thing. Duh. Okay, anyway, moving on.
But wait. Evita isn't the story of a working class girl rising to become a star in show business like Funny Girl. Evita was a fascist dictator. The Perons disappeared their enemies. They were allied with Mussolini and Hitler. How did this never bother me before?
I mean, it's not like I ever supported the actual Eva Perón. I just liked the musical. It's not the same. I'm fine. I'm a Democrat. "I'm with her." Not HER! I just like the music. And the lyrics. And the costumes. And the choreography. And Hal Prince's staging. And the revival. And I also like the movie. Agh. I've got to write this column about the recordings. This is BroadwayWorld, not CNN. My focus needs to be on music and lyrics not taxation and appropriations.
Well, going through my collection, I guess I've had this date with destiny since my childhood fallin in love with (famous Trump hater!) Patti LuPone in Evita, but not without making a pitstop at every single other recording of Evita, large and small, popular and obscure. We're talking the majors: Concept Recording with Julie Covington and Colm Wilkinson, Original London Cast with Elaine Paige (unfortunately only a single "highlights" disc), the Grammy-winning "Premiere American Recording" (aka Original Broadway Cast Album) with La LuPone (and La Mandy Patinkin), the Broadway revival cast recording with Elena Roger and Ricky Martin and the movie soundtrack with Madonna and Antonio Banderas. Then I've got some more random Evitas, studio albums by replacement cast members like Florence Lacey and her "Highlights Of The Original Broadway Production For World Tour 89/90" and Marti Webb with "Music And Songs From Evita." Things get really complicated with all the international cast recordings: the Spanish version with Paloma San Basilio, Mexican with Rocio Banquells, Brazilian (getting close to home-stand back, Buenos Aires!) with Claudia, South African with Jo-Ann Pezzaro, and the New Zealand with Michele Breeze. Having spent three days a week of my childhood in Hebrew School, I can at least read the cover of the Israeli album with Riki Gal, but I am lost when it comes to the Japanese and Korean discs, which I confess I've never made it through in their entirety. Oh, and there's the "Disco Evita" album by Festival. I don't know if that really counts, but I'm all about it.
In my remote youth, I would listen obsessively to all these Evitas, comparing them against each other ranking them reductively as if one were simply better than another, albeit on a very intricate scale.
I gave each performance by each of the lead singers on each of the songs on each of the albums a ranking, calculating averages per song, per role, per show to award worthless trophies to my favorite Evitas and Chés, my favorite Requiems and Rainbow Highs. It gave me no pleasure to find I preferred Elaine Paige over Patti LuPone in the "Waltz For Eva And Ché," but as new recordings rolled into my collection, this Sisyphean task required complete honesty. If my tenure as an adolescent pariah had gone on a single semester longer, I might have wound up in a mental institution muttering about the augmented "Montage" in Madrid.
The other thing that saved me was Patti LuPone's performance of "A New Argentina" on the 1980 Tonys.
Just like on the cast album, she's in a fiercely piercing placement vocally to scale the ridiculous musical heights, but also displaying the dexterity and ease with which she had by then learned to open her throat and let the notes rip, billowing down in her abundantly thunderous vibrato as she hurled out the lyrics with attitude and elan. Eventually a complete Evita Broadway bootleg provided me the ultimate Patti performance setting a clear gold standard for all others and negating my need to continue updating my charts and graphs. Free at last.
So going through all these Evitas to downsize has actually been therapeutic, giving me healing and closure as I find myself finally at peace to enjoy them each for their own merits. When Elaine Paige barks a line instead of singing it or Florence Lacey belts the sex right out of a moment, I don't get upset. I enjoy them for what they are.
Pushing play on any one of these Evita recordings from the top today, I'm filled with real nostalgia for Lloyd Webber's Noir-ish scoring on "A Cinema In Buenos Aires 26 July 1952." I realize I know two different versions of the real Eva Peron film sequence by heart: the one on the Concept Recording and Movie Soundtrack ("Algo se movió en el balcón de tu padre.") and the one more widely known from all the recordings of Hal Prince's West End and Broadway production worldwide ("Chila. Nosotros somos la sombra, Papá. Chila."). Then the movie-within-the-show grinds to a halt for the announcement, first in Spanish, then English that Eva Peron has died and wailing "Requiem Evita" starts. I don't know if it's just because I'm most accustomed to the Broadway recording or if it's really so different, but most of the other versions sound off to me. Like are the sharp or is that the trippy quality they were going for with that chorus on the London cast? Too many high sopranos shrieking! I've heard Patti speak about the "flat" sound they were going for on the Broadway cast recording (supposedly they wanted her sing with less vibrato, to sound more like Linda Ronstadt) and I wonder if the smoother vibe of "Requiem Evita" on the Broadway CD is an example of that. The different orchestrations across the various versions of this song are interesting too, particularly in the movie where director Alan Parker wisely grounded the sound to the instruments seen onscreen in his dramatization of Evita's seminal experience at her father's funeral. Parker then opens up to the full symphonic version when the transition is made to Evita's own funeral. Brilliant.
I also enjoy the segue from full philharmonic to folky once "Oh, What A Circus" starts. The concept album is memorable here for Colm Wilkinson's Ché serving you his trademark mix of a little bit country and a little bit rock and roll. David Essex on the London cast aligns his performance in the realm of 1970s British rock opera and it's nice to feel this show's kinship with Jesus a Christ Superstar.. Mandy Patinkin is irresistible in his sweetness, almost singing a lullaby until he starts bellowing about politics and showing you his true fire. It's a star-making performance worthy of the star he became.
Listening to Antonio Banderas on the movie soundtrack I'm thinking about the strange round robin different Evita casts have played with Hispanic accents. Starting with the Broadway production, the great Bob Gunton employed an accent as Perón. It works in keeping the character grounded in the reality of Argentina than Patti's Eva or Mandy's Ché who exist more in the theatrical realm presenting the story to the audience. In the movie, it's Antonio who has the accent. Of course, it's his real accent and it would've been super weird if Jonathan Pryce had made one up alongside him. Then there's the Broadway revival with actually Argentine Elena Roger sounding as such in the title role and Ricky Martin sounded like his own Latino self as Ché.
Evita makes her first vocal appearance in the score singing a chorus of "Don't Cry For Me, Argentina" within the "Requiem Evita"-"Oh, What A Circus" mega opening number and it's a chance for any women in the role to sound her loveliest. It's my favorite iteration of the tune in the score and it's a bummer that Julie Covington, the songs originator, doesn't get to sing it in the lovely cantata with two chorus girls that was added for the show to onstage. Julie's version is a just a solo.
The real loser among the major Evitas is Elaine Paige who only got to record a single disc. Evita is nothing without its recitative, the connective tissue, the dramatic musical sequences that tie the big songs together. The whole point of Evita is the swirl of action that transports you through this woman's rise to fame and glory and then her tragic fall.
A glaring example of Elaine's getting shortchanged is "Eva And Magaldi" and "Eva, Beware Of The City" the two songlets that follow Magaldi's solo "On This Night Of A Thousand Stars." While Elaine's Magaldi, Mark Ryan, gets to record his serenade, we miss out on Elaine as young Eva conniving to get out of her small town. It's a defining moment for Eva and some of the best musical theater writing in the show. On the other hand, considering the New Zealand Evita's Minnie Mouse approach to this material, she may have been better off with a highlights disc like Elaine. The other blow to Elaine's legacy is "A New Argentina," her recording of which is basically just the final chorus and tag with none of her big "He supports you for he loves you" cadenzas. Unforgivable. Were they that close to the time limit? I don't want to throw anyone under the bus, but there were other tracks that could've been give the axe. For years, I thought it was a cover-up because Elaine couldn't belt those crazy high notes, but bootlegs prove she had nothing to hide, other than not being Patti LuPone.
Even the most sparing of selections would have to include Evita's big "I Want" song, "Buenos Aires," the closest anything in Evita ever comes to a traditional musical comedy big number for the leading lady. Unsurprisingly, Julie Covington fares the worst here as fun doesn't seem to be her style, although in fairness she recorded it without having danced the role. Elaine, however, has a lot of fun with the song if she tends to hit us over the head with some of her choices. It may just be too stylized for my taste, kind of like listening to Chita in Chicago when you're used to Bebe's dryer rendition, minus all the "jay-yazz."
Patti is at one of her many peaks here, making the most of her chance to relish the carefree belting before fascism sets in to put a damper on the good times. The Madonna recording makes me sad because I would've loved to hear her do it the slightly Latin-flavored, brassy Broadway style of the theatrical recordings as opposed to the weird way it's done in the movie, neither pop nor rock nor Broadway-by far my least favorite song in the film. The Spanish and Mexican and Brazilian recordings are all sensational. It's a bit of a mind warp to hear Latin American singers and musicians put their stamp on Andrew Lloyd Webber's reappropriation of the music of their own culture, but I'm not complaining.
Listening to Evita I always think about how the show was created as an album and then Hal Prince conceived it for the stage. He famously wrote Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice a long letter detailing his ideas in response to the double record. I wonder if the letter is attainable. I would love to read it. Not much of Evita as a text changed between the concept album and the stage production, so I'm extremely curious what was in that letter. Prince's staging of Evita was so pointed and memorable, it hard to know what was intended before he got his hands on the material. A prime example of this is "Goodnight And Thank You," the song chronicling Eva's sleeping her way up the ladder before she meets Peron. I have to believe Andrew and Tim had the revolving door idea because it feels so intrinsic to the writing of the song, but maybe that's just how good Hal is.
Other than the excision of "The Lady's Got Potential" (which later resurfaced with a rewrite in the movie) and the addition of "The Art Of The Possible," all the textual changes to Evita were relatively minor lyric rewrites. For people who know Evita well, one of the pleasures of listening to the Concept Album is all the slightly longer versions of lyrics where more words are crammed in to a line of music than our ears are accustomed to hearing. A fun drinking game might be to listen for these changes. If you're not drunk by "Dice Are Rolling," you're not paying attention.
Disc Two of all the complete recordings starts with the extensive balcony scene containing "Don't Cry For Me, Argentina," which is bad news if you're looking for just "Don't Cry For Me" quick and dirty, but great if you've got 10 minutes to spend and want to hear your Eva deliver the most historically accurate part of the show (the "I am only a simple woman" screed is closely based on actual Evita Perón speeches).
This track is maybe the epitome of what sets Patti above the pack in that her "Don't Cry For Me, Argentina" is lovely, you can hear the tears gently shimmering on her cheeks as her voice soars and then she turns around to sneer, "Just listen to that, the voice of Argentina. We are adored, we are LOVED" and we know the whole thing was a con job, albeit a cunningly crafted one. Not to pick on anyone, but Elaine Paige, for example, sings the whole thing like a liar, liar, pants on fire.
Oh, right, that again. It's disconcertingly easy to get caught up in the melody and the glamor and forget exactly what Eva Perón stood for (nothing, or rather, just her own self-interest), or more to the point, that she did so standing on the neck of the people and driving the nation into the ground. But enough about Donald Trump.
Trump aside, the themes of Evita feel as relevant today as ever. In our reality TV/celebrity obsessed culture, can't we all relate to the draw of the climb? Throughout Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, I often thought of the increased struggle a woman faces today, let alone in the Perón era. So many people that criticized Eva Perón then (and so many that do now) call her a whore, as if her sexuality were among her major crimes and as if her sexuality were any more assailable than her husband's or any other man of her era.
I'm trying to look at the show from a "woke" perspective, to be mindful of the the misogyny in the piece and in my enjoyment of it. As a gay man, my craving for the Eva diva character to be glamorous is not a sexual one per se, and it may be rooted in me identifying aspirationally with that kind of desirability to men. But it's still a sexist trope pigeonholing women with having a certain proscribed value, more limited than men's.
"Rainbow High" is arguably the most thrilling number in Evita and it's also the song that dives most deeply into these gender issues. The lyric portrays Eva convincingly as using the trappings of glamor as a means to and end, to consolidate popularity and power. She sings, "You're not decorating a girl for a night on the town. And I'm not a second rate queen getting kicks with a crown."
It's the same melody Eva used extolling Perón to the people in "A New Argentina," but now she's talking about herself and she means business. I think what I love about Patti on this line is that she's dead serious. She's not throwing shade at some other woman, she's demanding her minions get her look right for her tour because it's how she can achieve her goals for the Perón administration. I just wish she did all that AND sang Julie Covington's additional verse in "Lament."