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Evita the star-maker

Elaine Paige in Evita at the Prince Edward Theatre in 1978
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A few weeks ago Andrew Lloyd Webber saw the ArtsEd’s third year BA student production of Evita in the new theatre that he has funded there, and in a curtain call speech declared that young Mollie Melia-Redgrave (who shared the role with Katie Shearman) to be “the best sung Eva Peron I’ve ever heard.”

I wondered aloud at the time if he could already forgotten Julie Covington (who created the role on the original album recording), Elaine Paige (who sang it in the original London production) or Patti LuPone (who originated it on Broadway)?

It’s certainly a star-making role, and I’m reminded that it was seeing Louise Dearman in a Bill Kenwright tour of the show at Liverpool in 2008 that made me first sit up and notice her. I just found an e-mail I sent to Tim Rice the moment I got back from seeing it, in which I declared, “Louise Dearman is, I reckon, the best sung Eva I’ve heard since EP’s….”

Dearman has, of course, since gone on to make history as the first performer to play both lead roles of Glinda and Elphaba in Wicked, and last night she was back at the Apollo Victoria, headlining an evening of music from films and musicals alongside John Owen Jones and Gareth Gates to prove she’s like a British vocal cross between Celine Dion and Barbra Streisand.

Kenwright is sending out his tour of Evita again in the new year, and this time his Eva is once again Madalena Alberto, a Portuguese born songbird who was Fantine in the 25th anniversary tour of Les Miserables that came to the Barbican, and who I subsequently saw last year as an extraordinary Lucy in Frank Wildhorn’s Jekyll and Hyde at the fringe Union Theatre, where I declared here that her performance there was “one of the best sung in London at the moment.” So I can’t wait to catch her Eva.

But then I also adored London’s last Eva in Michael Grandage’s 2006 production at the Adelphi, Elena Roger, about whom I wrote in an interview in these pages,

There is, in other words, I freely admit a lot of best around when it comes to my appraisals of the various women I’ve seen play this role. But it’s also interesting how comparatively few roles there are like this in modern musical theatre where the leading lady can make such a distinctive and enduring mark.

In fact, it is probably not until the roles of Glinda and Elphaba came along in Wicked that we’ve seen a succession of leading ladies likewise gather a following based around playing either of those roles, with Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel who originated them respectively propelled into the front ranks of bankable stars as a result, and various replacements on both sides of the Atlantic, including Shoshana Bean, Stephanie J Block, Eden Espinosa (who will be in Manchester this Saturday and London next Monday to headline this year’s Christmas in New York concerts), Willemijn Verkaik (who has played Elphaba in Holland, Germany, New York and is now doing so in London), Kerry Ellis, Rachel Tucker,  Alexia Khadime, Gina Beck and the aforementioned Louise Dearman all making their mark from doing the show.

But if star making roles like this are in short supply in today’s musical theatre, there is at least plenty of both employment for those wanting to work in it, and a seemingly endless supply of talent to fill the roles. Just tonight the Menier Chocolate Factory opens its Christmas musical Candide, and is full of luxury casting that includes Scarlett Strallen, from the West End revival of A Chorus Line and Ben Lewis, who played the Phantom in the Australian Love Never Dies that was also filmed.

It’s striking how many are veterans of Les Miserables: there are two West End Enjolras’s (David Thaxton, Christopher Jacobesen), plus another (Fra Fee) who has covered that role as well as played  Jean Prouvaire in the West End and Courfeyrac in the film version. It’s a training ground all of its own.

 

The Channel 4 series The Sound of Musicals (that I’ve been participating in) has lifted an invaluable window into the backstage workings of the West End; and tomorrow’s final installment is looking at the business of keeping shows fresh and audiences happy, long after the first night has come and gone. It may be the 1000th performance for a West End actor, but for most in the audience it will be their first time seeing it, and the actor’s job is to deliver it with an integrity and enthusiasm that is undiminished by their own familiarity.

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