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Richard Jordan: I’m gutted the new Evita isn’t a Brit – she could have been the new Elaine Paige

After keenly awaiting news of who would play Eva Peron in the forthcoming Regent’s Park Open Air production of Evita, American musical actor Samantha Pauly was announced last week [1].

I have long admired Chicago-based Pauly’s work and believe she will be a very good Eva – she has already played the role at Chicago’s Marriott Theatre and at Westport Country Playhouse.

Why, then, did I also find the announcement a bit of a let-down? The answer may be that Lloyd’s production arrived with much interest around the search for the person to play the title role.

Evita has always been a musical adept at catapulting relatively unknown talent to stardom. As was reported, within its casting breakdown, the Open Air Theatre expressed a particular focus on finding a black actor for the title role, with the press going on to describe this as what would be “a historic first”.

Exclusive: Open Air Theatre sets sights on black lead for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita [2]

This detail was picked up on in many of the subsequent news reports about the production, though there had been one earlier black Evita in Canada. In 2004, Lovena B Fox played the title role in a production at Vancouver Arts Club and, in another piece of diverse casting, that production also featured Bollywood actor Shaimak Davar as Che Guevara.

Following the excited news coverage, Regent’s Part Open Air Theatre ultimately not going down this route for its title role has arguably diminished the announcement of Pauly’s casting, which is a shame as it has the potential to be career-changing for her.

It has also detracted from the coverage of this production’s achievements in diverse and groundbreaking casting within other roles including: Ektor Rivera, Trent Saunders and Frances Mayli McCann.

Another pity was that in the reports the 2004 production didn’t get its due in terms of opening the door to diverse casting. These things are important.

A similar thing happened in 2016, when reports had claimed that Hugh Maynard was the first black actor in the UK to play the title role in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street [3] but had missed that Ray Shell had performed it 23 years earlier at the Open Air Theatre, Holland Park.

Plenty was written about Rosalie Craig’s gender-swapped performance in the recent West End production of Company [4]. Although it was rightly called a significant event in theatre, in terms of diverse casting Adrian Lester playing the same role in Sam Mendes’ 1996 Donmar Warehouse production was no less important.

Lester and Mendes should have therefore been given greater recognition and respect within the coverage that this latest revival received. Meanwhile, when it came to the praise deservedly being heaped upon Company, many articles failed to mention gender-swapped performances by actors such as Fiona Shaw that paved the way.

Shaw’s groundbreaking 1995 performance in the title role of Richard II at the National Theatre caused controversy at the time – with both Shaw and her director Deborah Warner forced to defend the production – but they have been pivotal in helping the path of changes in attitudes and casting that Company’s success reflects today.

When it comes to diversity in casting, it is vital we neither forget nor diminish the individual efforts and achievements that have prompted change by many actors and others working in our industry. It was a point reiterated by Sharon D Clarke when interviewed last week about her win at the Olivier Awards [5], remarking that the first time she attended the ceremony, she and Adrian Lester were the only black actors in the audience. We have come a long way since then, but in 2019, we are still early into this long journey.

Part of me is also disappointed that, despite the Open Air Theatre saying in its recent press announcement that it had undertaken an international search to find its Eva Peron, that it failed to find a British actor to play the role.

With leading US actors such as Adrienne Warren – who ended her Olivier-nominated run in Tina: The Tina Turner Musical [6] last Saturday – Katherine McPhee currently serving up pies in Waitress [7], Patti LuPone belting it out in Company [8] and Amber Riley who gave a star turn in Dreamgirls [9], there has been some exciting international talent recently on our stages.

I am certain that Pauly will follow successfully in their footsteps. However, Evita is the musical that made Elaine Paige our most famous musical star [10]. Four decades on, it would have felt fitting to discover a major new British star, while also making a strong global statement about the position of our industry through one of its most successful British musical exports.

Richard Jordan is a producer and regular columnist for The Stage. Read his latest column every Thursday at thestage.co.uk/author/richard-jordan [11]