Ever felt as if theatre shows are like London buses? You wait around for ages and then three come along at once. Last Sunday, I watched my third new production of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s seminal 1978 musical Evita in nine months.
These three revivals were all presented on different continents and each time, I enjoyed revisiting the score and experiencing the different interpretations.
I have followed the trajectory of this musical’s journey, from its premiere at the Prince Edward Theatre to today, and I consider it to be the greatest musical the UK has ever created.
Back in February, I was opening a production in Australia when I happened to catch Elaine Paige (who originated the role of Eva Perón) on her Sunday BBC Radio 2 show, talking about how Opera Australia was reviving the original Harold Prince 1978 production. I booked in to see it.
I had seen this same production as a 13-year-old in the 1980s when the first national tour played Norwich Theatre Royal. At the time, this production was a big event coming direct from its West End run and not as a truncated version made for regional touring.
Although Paige was not touring in it, the production had a terrific cast led by Rebecca Storm, Peter Karrie and Michael Bauer and remains etched in my memory. It made such an impression that I went back to see it three times during its two-week run in Norwich, wanting to understand how and why as a musical it worked so well.
Watching this same production now revived in Australia brought back a flood of memories. It also renewed my appreciation for its stagecraft, which remains era-defining.
However, the real power of this musical is the skill of its narrative punctuation through the orchestrations by David Cullen and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Lloyd Webber and Rice certainly know how to write a hit song and in Evita, the hits come thick and fast.
For the director, the trick is ensuring it doesn’t become just a string of set-piece numbers. The real substance and power of Evita is found in the less populist numbers. This includes Perón’s Latest Flame, with its brilliant counterpointed study of Argentina’s class system, which provides the backdrop and context of Perón’s story. It is told through a perfect combination of music, lyrics, and orchestration.
No less impressive are the later orchestrations found in its closing number, Lament, but which never receive the admiration they deserve. During this song, Perón, on her deathbed, appeals to the audience for redemption, twice telling them to “remember I was very young then” and to try to “understand what I have done”.
Watching Evita revived in Australia brought back a flood of memories. It also renewed my appreciation for its stagecraft, which remains era-defining
They brilliantly contrast with her appeals on the balcony in Don’t Cry For Me Argentina – a framing technique used throughout the musical. The structure is supremely sophisticated, but delivered with subtle simplicity.
The story is constantly driven forward, setting up its emotional arc and, like the character, manipulates, challenges and makes us switch between empathy and dislike of her. Which is also why, for the actor, the role of Eva Perón is one of the most demanding in musical theatre.
Evita’s success can also be down to its brevity. Neither act is longer than an hour, yet it’s a satisfying piece of theatre. This is testament to Prince’s original dramaturgical work on the material and his clear trust in the writers.
The musical demonstrated an obvious progression for Lloyd Webber and Rice from their previous musical Jesus Christ Superstar. It tells its story with clarity over two short, fast-paced acts. However, Evita is a far more challenging work as its source material is less familiar and therefore has to deliver its complex story in a way the audience can easily engage with.
Evita, and the groundbreaking lessons it offers in musical structure, demonstrates a direct path to recent revelatory musicals such as Here Lies Love and Hamilton, although it is not shown the level of respect it deserves.
Cats, which followed in 1981, heralded a global brand of carbon-copy productions around the world. It stole much of the limelight from many musicals, and dramatically redefined the way musical theatre was presented with hit shows that followed regularly becoming branded franchises.
Evita’s trailblazing was highlighted by Jamie Lloyd’s production at Regents Park’s Open Air Theatre this year, and again, to me, last Sunday with Sammi Cannold’s production for New York City Center. Her revival, uniquely, uses two actors playing Perón at different ages who seamlessly criss-cross throughout the production.
But neither is Cannold’s production lost in concept; as with Prince’s original production on Broadway 40 years earlier, it’s rooted in trusting the score and book as both its foundation and road map.
Maybe Evita opening just before the decade of British blockbuster domination in the 1980s contributed to its enduring success, as it was able to retain the individuality of its staging and had a stronger impact as a result.
Prince once said: “There is a responsibility to move musical theatre form forward. You always have to be aware of the work that came before and build on that.”
Beyond their West End and Broadway premieres, many musicals before 1978 were not created with a view to the production being globally reproduced. This model was widely adopted in the 1980s and has continued. It also means there is a big difference between referencing “a new production of Les Misérables” and “a new production of Evita”.
The new Les Misérables soon to open in the West End will be remounted globally, while the next Evita will probably be as independent and individual as the majority of those that have gone before it.
This year’s three new, large-scale productions of Evita afford many valuable lessons. For the future of original new musicals, it’s important that there’s a commitment to keep getting new work on large stages. However, perhaps the most crucial lesson is that the musical is always a developing art form.
Richard Jordan is a producer and regular columnist for The Stage. Read his latest column every Thursday at thestage.co.uk/author/richard-jordan. Evita runs at New York City Center until November 24