Raising-Evita

By Dean Roberts

On the 10th November 1944 a legend was born, a Scorpio who would display all the typical traits, incredible willpower, bouts of crippling shyness but perhaps foremost, undeniable artistic talent. A legend that would marry two seemingly opposing worlds, worlds of wealth and privilege, the two polar worlds of musical theatre and rock and roll. Born Timothy Miles Bindon Rice, Tim Rice would go on to become an Academy Award, Golden Globe Award, Tony Award and Grammy Award winning lyricist. His collaboration with Andrew Lloyd Webber would bring about one of the most successful, critically and commercially acclaimed artistic unions of our time. Rice was responsible for penning the lyrics to some of the world’s greatest musicals.

With shows such as Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Jesus Christ Superstar, Aladdin, The Lion King and Evita in his body of work one would be forgiven for thinking that this Buckinghamshire local was never in doubt of his craft. With an incomparable catalogue of smash hit projects one would feel confident in bestowing Rice with that of legendary status. However, as Lauren Bacall once said, “Legends are all to do with the past and nothing to do with the present”. Ergo with Pieter Toerien and David Ian’s full-scale, true-to-the-original production of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita currently in rehearsals, ahead of an international highly anticipated revival tour, perhaps one should not call Sir Timothy Rice a legend, firstly the impact of his work is clearly not over yet and secondly he would no doubt disarm the notion with his famously charming self-deprecation.

The origin story of Evita the musical begins around dusk one evening in 1973. Tim Rice was on his way to attend a dinner party when by chance he caught the last few minutes of a radio programme about the contentious first lady of Argentina, Eva Perón. Rice was instantly reminded of the almost fantastical, near lore, tale of a girl who rose from the lowest social origins to take position as the most powerful, most glamorous woman of her country. Her politician husband’s political regime would later promote her across the globe, constantly converting her splendor into political and social support. Eva was in the political history of her native Argentina a powerful political weapon – the first lady’s power to control unfavorable press commentary was considerable.

The story of Eva, her Cinderella story, captivated Rice entirely. He was looking for a follow up to his previous hit with Andrew Lloyd Webber and began wondering if the story of this people’s heroine could just be the follow up to the highly controversial Jesus Christ Superstar that he was looking for. With partner Lloyd Webber busy with a musical version of Jeeves and Wooster with British writer/director Alan Ayckbourn, Rice decided to embark on a very private, almost covert operation of learning everything there was to know about Eva Perón, who she was, where she was from and more importantly, what drove her towards greatness. Was it her diligence to opportunism or her raw ambition? In his decision to travel to Argentina in 1974 to study her through interviews Rice’s actions suggested that one of the greatest admirers for Santa Evita was perhaps not from the politically charged working class of Argentina but rather a single individual, one that was raised in a “loving and happy upper middle-class household in Buckinghamshire”, one who was equally poised for greatness.

Rice would live with the ghost of Eva Perón for two years before pressuring his creative partner into creating the eventual hit that would take initial shape as the 1976 concept album. Rice became so submerged into the project of raising Evita that the biggest argument to ever occur between him and Lloyd Webber came about when Rice accused the composer of “wasting time on a crappy show (Jeeves and Wooster)” when he was slogging away on carrying out his Eva research.

The album was recorded at the Olympic Studios in the summer of 1976 and produced just less than 103 minutes of pure delicious rock narration. The album presented such passion that was so clearly researched, so incredibly imbued with action, so finely textured in the speeches, the chants, the drama, that the music and the lyrics were labeled an oratorio. Ignoring any lofty judgments on the material Rice would choose to holiday with his with his wife Jane McIntosh, Popstar Barry Gibb and his wife Linda. Rice was always one to punctuate success or challenge with a holiday. This reminder of Rice’s latent rockstar aspirations have been known to be made more pronounced by his almost defiant need to take holidays, even holidays to “quell his chronic hypochondria”.

The album began to take on a life of its own as Rice and Lloyd Webber began to eye the potential radio his that Jesus Christ Superstar had not given them. The Evita album showcased the most mature music that Lloyd Webber was to ever create, coupled with Tim Rice’s astute, provocative and poetic lyrics. All signs pointed to “Another Suitcase in Another Hall” being one of those hits that the two needed. In a moment of bravado perhaps Rice arranged that all the album creative team reconvene to take studio photos for the album cover. In a moment that may have spoken to Lloyd Webber’s creative doubts, following mediocre reception of Jeeves and Wooster, the melodic partner of Rice and Lloyd Webber opted out of the photo call and offered shots from a private home shoot as a headshot drop-in on the cover artwork. He did however show silent support in making probably the greatest contribution to the business side of Evita. Lloyd Webber sent the Evita tapes to American director/producer extraordinaire Harold “Hal” Prince. Hal Prince, who was busy directing “Sweeney Todd” on Broadway, was immediately taken with the “fascinating project” and said that he loved act one of the recording so much that he contemplated suggesting that intermission be cut entirely. It was Prince that thought to capitalize on the “Citizen Kane” styled opening sequence of the piece set in a smokey cinema and it was he that insisted that the style of the staged piece would need to be  “abrasive, simple, raw, bold” and “contemporary Brecht”.

Andrew Lloyd Webber seemed to refute Hal Princes critique on some of the shows components, eventually-unused songs and artistic choices and would set about collaborating with “The Odessa File” director Ronald Neame in exploring making Evita into a film instead of a staged musical.

However, with Hal Prince making repeatedly bolder commitments to the project staging plans began with an opening date of the summer of 1978 scheduled. Plans would be made and ultimately put on hold until the 1996 Madonna film, which was directed by Alan Parker.

The musical continued to chase up the charts but Suitcase did not turn out to be the hit that Tim and Andrew were hoping for as “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” began to jump up the radio hit charts. In 1977 the show’s theme song made it’s way right up to the number two position on the hit parade. Pipped at the post by Starsky and Hutch’s David Soul with his hit song “Don’t Give Up On Us” the iconic theme song sung by Julie Covington seemed stifled at the number 2 spot. However, the song did surpass The Soulman’s hit to enjoy 2 weeks at number one position – before being toppled by Leo Sayer’s “When I Need You”.

U.K success seemed to invite Rice and Webber to take Evita to America. Sadly the American entertainment industry did not “get” the concept album and press even introduced “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” as “Evita – featuring Julie Covington”, thinking Evita was a band. Covington would eventually opt out of translating the concept album to the stage citing problems with a potentially long tour and with having to face the media circus that now surrounded Evita. A full scale talent search commenced to replace the leading lady, with Hal Prince vying for American Bonnie Schon to take on the role of Eva, whilst the British players vied for an up and coming star of stage, Elaine Paige. Paige made such a refreshing impact during her first audition when she sang Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday” and not the 4 minute version of “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” that so many singers had auditioned with before her that the audition panel welcomed her skilled, mature and layered performance with sighs of relief.

Elaine Paige was an unknown actress before Evita. So unknown in fact that when the audition panel asked her if she could act and which show she had she had last done last, it is said she simply replied that she has just spent a year doing a show called Jesus Christ Superstar. It was up to Paige to convince Hal Prince to choose her over his American choice, Bonnie Schon. With plans to have both ladies perform in the same theatre in the last round of auditions Paige seemed to capitalize on playing on home turf as she shone over her American counterpart who was said to have battled in performing away from home and seemed to bow out in displaying less courage and vigor than that of Paige.

Backed by producer Robert Stigwood and Bob Swash the reigns to the show were now firmly in Hal Prince’s hands. Prince would assemble the ultimate creative team to drive the show. Prince assembled the team of Anthony Bowles, Larry Fuller, Hershy Kay and Ray Holder ahead of the first company meeting on 28 April 1978.

With Paige victoriously cast as Eva Perón and rockstar David Essex as Ché, Evitamania took off. The show opened on 21 June 1978 with overwhelming, almost rock band status success. The two clear stars of Evita emerged in the press, one was Elaine Paige who was dubbed a ”superstar” and the other was Hal Prince who was labeled “the most gifted director ever to handle a British musical”.

Rice maintains that through it all Evita was never meant to be “a deep analysis” of either the national history of Argentina during Eva’s time, but merely “a Cinderella story of a remarkable woman’s determined climb”. In the show Eva is depicted as a fighter, a champion of the working class who would not only start a foundation to help poor and sick Argentines, she would also help Argentine woman win the right to vote in a time when Argentina and indeed Latin America was a male dominated society.

The fascination with Eva would in essence provide her with immortality she so desperately craved, the recognition that only an ignored, scorned child, a fatherless poor girl could pine for. Plans to celebrate her would become as sentimental, ambitious and often as tactical as the first lady herself.  During her life, the Eva Perón foundation initiated the Ciudad Evita (Evita City) project. Situated approximately 20 kilometers from Buenos Aires. Later declared a National Historic Monument of Argentina this overt homage to the jewel-shackled influential social activist was not only named after her but also featured a layout in the shape of her profile. In her death plans of military exactness were made to maintain her iconic physical standards where her body was embalmed. In her wake, loyalists, who held both civic and ethnic nationalist pride, busied themselves with plans of the eternal preservation and presentation of their national treasure.

Loyalty seemed to shift to rights of ownership glazed with talk of staunch protection. For some 16 years Eva’s embalmed corpse, originally removed in 1955 by the Argentinean military in the wake of a coup that would depose of her husband Juan Perón, went missing in a systematic attempt to erase Perónism from Argentina, for when she was alive she had generated world-wide support for Perón’s government. It was mostly Eva’s charity work that promised that she would be remembered with pride and almost immortal saintliness in her passing.

However it seems as though it was Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita that would provide her with life in perpetual. Rice, an English cricket-fanatic from the very country that cautioned her into complete dismissal, a man who would name his daughter Eva was quoted as saying, “I can say – immodestly – that the fact Eva Perón is now so well known is 90% down to the musical”.

After their highly successful collaboration on Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita the lyricist and composer went their separate ways. Lloyd Webber went on to write Cats which would go on to enjoy a two-decade run while Rice would team up with the Benny and Bjorn from Abba to create Chess.

Lloyd Webber would ultimately stay with staged musicals whilst Rice moved into the world of movies where he wrote lyrics for The Lion King, Aladdin and The Road To Eldorado. It would take another 34 years for the pairing for Rice and Lloyd Webber to reunite on the 2010 revival of The Wizard Of Oz.

Evita, with the original Hal Prince staging, stars West End star Emma Kingston, who was personally selected to play Eva by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Jonathan Roxmouth as Ché and Robert Finlayson as Perón as well as a full ensemble.

The show runs at the Teatro Montecasino in Johannesburg from 14 October – 26 November 2017 and at Artscape in Cape Town from 01 December – 07 January.

Tickets range in price from R150.00 to R500.00 each and are available from www.computicket.com