In the early 20th century, Argentina was a British colony in all but name. It was a grain-for-civilization swap: You sell us your wheat, said the British, and we'll teach you how to play cricket. There was a branch of Harrods in Buenos Aires.
With Evita -- its worldwide productions having raked in more than $1 billion since 1978 -- Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber and Sir Tim Rice have colonized Argentina all over again.
But colonizers aren't necessarily exploiters, and Webber (music) and Rice (lyrics) haven't simply distorted the already controversial life of Maria Eva Duarte de Peron solely for their own financial gain. (Of course, there is that $1 billion.)
Tens of millions of North Americans and Europeans (and Asians and Africans) who wouldn't otherwise have had the foggiest notion about post-World War II Argentine politics now know who Eva Peron was (though mostly because Madonna played her in the 1996 movie). So Webber and Rice have performed a historical service.
But they've also played on our cynicism. Since Watergate at least, it's been fashionable to assume that all politicians are dishonest creeps. (It's easier to blame an unspecified "them" than to take action and try to solve any of society's problems.) Webber says the Perons are the most disreputable characters he's ever written music for -- and he inserts Che Guevara into his historical canvas just to criticize them. Still, the political torch song that everyone remembers from this show has Evita, a Barbie with clout, spewing false but attractive sentiments. (She's achieved her ambition but tells people not to cry for her.) Webber and Rice have written a lovely musical about glamorous fascists, and as we exit the theater, we're humming the deception.
Eva Duarte was born into poverty in 1919. She was a 24-year-old B-movie actress and small-time radio personality when she met Juan Peron, who was twice her age. He, too, had to claw his way out of poverty -- in his case, from a remote sheep ranch to the inner circle of Argentina's military command. Eva capitalized on their backgrounds, rallying her beloved descamisados ("the shirtless ones") to Peron's cause by repeatedly pointing to herself as evidence of Peron's supposed populism: "He supports you, for he loves you / Understands you, is one of you / If not, how could he love me?"
In the crucial month of October 1945, Peron apparently lost his nerve and was prepared to run off into exile -- except that his soon-to-be wife wasn't going to let the presidency slip from their grasp when it was so close. She organized the labor unions into a huge pro-Peron demonstration in central Buenos Aires. By June 1946, they were the President and First Lady of Argentina.
It's obvious what Peron offered to the young actress -- power and prestige. But aside from her evident sexual charms, what did she have to offer to the would-be dictator?
"Eva was so dynamic," replies Philip Hernandez, who plays Peron in the current touring production (at the Opera House, Feb. 23-27). "She was the bridge between the people and him."
There was mutual benefit, in other words -- Peron and Eva needed one another in order to get to the top. Certainly Peron wasn't any political mastermind. "Peron isn't particularly bright or particularly stupid -- he's just average," Hernandez comments.
"There was a physical attraction," says Hernandez, "but that number ['I'd Be Surprisingly Good for You'] is about how they both realize that there is an opportunity for advancement -- that they could be useful to each other, not just in a sexual sense, but in a career sense."
In this production, at the end of "Surprisingly Good" -- the duet in which Peron and Eva first meet and declare their mutual affection and usefulness -- Hernandez and Kathy Voytko, playing Evita, deliberately break the fourth wall and confront the audience. "Never has been and never will be a love, male or female / Who hasn't an eye on ... Tricks they can try on their partner / They're hoping their lover will help them or keep them / Support them, promote them. / Don't blame them -- you're the same" -- "and then we turn and face them," says Hernandez, "and we're basically saying, 'You're just like us.' We're not going to let the audience sit back and think, 'Oh, well, that's just them, manipulating each other. But I'm not like them.'
"After the curtain," Hernandez remarks, "you'll hear some people saying, 'Oh, that poor woman,' and other people calling her 'that bitch.'"
And Hernandez corrects a reference to Peron's abuse of power -- "use of power," he chides, taking up contemporary parallels to the story. "George Bush doesn't think he's abusing power. He's paying back [political] debts, doing what he's supposed to do." Similarly, says Hernandez, "Peron is just doing what a leader does -- using power. 'Abusing power'? That's only from our point of view."
Peron and the actress began their mutual ascent just after their nation endured a terrible earthquake -- after which both of them were quite prominently involved in relief efforts. He was a military leader; she encouraged his fascistic fantasies while broadcasting his good deeds on her radio program. Would they have helped the victims even if it meant being outside the limelight? Perhaps. Would they have found other forms of self-aggrandizement if there had been no earthquake, no victims? Probably.
And is Evita merely a "poperetta" with a sentimental ending? Not according to Hernandez, who sees political and psychological undercurrents in the show: "Evita is a cautionary tale. Its message is still pertinent because of the dichotomy within all of us of the private and public selves -- what you [think] and what you do. We all have good intentions and self-interest working within us at the same time."
The current tour of Evita opened in Boston in November. With Harold Prince and Larry Fuller, the original director and choreographer, at the helm, it marks the 25th anniversary of Evita's Broadway debut. It was Hal Prince who first figured out how to reduce Webber and Rice's four-hour concert version (based on their 1976 double LP) into a two-hour stage show. To portray Peron's rise through the military ranks, he devised a game of musical chairs; to show how Evita slept her way up the Argentine social ladder, he has her walking through a revolving door again and again -- each time, dressed differently and on the arm of a more affluent man.
Prince, a genius at staging like that, had a hand in the original Broadway productions (producing, directing or both) of a few shows you may have heard of: Damn Yankees, West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof, Cabaret, Sweeney Todd, Phantom of the Opera, Kiss of the Spider Woman, and yes, Evita. That's just a partial list.
So Hernandez isn't exaggerating when he calls Prince "the greatest theater artist of the 20th century, certainly in the American musical theater." Hernandez says the cast came to trust Prince's instincts, since "he'd give you a note as a director, and he'd be right 99 percent of the time. I remember on opening night in Boston -- this is a great story -- he popped his head into my dressing room and said [deep, gravelly voice], 'Just do what I told ya.'"
So Hal Prince, even if benevolent, is a kind of tyrant, too. Hernandez says, self-effacingly, "I am the paint for his canvas." He's one of the thousands of actors who have helped expand the boundaries of the Webber-Rice Empire, distributing entertainment to the masses, tempting us with visions of fashionable corruption.
At the end of her most famous song, Evita professes total sincerity: "All you have to do is look at me," she says, "to know that every word is true." We know we can't take her at face value. But it's so easy to be dazzled by the Perons while disregarding their ulterior motives.
They may have been fascists, but my, they looked good. Such a lovely couple. He worked on a ranch; she worked in the arts. They must've had the country's best interests at heart.