I was fifteen when I went with my dad to see Evita at the Fox Theatre in St. Louis. I was pretty psyched because this was, despite my lifelong love of musicals, early in my true musical theatre geekdom, and so that meant at the time listening to a lot of Andrew Lloyd Webber collections.
So I knew the basics, and I knew–confusingly–that there was a person who sang on the cast recording who was named Mandy but who was not a woman. And that was about it. I already knew how to hardcore love a musical (I was one of the millions of teenage girls crying when Eponine bit it, after all), but before Evita I don’t think I ever knew what true love of a musical was.
The plot of the musical reminds me a lot of the title of a greatest hits collection by one of my favorite bands: part lies, part heart, part truth, part garbage. At this point in my unquestionably weirdo life, I’ve read a number of biographies about Eva Peron, and to say Andrew Lloyd Webber and especially Tim Rice took some liberties would be like saying last week’s Drag Race psych-out made me A LITTLE angry.
But what’s truth in art, really? I think once singing and choreography enter the picture this isn’t a case of Mike Daisey and His Fantastical Trip to China. Evita didn’t resonate with me because of the nonfiction aspect. It hit me really hard firstly and foremostly for what I still love about it most today: its score is such a pitch-perfect encapsulation of what “Broadway” sounded like in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and it is what that undefinable thing is to the nth degree. Recently I saw Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin in concert, and when La LuPone sang “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” I nearly wept.
There are cast recordings that actually rock (Hair, Hedwig, I-would-argue Jesus Christ Superstar holy-shit-have-you-heard-Murray-Head), though I wouldn’t say Evita is one of them. My path through musical tastes in high school was probably the same as a lot of people’s. Freshman year I loved bestselling pop music, though suddenly there was some R.E.M. mixed in, and before long I was mainlining 1960s rock and everything the modern rock station had to offer. But threaded into that the whole time was a pile of cast recordings that grew every year.
So Evita came along at the right time. By sophomore year I was getting really comfortable listening to showtunes after Out of Time and before Revolver. Evita was everything I loved about the sound of musical theatre. It was big and loud and overflowing with emotion.
Evita also featured a heroine who was, much of the time, not exactly likable. Were we supposed to be on her side? Or were we to be in agreement with Che, who opposed her at every turn?
Or did it even matter? There are a lot of shades of gray (like 50??? oh shut up) in Evita, which isn’t exactly a quality abundant in the art I was consuming then. It would be a couple more years before I started regularly watching television shows that forced me to sympathize with sometimes terrible people. The idea that I could disagree with a character’s actions and still root for them to get ahead was something new.
There was also something a little revelatory to me that Eva, as a character, wasn’t out to fall in love or be beautiful or any other traditionally feminine goal. I mean, sure, she–at least in the plot of the musical–slept her way to opportunity, and certainly used other “feminine” tricks of that trade, but she was all about ambition and power, or maybe even just getting a lot of attention. And while I didn’t want to take her paths to reach my goals, I could relate having a bunch of goals that seemed crazy to everyone else. I mean, I didn’t want to end up first lady of a country that harbored Nazis but I did want to get the heck out of my crappy little town and find more. (Also, I love attention.)
(The styling and framing of this video are so 1980s it hurts. Also it fills me with joy.)
So I know as someone who practically worships Stephen Sondheim it’s all but sinful to love a Lloyd Webber musical, and I know as a feminist there are some sticky issues here. But Evita started a change in what I expected from my art.
In closing, please enjoy this video from The Merv Griffin Show which is equal parts stunning and terrifying. If I was this kickass for even one brief moment of my life I’d be fulfilled.