Producer Harold Prince says Evita is 'close to perfect'

Legendary director Harold Prince revives the fictionalised story of Argentina's Eva Peron, saying it is still relevant today

Director and producer Harold Prince remembers a day nearly 40 years ago when the Philippines' First Lady Imelda Marcos wanted to watch Evita, then a new musical opening on Broadway.

"I would have loved to have a photograph of the world's most famous 'Evita' leaving my show," says Prince, chuckling down the telephone from New York. "So I begged, borrowed and cajoled 20 tickets for her."

However, by showtime, Mrs Marcos had decided not to attend. Perhaps someone had finally told her the musical Evita was about another infamous presidency marked by the First Lady's love of haute couture and dazzling gems.

Evita, the much-loved, fictionalised story of Argentina's Eva Peron, comes to the Mastercard Theatres at Marina Bay Sands from Feb 23 to March 11.

Set in Buenos Aires between 1934 and 1952, Evita follows Eva's journey from rags to ridiculous riches. It shows how her media-savvy personality and understanding of the common man's woes made her the darling of the masses despite her lavish lifestyle.

The 40-year-old musical features hits such as Don't Cry For Me Argentina and Another Suitcase In Another Hall and is a firm favourite of troupes around the world. It was revived on Broadway in 2012 and a British tour followed in 2013 as well as last year.

This staging is a revival of the original production by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. It is directed by Prince, the American producer who remembers when the show was just a mixtape.

  • BOOK IT / EVITA

  • WHERE: Grand Theatre, Mastercard Theatres at Marina Bay Sands, 4 Bayfront Avenue

    WHEN: Feb 23 to March 11, 8pm (Tuesdays to Fridays), 2 and 8pm (Saturdays), 1 and 6pm (Sundays)

    ADMISSION: From $55 via Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)

  • Evita in a nutshell

  • THE STORY

    Evita is based on the true story of Eva Peron, who was First Lady of Argentina from 1946 to 1952. She was born poor and moved to Buenos Aires in her teens to become an actress and radio personality. She met and married Colonel Juan Peron, who was elected Argentina's president in 1946. Eva's knack for working the crowds and her genuine engagement with the masses made the couple cult-like figures beloved by a majority of Argentinians. She was even named "Spiritual Leader of the Nation" by the Argentine Congress.

    She died of cancer at age 33 and thousands turned out for her funeral. She remains an iconic figure in her country today.

    THE MUSICAL 

    Evita was first a concept album of songs created by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice in 1976. Lloyd Webber sent the album to Harold Prince, who directed the first staging two years later.

    Evita opened in London's West End at the Prince Edward Theatre in 1978 and ran for eight years and more than 3,000 performances.

    It made the career of actress Elaine Paige, then a relative unknown. She was picked to play Evita when the concept album's star declined the role. She won an Olivier Award for best performance in a musical and Evita itself won best new musical.

    The Broadway show opened in 1979, starring Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin. It played more than 1,500 performances and won seven Tony Awards, including for best musical, best score (Lloyd Webber and Rice) and best director (Prince).

    In 1996, a film version was made starring Madonna as Eva, Jonathan Pryce as Peron and Antonio Banderas as Che Guevara. It won an Oscar for best original song - You Must Love Me, a new Lloyd Webber-Rice creation for the film - and three Golden Globe awards, including for best song and best motion picture, musical or comedy.

    THE CHALLENGES 

    Prince famously said the biggest challenge in staging Evita was "putting 200,000 people on stage", showing the massive turnout at the First Lady's state funeral and the huge impact she had on her country. The cast numbers 29, many of whom play multiple roles.

    Lights, flashbulbs and the media circus are key elements of the musical. The lighting rig weighs five tonnes, with more than 115 fixtures in the stage floor alone. The sound system has more than 80 loudspeakers. The musical needs 900 costumes, 12 set changes and the entire production is shipped in 10 containers.

Prince, who turns 90 at the end of this month, has enjoyed a six-decade career directing and producing classic musical hits such as The Phantom Of The Opera with Lloyd Webber; Fiddler On The Roof (by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick); and Sweeney Todd and West Side Story with Stephen Sondheim.

Sondheim was the best man at Prince's wedding to his wife of 55 years, Judy Chaplin. They have a daughter, who is also a director, and a son, who is a music conductor.

Prince is still hard at work in theatre, saying he feels half his age and putting his energy down to good genes. "I don't exercise much," he says with a laugh.

He co-directed a musical biography of his life, Prince Of Broadway, which opened in 2015 and played in New York last year.

Following the Evita revival, he plans another documentary show based on a historical female figure - he will not say who. He calls Evita "one of the most satisfying experiences of my career" and says he has long wanted to revive the original production, with no changes.

"There is a saying here, 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it.' I believe Evita is close to perfect and I'm a tad embarrassed saying that, but it has been reflected in the comments of so many people who have seen it."

Evita was first a rock-opera concept album created by Lloyd Webber and Rice in 1976. Lloyd Webber sent the tapes to California hoping to rope in Prince to direct the stage production. Two years later, the musical opened in the West End and made the career of a then unknown actress, Elaine Paige, as Evita.

Prince recalls the first time he heard the Lloyd Webber-Rice tape of songs on the theme of Eva's rise to power, her quixotic term as First Lady and her tragic death from cancer in 1952, at age 33. Thousands of ordinary Argentinians poured onto the streets for her funeral.

He says: "Andrew and Tim's material was so theatrical and compelling and, at the same time, challenging. How do you put 200,000 people on a stage for a funeral of your iconic star? Just that problem hooked me."

Fewer than 30 actors simulate the crowds in Evita, a musical that is a massive spectacle with 80 loudspeakers and a lighting rig weighing five tonnes. These simulate the media circus that propelled Evita to cult personality, in tandem with her husband Juan Peron's election as president.

Prince compares the charismatic couple's political trajectory to those of media giant and former Italian leader Silvio Berlusconi and current United States President Donald Trump. "This story is still alive, still viral. It crops up everywhere," he says.

Eva Peron, from a nobody to an icon

In 1996, a movie version starring Madonna as Evita won an Oscar for best new song, You Must Love Me, written for the pop star by Lloyd Webber. The song appears in this production of Evita, but Prince says he did not like the movie version. He feels Madonna compares unfavourably with his first Evitas - Paige on the West End and Patti LuPone on Broadway.

This revival is produced by Lunchbox Theatrical Productions, Base Entertainment Asia and David Atkins Enterprises in association with David Ian and Pieter Toerien and by special arrangement with The Really Useful Group.

It opened late last year in Johannesburg, South Africa, and will tour Singapore, Australia and Japan before heading to Broadway.

Evita is played by London-born singer Emma Kingston and the creative team includes choreographer Larry Fuller and designer Timothy O'Brien, who worked on the original production.

For Kingston, the story of the Perons was part of her family history. Her mother is Argentinian and her grandfather recalls heading to the post office every Christmas for a free ice cream and lottery ticket handed out to Argentina's citizens by the grace of Eva.

When Kingston visited Buenos Aires in May last year for research, she was struck by how important Evita remains to contemporary Argentina. "There's graffiti of her face on buildings. She's still a very, very beloved figure in Argentina. Her legacy was of this very strong woman who loved her people. Knowing how she was with her people helps me interact with the company on stage."

Prince says Kingston has a "unique presence" which suits the role of Evita. "She demands your attention. She has a great range to her voice, which the score demands. She is fierce, but, at the same time, capable of changing colours instantly - she can be kind, vulnerable and demanding in each instance, when she needs to be. Emma is expert at this."

Evita's complex personality is the heart of this musical, which highlights the fact that one never knows the truth behind the public face of those in power. "We know what they want us to know, thanks to mics, films, flashbulbs, but who are they in their bedrooms?" says Prince.

For all of Eva's faults, he is impressed by her dedication to bettering herself. She started life as an impoverished, illegitimate child in a village and moved to the city to work her way up through the stage, film and radio.

"She came to the city an unattractive lady. I've seen photos," he says. "She really wasn't a handsome woman at all. She redesigned and reinvented herself and with a lot of courage and intelligence, she climbed her way to the top.

"Whether you love or hate her, you kind of admire her, however begrudgingly," he adds. "She ended up an iconic creature."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 16, 2018, with the headline ''Evita is close to perfect''. Print Edition | Subscribe