With the latest Pieter Toerien and David Ian presented Evita the Musical, the producers pay homage to the original West End (1978) and Broadway (1979) version, envisioned by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice – a vision that evolved from a 1976 concept album into a stage production to reflect the lore of the life of a legend. The 2017 staging reunites 21 Tony Award-winning director Harold Prince, with the original 1978 creative team.
Although some on the more youthful side may believe it so, Madonna was not the first to play the role of Eva Perón, nor Antonio Banderas the first to play the role of Ché. In fact, while Julie Covington was Evita for the concept album, the first actress to play Eva Perón as Evita on the West End was Elaine Paige, with Patti LuPone claiming the equivalent Broadway bragging rights. Both the West End and the Broadway original stagings went on to win the Lawrence Olivier (1978) and Tony (1980) awards for Best New Musical. It is that original award-winning inspiration one anticipates will radiate through the 2017 version when it comes to Cape Town on 1 December 2017, as part of the 40th anniversary international tour.
With such esteemed actresses having created musical history portraying Eva Perón in Evita the Musical, it is no surprise that Andrew Lloyd Webber and Harold Prince personally chose the next actress to take on this iconic role. Their choice? United Kingdom based actress, Emma Kingston, known for her previous performances in In the Heights, Les Misérables and most recently, Fiddler on the Roof. Kingston does not shy away from confessing that her reaction to the news of her casting was quite emotional:
“I was rehearsing for a concert of Honeymoon in Vegas at the Palladium. I got the call from my agent… fell to the floor and cried. It’s such a big role that it left my head a bit. I’d sent my type off, I’d done my audition, because you have to forget about things and move one. So, when I got that call it came so out of left field that I just didn’t know what to do with myself. A friend of mine who I was rehearsing with later texted me, ‘I walked past you, and I’m just hoping you’re ok’. I just texted back saying, ‘Yeah, I’m really good. This is happy crying.’”
Discussing the musical and this great opportunity with Kingston, I got a glimpse why she was destined to play the role of Evita. Not only is she passionate about theatre – “I’m constantly at the theatre. I’m definitely a fan first. I love what I do, and I wouldn’t be doing anything else!” – she also understands the story behind this rag-to-riches theatrical reflection of Eva Perón, as it hits close to home.
“This is certainly a very big deal for me”, she admits. “It’s a role I’ve wanted to do for a really long time. My mom’s from Buenos Aires, and my grandpa grew up in this [Evita] era. My great grandparents immigrated to Buenos Aires. So three generations of my family have lived there. They’ve lived the story – especially my grandpa. He was a young boy growing into a teenager at the time when the Peróns were in power.”
Kingston stepping into the musical shoes of Eva Perón brings with her a true authenticity, but that personal angle she further compliments with commitment, talent, and hard work. She extensively researched Eva Perón, cognisant of the fact that although the musical is set in Buenos Aires between 1934-1952, it does not merely celebrate the life of Eva Perón, but actually – if one looks close enough, beyond the catchy songs and beautiful arrangements – addresses deeper themes too.
Part of the universal appeal of Evita the Musical is the social justice angle reflected in Eva Perón's rise to power from poverty. Kingston regards this still a very relevant topic around the world. It shows that musicals can be more than just a fun chorus, feather boas, and a tap number, it can be a social statement too. “I mean just look at America, look at the United Kingdom with Brexit, look at Europe as a whole”, Kingston contextualises. “Europe is more what I know politically, but you can just see so many things, similarities, of what was happening then and there [in Eva’s time], to what is happening now. Even as I am learning more about the culture and politics of South Africa, there can be so much that is relatable from that perspective of the working class people of Argentina, like [for example] the unevenness of the distribution of wealth. There are so many things to draw on that I think audiences (wherever we go around the world) are going to see a very familiar story. And that’s why it’s an important story to tell.”
Admittedly, Eva Perón was not universally adored. One could argue that is why the musical creates the Evita and Ché (Jonathan Roxmouth) character dynamic. He is the narrator, but in a way also a friend of sorts. In fact, ‘ché’ is Spanish slang meaning ‘hey’ or ‘mate’, even ‘man'. Considering Ché’s impact on Evita's journey, Kingston observes, “the way that I think of it in my head as Eva, is he says things out loud that she does not ever want to admit. I think he’s there as that little voice on her shoulder, but also to an audience as a kind of Greek chorus – though a solo Greek chorus. He does judge the situation, but he also presents it to the audience for their own opinion. He’s a thought-provoker.”
Evita the Musical does not shy away from the fact that Eva Perón did have her flaws, as reflected in the character of Evita. Kingston explains that, as much as Evita as a symbol is a reminder “of the power of the people”, the story is “also about the power of people in power, and how people can manoeuvre into certain roles, or how people can change or not change a country, or what kind of changes ensue.” This is revealed when Evita admits that she sees the political advantage of her illness. She craved power, but even more so, she wanted to leave a legacy.
That legacy, even as musically portrayed, hints to more than just a power-hunger theme. There is also an underlying feminist perspective. "For all her flaws, she helped used her power to gain women the vote in Argentina”, Kingston comments. “Yes, there was a lot of movement about it before she got anywhere near it. However, because of her profile, because of the way she could manage the government with her husband being there, she managed to gain women’s rights. That is a big part of her legacy.”
Kingston gained great insight into the impact of the real Eva Perón on a recent visit to Argentina, where she says her presence still lingers. “When I was there earlier this year, in Buenos Aires, there is gravity of her everywhere. Her foundation house… the museum under the Casa Rosada [Presidential Palace]… She’s quite a loved character still in Argentina.” And there is no denying that for some she is in fact even divine, as Eva Perón was governmentally declared the ‘Spiritual Leader of the Nation’ before her death.
While appreciating that adored influence on her role as Evita, Kingston also looks beyond that to the person behind the public figure, Eva that actually met Juan Perón at a charity function for earthquake victims. “People get brought together through tragedy,” says Kingston. And at a level there is something a bit tragic about Evita too. “It’s easy to see who excels in those kinds of situations and who gives the right voice to the people, which you’ll see in our show when Perón gets up and speaks to the crowd, ‘Tonight I want to be the people’s spokesman’. People respond to that when they are in crisis.” With his charisma, Juan Perón had the power to motivate. He saw that charisma in Eva too.
Kingston brings that partnership understanding into in her Evita and her interaction with Juan Perón (Robert Finlayson). “I think they bounced off each other. She would not have had the platform without him, but she made him a stronger candidate for the government. They needed each other. I think it started as a lust, that grew into a love, that then grew into need.”
“I have pictures of some graffiti that I took around La Bocca. There is descamisados [meaning ‘shirtless’] written everywhere. Before Eva and Juan Perón came into power it was used as a derogatory term. They turned it around as a word to use for their own people, and the people believed, ‘Oh, you are one of us, so you can use it’. Through that they turned it into a term of endearment.” That’s where she found the root of her power, in that group of people going ‘you are on of us’.
For a moment we digress from our musical influence discussion, to talk about another influence related fact we both recently discovered about Eva Perón: Because of her illness, Eva was actually the first Argentine to receive chemotherapy. “Yes!”, she exclaims, “I think it’s written down somewhere in my note book – and I literally thought ‘Oh my! That was not that long ago, that was 1953!’" So, Eva, immortalised as Evita, whether through political and musical legacy, “paved a way whether you like her or not”. From cancer treatment, and women’s right, to social justice and the recognition of the working class, there is so much that Eva Perón – regardless of her personality – achieved to help and inspire.
Within this context, it becomes apparent that Evita the Musical is a nod to history, but not intended to be an exact factual reflection. It taps into the power of the descamisados who adored their First Lady. It is then also that Evita the original creative team is reviving – a process Kingston from the beginning embraced with excitement. “We have the original designer, Tim O’Brian, and before I had even got to South Africa I had four costume fittings and fabrics being draped over me to see what would best match my skin tone", she shares. "Then you have the original choreography, the original blocking, the original staging, but still we've been given time to find our own interpretation of how to get the story across and to find the intention behind these characters.”
Kingston adores this very supportive touring Evita the Musical cast and crew. Alongside them she embraces the challenge of staging this "mammoth production" and understands the production team's need to "get the show out to as many people as possible.” Especially in the current (international) political climate, she says, because “people have a need for escapism and there is something amazing about music… music can take you to a whole different place. We are storytellers and people want to come and listen to stories. So, I want people to just come on the journey, and from the very beginning see this very vibrant young girl and be excited as to where she can go. Be astounded at the fact that she became a president’s wife, and also feel sorrow for her, and feel sadness when she dies. Because whether you liked her or not, she changed the face of Argentine politics. She changed the face of the way the world viewed Argentina… It should be that an audience walks out with an opinion about her and wanting to talk about her. I think if anything I would like people to come see the musical, walk out, and have a discussion.”
To be part of this Evita the Musical story at the Artscape Theatre Opear House from 1 December 2017 to 7 January 2018, book your tickets at Computicket.