With Broadway’s March 12 revival of Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice’s 1979 musical “Evita,” it’s time to revisit and remember what “Evita” is at its core: a story of a girl from humble origins who slept her way to the top.
But there’s nothing wrong with Evita as a character — in fact, I admire her for her fierce determination to get away from her small town and trade her poorly dressed life for a world of glitz, fame and money. There’s nothing wrong with wanting more after a life of having little, and though Evita’s approach was unorthodox and frowned upon, her determination to sleep with as many men as it took to get her way quite literally paid off.
After some time and a multitude of lovers, the newly famous Evita meets Juan Perón, a colonel in the army. Sparks fly and the two bask in their mutual fierceness. Evita urges Perón to run for public office in the hope that his position will grant her the ultimate power she’s always craved — and thanks to her resolve, Perón is elected president.
Wealthy people snub her, the common folk of Argentina obsess over her, and Che, the narrator, berates her. Refusing to keep his opinions to himself, Che’s voice is omnipresent. Whether he’s in the crowd during Perón’s speech or in the church where Evita goes to take the sacrament, Che prevents the audience from forgetting Evita’s selfishness.
It’s true Evita did most things for personal gain. She started charities more out of spite for the wealthy who refused to accept her than for any altruistic motives. But it’s not as if Evita’s character hides her flaws from the audience: We knew from the moment she persuaded Agustín Magaldi to take her with him to Buenos Aires that Evita was not interested in being a demure, polite lady.
Che’s non-stop criticism overshadows the point of the musical: It’s not about celebrating someone who was impeccable in her morals, and it’s not about exposing Evita and convincing people she was wrongly liked. “Evita” is about a girl who got what she wanted and who made it on her own terms without being born into a privileged life. It’s a rags-to-riches story as sassy as Evita herself, and though Che leads the audience to believe that good deeds done with ulterior motives are tarnished, Evita lit up and inspired an entire country. That, in and of itself, is worth more than Che’s two cents.
My love for Che is probably biased by my love for Mandy Patinkin, who originated in the role on Broadway and won a Tony for his performance. But you might know Patinkin better as the Spaniard hell-bent on avenging his father’s death in “The Princess Bride.” Oh yes, those powerful tenor notes were produced by the same pipes that peppered Rob Reiner’s classic film with the famous vow, “Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”
The same passion that gripped Patinkin’s performance in “The Princess Bride” is evident in the original Broadway cast’s recording. Patinkin slides effortlessly from remorseful to baffled to furious-beyond-words, solely on the merits of his voice. He soothes, scathes and power-belts with such nuance and feeling that it’s easy to get caught up in his cynical point of view.
And this is why Che, and specifically Patinkin’s portrayal of him — please spare yourself from the horrors of Antonio Banderas’ interpretation in the 1996 film — is so important to “Evita.” He complicates things. He is foil to Evita in every way, the yin to her yang, and they challenge each other and the audience. This isn’t the cookie-cutter musical in which the good guys are dressed in white and the villains twist their mustaches at you menacingly. This is a story steeped in a complex historical event that has numerous interpretations, and Che’s opinions are an important piece to that puzzle.
This complexity is demonstrated in the second act of the musical with “Waltz for Eva and Che,” in which the two behemoths battle it out (vocally, of course) and no clear winner emerges: Evita expresses how she is caught up in the red tape of government games and her failing health, and Che critiques her ego and empty promises but also comes off as a heartless ass. This song and the duality created by Evita and Che make these characters more than caricatures. They’re only human, and expose each other’s flaws for all to see.
It’s true that sometimes the songs written for Che allow him to make a more persuasive case to the audience, and this, for fans of Evita, is unfair to their protagonist. But at the end of the day, you should be able to defend your hero with her faults on the table, not in spite of them. If Evita can’t stand the scrutiny of a single individual, how is she to stand the test of time?
— LEAH BURGIN