Evita – An opinion sanctified by time. (Theatre Review)
The Sydney Opera House September 18 – November 3
On the Fortieth anniversary of Evita the musical, perhaps the question to ask ourselves is why we want to/are celebrating this musical at all? The 1979 Andrew Lloyd Webber Tim Rice vehicle is the most commonly known propaganda about Eva Perón, while equally being the most contentious. Based on the polemical book ‘The Woman with the Whip: Eva Peron’ written by the anti- Perón activist Maria Flores, the musical offers a willfully erroneous staging of events. Many claims made by the musical, such as the siphoning of funds to Switzerland and Eva following Magaldi to Buenos Aires due to their relationship are suspect at best or commonly known to be fallacies. Historical inaccuracies, a flagrant hyper-sexualising of Eva Perón and emphasis on her romances, have provided the loudest commentary on her life and have established themselves as beyond question. At best, Evita is a potent defamation suit waiting to happen. At worst it is the deliberate destruction of a powerful female’s credibility by two influential musicians. The musical relies heavily on two misogynistic stereotypes: that female power is inevitably reliant upon sexuality and that female sexuality is more motivated by power than desire.
So, what are we to make of all this? Is that song so good we want to toss Argentinian culture and political history under a bus in order to keep it alive? Should thinking women just absorb these problems and be grateful there is a musical about the founding member of the Argentinian Feminist party at all? Evita is still inspiring, so who cares if it accuses Eva Perón of sleeping her way to the top? The big musical is a mainstay of theatre and keeps many creatives in jobs, not to mention associated satellite businesses. Racist and misogynistic musicals are still being written (I’m looking at you Book of Mormon) and we all deserve a voice, right? Do we just keep loving that song, and be grateful Eva isn’t here to add it to the #metoo movement or sue us?
If Evita perhaps shouldn’t exist, there is no arguing that it does and that it is currently showing at the Sydney Opera House, so we might as well go ahead and pass judgement. If you are one of those who likes to think the art is above tawdry matters of false representation, then this production as fine a version as you are likely to see. Opera Australia have come up with the goods in this Tina Arena led extravaganza with a perfectly timed immaculate representation of Evita that is fortieth-anniversary-faithful to the original. Famous ditties from the first such as ‘Don’t Cry For Me Argentina,’ ‘Peron’s Latest Flame’ and ‘Another Suitcase Another Hall’ are exquisitely wrought and nothing short of thrilling to witness. If you want homage (and really that’s the only way to do Evita if you must) then this production is as good as you will see. And of course, it’s at The Sydney Opera House.
However, the best approach to Evita is educative. Notice what it tells us about how misogyny and racism work. Tim Rice heard about Eva Perón on a radio program. The man with the Spanish chauffeur might have felt that South American love for this woman is suspect. Tim Rice would probably argue his perspective is ‘balanced,’ and ‘fair’ because he includes the woman’s faults as well as her strengths. It’s not a Catholic review, therefore the saint like fascination with Eva Perón has been included as observation. He pits Eva Perón’s socialism against Che Guevara’s communism. In his mind his view is rational, logical and balanced. It is also very white, and very old school white bloke. Evita does not only give us a white man’s perspective on Eva Perón, it also gives us a white British male’s perspective on Latinas.
The point is made, by Tim Rice himself, that we wouldn’t have heard of Eva Perón if it wasn’t for his musical. When you make allowances for the foolish arrogance of that statement, it does reveal another very important point. In the age of internet and Wikipedia, we are less likely to take musicals like Evita at face value anyway. There is no end of cries of foolishness for the person who takes Evita too seriously and dares to imagine a Tim Rice Andrew Lloyd Webber concoction is likely to adhere closely to the historical record. Ironically, this version of the Eva Perón story is likely to draw people to a more accurate version.
Which brings us back to the question of what exactly are we celebrating with this fortieth anniversary and why? Is it to bring a distant populace a little closer to opera? Is it to fund the care and upkeep of the Sydney Opera House? Is it fill the Opera Australia coffers? These are all worthy reasons, and as good a reason to turn the tele off and get out into our beautiful city to spend your precious end of month scant surplus. Tina Arena and Opera Australia rescue this rather silly musical from its own self consciousness and gives it a dignity otherwise bestowed only by time.
And of course, there is that song.