Evita is rock opera of contradictory proportions: the music is a hypnotic collision of songs that range from intricate and soaring to just plain weird; it is hailed as one of the greatest woman-centric musicals of its generation, but upon closer examination, uses the male gaze to place its supposed heroine on a shallow pedestal; it introduces Americans to a blind spot in contemporary world history, but ultimately dilutes the political and social climate of 20th century Argentina down to a superficial Cinderella story. In short, it is the quintessential example of two white men putting their words into the mouths of marginalized historical figures, a colonized story camouflaged under a smattering of pretty dresses and songs.
Evita’s colonialist roots are easy to espy, and given what is now the third in a series of recent whitewashing controversies over regional theatres’ casting practices, I find it apt to dissect precisely what makes this musical so thorny. Like so many of Broadway’s most iconic showstoppers – The King and I, Miss Saigon, and Carousel, to name a very select few – Evita has an undeniably problematic history, particularly where gender, cultural appropriation, and white-washing are concerned. And like the aforementioned musicals, Evita keeps popping back into our consciousness, just as the earworm that is “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” has a nasty habit of burrowing its way into your brain days after listening to the record (or maybe that’s just me).
While misogyny and cultural appropriation may seem like separate issues, I argue that the former largely informs the latter, and understanding how Evita is a disservice to its historical counterpart sheds light on why the theatre community needs to act on these recent controversies.
Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s musical is not an homage to one of Argentina’s most beloved, if controversial, historical figures, nor is it an objective biography or an attempt to wrestle with complex political ideals. Evita strips Eva Perón of her nuance so that, at her most interesting, she is an embodiment of the virgin-whore complex rather than a human being. This retelling of Perón’s life is the misogynistic version of the rags-to-riches story: a seemingly innocent woman uses her beauty and wiles to float up the social ladder, only to be corrupted by wealth and power (represented for this female protagonist by jewels and designer gowns).
Che, originally the Everyman narrator, not the historical Che Guevara, has open disdain for Eva. He is arguably closer to being a protagonist than is the musical’s namesake, given that he frames the retelling of her life story; Eva has surprisingly little agency in her titular musical, the narrative of which is framed by her death. Eva is seen in film-version as the musical opens, and when her adoring fans are informed of her untimely death, Che challenges their superficial hero-love and invites the audience to follow his narration of her doomed life. The musical is literally told through the male gaze, depicting the dangers of the female sex’s proclivity for vanity and narcissism – dangers that, on a national scale, can lead to political turmoil and dramatically ironic death.
In Magaldi's eyes, Eva’s is a cautionary tale, as Magaldi explains in Eva, Beware of the City:
Eva beware your ambition
It’s hungry and cold, can’t be controlled, will run wild
This is in a man is danger enough, but you are a woman
Not even a woman, not very much more than a child
Ambition, that deliciously gendered buzzword, is naturally Eva’s fatal flaw. Webber and Rice lay out in great detail the apocryphal story of Eva’s Cinderella-like journey from her rural roots to Buenos Aires (a myth perpetuated by Evita: The Woman with the Whip, a biography that served as one of the main inspirations for Webber and Rice – and later discounted for its glaring inaccuracies and anti-Perónist slant). They detail her desire for fame and fortune, willingness to sleep her way to success, and hypocritical disdain for the upper class. When the musical finally alludes to Eva’s extensive charity work, Che accuses her of money laundering, rather than contributing to social welfare.
The musical does not touch on Eva’s commitment to women’s suffrage or support for the elderly and impoverished, nor does it provide context for the political and social climate surrounding Juan Perón’s rise to power. We are left with a watered-down version of an integral moment in Argentinean history, and a prominent musical theater protagonist who is female, Latinx, and woefully underwritten.
But the music is catchy; the iconic visual moments are stunning; the room for political allegory is ripe; and non-white-male protagonists are rare enough in the musical theatre canon that the temptation to revive Evita makes complete sense. So how to ameliorate this desire to reclaim Eva Perón’s story while still being at least marginally respectful of Argentina’s controversially beloved icon?
By finally giving the musical’s roles to Latinx actors—especially that of Evita herself.
With few exceptions, such as the 2012 Broadway revival, which starred Argentinian actor Elena Roger in the title role, Latinx performers have been glaringly absent from Evita’s production history. Directors have largely equated the historical Eva’s famous blonde hair with whiteness, including Bill Hanney, the owner and producer of North Shore Music Theatre; he responded to a recent uproar the Latinx community regarding the theatre’s all-white casting of the musical by claiming “There is no part of the story that speaks to events happening to her or not happening to her because of her race, nor are her actions motivated by her race.”
Lauran Villegas, activist and founder of Project I Am Right, was quick to point out that Latinx is a culture, not a race, and “by their very nature Latinx people are a complex mix of ethnic groups from indigenous American peoples who survived genocide, African peoples who survived slavery, and European colonizers… It is a culture that deserves to be protected from appropriation as much as any other.”
This emphasis on cultural appropriation is critical, particularly given Broadway’s long and troubling history of Latinx white-washing (this recent Howlround article by Viviana Vargas dissects the appropriation in West Side Story, long-ignored due to the musical’s critical and popular acclaim). Eva Perón’s European ancestry has been fodder for many to claim that Evita is technically exempt from white-washing, so Vargas’ distinction of Latinx as an ethnically diverse but distinct and long-appropriated culture needs to be understood. Eva Perón’s Latinx identity is unquestionable, so Latinx actors deserve the opportunity to finally reclaim her story.
Evita will never be perfect; it will always be steeped in white-supremacy and the male gaze. Decolonization of this musical may very well be impossible – but Evita isn’t going anywhere. If The King and I continues to earn revivals and Tony Awards, despite its spurious history of yellow-face and biased source material, then there’s little chance that Evita is going to disappear from the public consciousness anytime soon.
Directors have the responsibility to diversify all artistic teams (imagine how much more interesting the table work would be for The Sound of Music or My Fair Lady if it were comprised of a diverse group of performers), but when a story has a particularly troubling history of colonization, their responsibility is magnified that much more. Evita is most Americans’ introduction to one of history’s most complex and powerful figures. More bluntly: the most popular Eva Perón narrative of all time portrays this political icon as a power-hungry sex symbol. We owe Latinx actors the opportunity to sing and dance and act these challenging roles – but we also owe Eva Perón a chance to have her story told correctly.
Unless Eva’s story is brought to life by performers with a culture and history that complicate the one-dimensional version the Webber and Rice penned, Evita will be revived and revived and revived, but always stay the same.
Ms. Clearwood is the Literary Associate at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center. Previous dramaturgy credits include: WSC Avant Bard:The Gospel at Colonus, TAME., Holiday Memories, A Midsummer Night's Dream; Pinky Swear Productions: Lizzie: The Musical; Rorschach Theatre: A Bid to Save the World; Source Festival: Static; Forum Theatre: World Builders; Olney Theatre Center: I and You, The Piano Lesson, The Tempest, Colossal.
Photo: Richard Termine