ANDREW LLOYD WEBBER: EVITA (1976)
1) A Cinema In Bueno Aires, 26 July 1952; 2) Requiem For Evita / Oh What A Circus; 3) On This Night Of A Thousand Stars / Eva And Magaldi / Eva Beware Of The City; 4) Buenos Aires; 5) Goodnight And Thank You; 6) The Lady's Got Potential; 7) Charity Concert / I'd Be Surprisingly Good For You; 8) Another Suitcase In Another Hall; 9) Dangerous Jade; 10) A New Argentina; 11) On The Balcony Of The Casa Rosada / Don't Cry For Me Argentina; 12) High Flying, Adored; 13) Rainbow High; 14) Rainbow Tour; 15) The Actress Hasn't Learned The Lines (You'd Like To Hear); 16) And The Money Kept Rolling (In And Out); 17) Santa Evita; 18) Waltz For Eva And Che; 19) She Is A Diamond; 20) Dice Are Rolling / Eva's Sonnet; 21) Eva's Final Broadcast; 22) Montage; 23) Lament.
If not for Jesus Christ Superstar and its (a) superhuman musical impact and (b) nominal allegiance to the «rock» paradigm, I would hardly have a single pretext, or even personal stimulus, to include Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber in this section. As incredible as it may seem, JCS was an artistic accident — an achievement achieved simply because Webber, a talented, but misguided composer, for once in his life decided to «try it out this way». The result happened to transcend all known musical borders. But it was never Sir Andrew's conscious intention to transcend all known musical borders. He just needed a particular musical framework that could fit the subject, and he found it. Who knows: perhaps, in the wake of JCS' success, had he begun looking for subjects of comparable grandiosity — oh, I dunno, such as setting The Brothers Karamazov to music — he might have produced comparable results.
Instead, as Wikipedia niftily puts it, «the planned follow up to Jesus Christ Superstar was a musical comedy based on the Jeeves and Wooster novels by P. G. Wodehouse». That is Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber to you, in a nutshell. Oh, there is nothing wrong in alternating grand tragedies with lightweight comedies, as such (Will Shakespeare could vouch for that); still, this was rather symbolic, and vaguely hinted at the idea that Webber would never again conceive a project on such a grand scale as JCS — and he didn't. (Enter all good Christians pointing out that you can never get a scale grander than the one upon which you mount the figure of Christ; exit all good Christians after we politely point out the fact that Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber himself was, and remains, at a significant distance from a «good Christian», and, probably, views Jesus himself as simply one of his action figures, on the same shelf as Old Deuteronomy and The Phantom.)
The «grandest» and «grittiest» that Webber ever got after JCS was in 1976. After the predictable flop of Jeeves (due in part to the fact that Andrew and his new librettist, Alan Ayckbourn, tried to cram as much of the novels as possible into the musical; Tim Rice had the wisdom to pull out of the project before it was too late), Webber and Rice reteamed once again, choosing, this time, a female deity figure for their next project — Eva Perón, who, by then, was a figure only slightly less legendary than Jesus himself, and, on the faraway shores of Argentina, was definitely «bigger than the Beatles», to paraphrase John Lennon.
As a musical, Evita is pretty damn good, if you have an ear for musicals; and it still managed to preserve some of the toughness of old, with much of the music built on a bluesy or R'n'B-ish foundation. That said, this time around, the music is almost worthless without the story and the singing; as in all traditional musicals, the tunes are there as backdrops for the singers and their personalities — no wonder that the original concept album opens without an overture, since there are only a tiny handful of themes from which a solid overture could be drawn (instead, there is a sort of «underture», a ʽMontageʼ, crudely assembled from reprises of several parts of the show — quite annoying, considering that most of the themes have already been reprised several times).
The atmosphere is occasionally Broadwayish, but, on the whole, remains credible. The high quotient of Latin motives, flamencos, and ardent sentimentality, may displease, but, given the subject, hardly seems out of place — no more so than elements of Catholic church music (along with a children's choir on ʽSanta Evitaʼ), without which a musical about Argentina and its modern day neo-Madonna would be unthinkable. Many of the ballads are still cast in the typically 1970s soft-rock / folk-pop idiom (ʽHigh Flying, Adoredʼ, etc.), which is at least better than casting them in a Julie Andrews or Barbra Streisand manner.
As for the singers, well, Evita is really a one-actor show: although Paul Jones (the original lead singer in Manfred Mann) is quite functional in lending his pipes to the impersonation of Juan Perón, and Colm Wilkinson has enough sneer to convey the sarcasm and criticism of the narrator and one-man-Greek-chorus Che, the whole story basically belongs to Evita — with Julie Covington nailing the part as perfectly as the composition allows. (Clearly, there is no comparison with the Madonna version — which arguably remains much better known simply because it is the Madonna version, but signora Ciccone, who admittedly had to take extra vocal lessons to sing the part, despite, perhaps, being somewhat close to the real Eva Perón in spirit — she handles the role rather well from a strictly visual viewpoint — could never accumulate proportionally acceptable strength in her vocal cords).
Covington's arias are really the only good reasons to listen to the whole thing at all — and I do not mean just ʽDon't Cry For Me, Argentinaʼ, which actually works much better in the overall setting of the album than when ripped out of the show and overplayed and overcovered to death in the framework of our modern pop culture. ʽAnother Suitcase In Another Handʼ, ʽHigh Flying, Adoredʼ, and even the cooing ʽI'd Be Surprisingly Good For Youʼ, in which the dame is wooing over her future president husband, all have a touch of frail beauty — which is then topsy-turved into brawn and aggression on ʽBuenos Airesʼ and ʽRainbow Highʼ. All in all, Covington succeeds in making a fascinating musical character out of Eva — if not a very pleasant one: I do not know of the original reaction to the musical in Argentina, but Alan Parker's movie, twenty years later, caused quite an uproar, much as JCS succeeded in disturbing the minds of one too many mindless Christian fanatics before it.
Composition-wise, Evita and its author could certainly be accused of laziness: recurring themes and leitmotifs crop up all of the time, and when you get it all together and start packing it in, there are maybe like five or six fully completed, fleshed out, memorable compositions on the album. But the record moves on with turbulence and dynamics, and there are quite a few unexpected surprises — for instance, the instrumental mid-section of ʽBuenos Airesʼ, delving into funk and even disco for a couple minutes; the boogie-blues of ʽDangerous Jadeʼ, associated, for some reason, with Perón's military officials; and the mournful minimalistic conclusion (ʽLamentʼ), backed with nothing but an acoustic guitar part. At the very least, Webber and Rice consistently keep it from becoming too boring.
Strictly «rock»-oriented listeners, not to mention all partisans of the «anti-commercial» movement, will find little of value in Evita — in fact, they will probably not even start looking for it. But it is definitely not yer ordinary Broadway show, and still shows Sir Andrew at the top of his game — even after a self-initiated change of rules. Just do not spoil your experience with the Madonna version: by all means, seek out the original. (There may be other good ones as well: last time I looked, there was something like twenty-five commercially available recordings of Evita in English alone — yet the original recording fully appeases the small Evita-loving part of my character, so you are on your own for any follow-ups). A modest thumbs up — mainly for Julie Covington's performance, without which this would be «just another musical», with an unclear audience (regular musical-goers would prefer something softer and more family-oriented, whereas rock opera lovers would always just remember this as a cruel downfall after JCS).
Check "Evita" (CD) on Amazon