The history of politics is filled with compassionate souls who have entered into the field of public service because they felt they had something to offer that would make the world a better place in which to live for everyone. To those kind folks, I salute you. Our world would be a much kinder, fairer and more just place to be if those sitting in the big chairs did so as leaders possessing charitable hearts. But, the reality of political history all throughout the world is that many who enter the political arena do so for less magnanimous reasons; power and money being chief among them. Politics has always been, or so it seems, an occupation not for the faint of heart. It is far too rare that political opponents join forces in pursuit of a common goal. Most often, we have maneuverings and intrigue, leaving someone to be the victor and someone to be the vanquished. And as the hoary old cliché goes, the history of our times is always written by the victors.
Who ends up dictating the events of history is an important factor to consider when discussing the story of one of the most controversial, beloved and misunderstood figures in any era of modern world politics, Eva Perón. In all of the research that I have conducted into almost one thousand songs, I have never encountered such a polarizing figure as the lady who would go on to inspire the hit musical, Evita. In fact, the information that I have read about her varies wildly depending upon who is doing the telling…the victors or the vanquished. So, let me take a few moments and give you the broad strokes of the story behind who Eva Perón was and how she came to hold such a position of influence within the country of Argentina. I state the following facts as being as true as I can know them to be. I am not an Argentinian scholar, by any means. If anyone reading this post has a greater pool of knowledge to draw from and can add to or correct what I am about to write then please, by all means, feel free to do so below.
Every biography of Eva Perón that I have read states that she began her life as Eva Duarte and that she had an impoverished upbringing. As she grew up and became a teenager, Eva Duarte began to have dreams of becoming a movie and music star. She knew that she would never become a star where she was living so she began to devise a plan that would see her move to the capital city of Buenos Aires. Not having money, Eva Duarte used her beauty to attract the attention of men in positions of power. It was through her relationships with these men that she made her way from her small town all the way to the big city. Once in Buenos Aires, Duarte began venturing into nightclubs and theatres looking for an opportunity to make herself known to those with the power to advance her career. As her teenage years moved along, she began getting roles in musicals, as well as opportunities to sing on stage in clubs. It was while working at a benefit fundraiser that she met one of Argentina’s rising young political stars, Col. Juan Perón. There was an attraction between the two and soon they began a torrid love affair. *(Up until this point in her story, the only bone of contention between those who consider Eva Perón to be akin to a saint and those who despise everything about her is whether she made her way to the top of Argentinian society because of her cunning determination and ambition or whether she prostituted herself). From what I have read, there appears to be no middle ground in this matter.
Once Eva Duarte and Juan Perón became a romantically involved couple, they entered into a political partnership. As anyone with any knowledge of politics probably knows, no one rises to positions of power in isolation. They do so because they have supporters working behind the scenes, as well as in front of the cameras, who help their candidate of choice acquire enough popular support among the electorate to gain power. This is where the story of Evita becomes muddled and why it is important to understand the motives behind whoever is telling her tale. As the Peróns ascended to the Presidency of Argentina, they started a series of initiatives aimed at improving the lives of the working class. Hospitals, schools, orphanages, etc…, all received an influx of funding that flowed from the pens of Eva and Juan Perón. Up until their arrival, charities in Argentina were often run by the wealthy who would pocket much of the money that was raised from the citizens of the country. Needless to say, when Eva Perón essentially nationalized philanthropy, she made a lot of powerful enemies among the ruling class. It bothered them further that she was beautiful and revered by those she was helping. To her supporters in the working class, Eva Perón is viewed as an angel who made a concrete difference in their lives. For those who disliked her, she was nothing more than a political opportunist who stole from the rich to enrich herself and whose charity was nothing more than a power move to solidify support from those she considered her base. Many who oppose her claim that she was no better than another notorious First Lady, Imelda Marcos of the Philippines. Eva Perón died from cancer in her mid-thirties. Her husband was the subject of a military coup. Perón’s body was removed from its crypt by thieves and spirited away to Italy, where it was held for ransom for several decades before finally being allowed to return to Argentina. She was eventually laid to rest in the Duarte family plot in the same small village in which she had been raised. Her life had come full circle.
Andrew Lloyd Webber is a famous creator of musicals, as many of you are aware. He has a musical partner named Tim Rice. Rice often composes the musical scores that accompany Webber’s lyrics. It was Rice who first heard of the story of Eva Perón. He spent years researching her life story. He visited Argentina dozens of times, going to all of the places that played a major role in her life. In his mind, the story of the life of Eva Perón was an obvious choice to be turned into a musical. However, his partner wasn’t so sure. Webber argued that no one outside of Latin America knew who she was and that the general public wouldn’t rush out to see a play about the First Lady of Argentina, even if they did. But Tim Rice persisted and eventually Andrew Lloyd Webber agreed to give it a try. Initially, the compromise solution was to create a live cast recording and leave it at that. But, as tracks were recorded, the story that became Evita began taking on an energy of its own to the point where even Andrew Lloyd Webber himself had to acknowledge that this was a musical waiting to happen. But this is where the politics of the storyteller’s perspective come into play.
Andrew Lloyd Webber was not entirely certain as to how to accurately portray Eva Perón on the stage. As noted, she is a historically polarizing figure whose biography varies a great degree depending upon who is doing the talking. So, what Andrew Lloyd Webber ended up doing was to insert a character into the story called Ché. *(This may or may not be a reference to the famous revolutionary leader, Ché Guevara). The character of Ché is used by Webber in the role of the traditional Greek chorus. Ché is cynical of Perón and her motives and helps provide a perspective that contrasts with the mythologizing of Eva Perón that comes from the rest of the cast who play the citizens of Argentina. That she was adored and despised in equal measure appears to be the truest path to tread when it comes to evaluating Perón’s legacy by those of us who were never there at the time and who have to rely on the perspectives of those with something to gain by how they share her story. In the end, Andrew Lloyd Webber appears to have come down on the side of those in her corner. For the show stopping number, “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina”, Webber drew upon the true story of how ordinary citizens reacted upon hearing the news of her death. At her gravesite rests a plaque that was paid for by donations raised by the taxi drivers union of Buenos Aires. The plaque states that they will not cry for her (because they felt blessed to have had her in their lives, even for such a short time as it turned out to be), but that they would cry for their country (because of the opportunity for charity and compassion that had been lost).
Evita has gone on to become one of the most successful musicals ever made. The song “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina” won the Ivor Novello Award for Best Song in a Musical the year it was released. In the 1990s, Evita was made into a Hollywood movie that starred Madonna as Eva Perón. Madonna had campaigned for years to play the role of Eva Perón because she felt that Perón’s life story bore a striking resemblance to her own. The movie opened to mixed reviews, mostly due to Madonna’s acting and singing voice. That may seem like a strange thing to say, since Madonna is one of the biggest selling singing stars of all time. However, what her performance showed, more than anything, was that there is a big difference between being a singer who sings Pop songs recorded in a studio as opposed to being a singer who belts it out on stage every night. Prior to Madonna singing “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina” in the movie, the song had been famously sung by such women as Barbra Streisand, as well as the legendary West End star, Elaine Paige *(who you will remember from her star turn in Cats as she sings that musical’s show stopper, “Memories”, which you can read about here). For my money, Paige is simply the gold standard. It is her version of “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina” that I will feature below. I will include Madonna’s, too, just so you can compare the two performances for yourself.
The politics of storytelling is not reserved for musicals and dramatic film adaptations. We are seeing this bear fruit in real time in our own society as more and more of our newspapers, television news stations and social media outlets are being taken over by those on the right wing side of the political spectrum. When the information we are being presented takes on the perspective of those who view themselves as the victors, then their reality becomes our history. An easy modern example is the resistance to Climate Change initiatives. Who are the ones who believe in a “Green” future, and who seek to maintain the status quo because it is good for the bottom lines of those in charge? Who are the victors and who are the vanquished, and, just as importantly, who gets to tell the tale? Our future just may very well depend upon the answer to that question. Perhaps I should tweet about my feelings on Twitter but, then again…..
The link to the video for the song, “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina” as sung by Elaine Paige can be found here.
The link to the video for the trailer of the West End musical, Evita, can be found here.
The link to the video for the song “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina” as sung by Madonna from the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack to the film Evita can be found here.
The link to the video for the trailer for the film Evita can be found here.
The link to the official website for the Eva Perón Society can be found here.
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