Evita: The Making of a Superstar – BBC 2

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I’ve got the worst singing voice in the entire known universe, but practically the first thing I did in Buenos Aires was sing (quietly) “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” outside the Casa Rosada. It had to be done!   It’s such an iconic song, from such an iconic musical – which, according to Suzy Klein on BBC 2, is Donald Trump’s favourite musical and was so admired by Maggie Thatcher that it led her to say she said she hoped someone’d write a musical about her.  Let’s not go there!   South American history isn’t widely taught in schools in English-speaking countries, but we’ve all heard of Eva Peron.  And we all know that song.

Our group went to a gloriously touristy Argentinian evening, involving large steaks and people (not us) dancing the tango. It also involved someone singing “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina”, which really surprised me.  OK, it was a tourist thing, but I wouldn’t have expected Argentinians to be into Evita.  Quite apart from the fact that it’s a British musical and Anglo-Argentinian relations aren’t exactly warm, it doesn’t portray Eva Peron very favourably.  The expression “scheming tart” was how one of the people interviewed on this programme summed it up.

And she really is still hero-worshipped by a lot of people in Argentina. Our local guide, clearly a very intelligent woman with intensive knowledge of Argentinian history, couldn’t praise her highly enough.  Many political leaders are greatly revered, but that’s usually because they led a country to greatness, or to independence, or saw it safely through a time of great peril.  Eva Peron didn’t do anything of those things.  She wasn’t even a political leader: she was just married to one.  She was, as we’re reminded at the very start of Evita, known as “the Spiritual Leader of the Nation”.  There aren’t too many other people seen in those terms.  Gandhi’s the only one who immediately springs to mind – and he certainly didn’t wear expensive clothes and go on glamorous Rainbow Tours.  To this day, many Argentinian households have pictures of Eva Peron on their walls.  Often next to depictions of the Virgin Mary.

The only other person who seems to be so adored in Argentina is Diego Maradona, and the least said about him, the better. And I see that the final of the Copa Libertadores, between Boca Juniors and River Plate, has had to be postponed because of hooliganism.  That’s actually quite relevant to Evita, because Boca Juniors have always been seen as the team of the poor/descamisados and River Plate as the team of the rich.

I’m not sure what story this programme was actually trying to tell. Was it the story of Eva Peron, the story of Evita the musical or the story of 1970s/1980s culture?  It seemed to be a bit of all three.  Maybe the same theme runs through all three – the cult of hype and image and celebrity.  But that’s one thing with a film or a musical or a pop group, and quite another with someone who has huge political and financial clout.

Tim Rice informed us that he first became interested in Eva Peron when he got some Argentinian stamps for his boyhood stamp collection, and wondered why they bore the picture of a woman who wasn’t a queen! And that, years later, he heard something about her on the radio, and decided to write a musical about her.  It’s certainly a great story – rags to riches, a tragically early death, hero worship, etc – but it’s still a strange choice.  The Perons wouldn’t have been well-known in Britain at the time.  And, even before the Falklands War, making a musical about Argentinian politics was hugely controversial.  Some people accused him of glorifying fascism.  And Eva Peron is a very controversial and divisive figure.  The musical couldn’t make that any clearer.

This was all very interesting, but the programme then veered off the subject of Eva Peron and on to the subject of how the musical was tied in with both the idea of powerful female leaders and the media obsession with celebrity. I’m not sure that either Eva Peron or Margaret Thatcher, whilst they had ambition and ruthlessness in common, would take very kindly to being compared to each other.  There are probably more comparisons to be drawn between Eva Peron and Diana, Princess of Wales, in terms of the “people’s princess” rubbish, but the programme didn’t so much draw comparisons between the two as say that the media were obsessed with the musical and its stars and that that obsession then moved on to Diana.  Er, it’s a great musical, but how on earth can you claim that Elaine Paige & co got the same level of media attention as Diana did?!

All the talk about the hype was actually quite sad. OK, obviously you’ve got to have publicity, to get bums on seats and make money, but it all seemed so cynical.  Much as it annoys me when anything isn’t historically accurate, I love the interplay between Eva Peron and Che Guevara in Evita. It’s so well done.  That bit where they dance together, and he goes on about how she’s conning everyone and she goes on about she can’t really do anything else within the Argentinian system, is just incredible.  It says so much about Argentina, and South American politics in general.  So I was rather upset to hear that the reason for including Che wasn’t to make some great political point but a) to appeal to the public by bringing in a household name and b) to provide a glamorous and romantic male lead role in which an attention-grabbing good-looking bloke could be cast.  OK, Antonio Banderas would be reason enough to watch the film version, even without the music and the history, but … well, it all sounds so cynical!  Boo!!

As I said, it wasn’t quite clear exactly what story or whose story the programme was trying to tell, and it this point it went back to Argentina and discussed the “Evita Movement”, set up in 2004 as a sort of social protest movement, and also commented that Eva Peron now has admirers from all social classes. I like that.  Whatever you think of Eva Peron, you’ve got to love the line “But our privileged class is dead.  Look who they are calling for now”.  I think that’s only in the film, not the stage version, isn’t it?  Great line.  And the line about “No we wouldn’t mind seeing her in Harrods, but behind the jewellery counter not in front” is a reminder that, long before the invasion of the Falklands, the privileged class was very Anglophile and there was huge British influence in Argentina.  There still is.  Harrods might have closed down, but there are still red postboxes in Argentina, and the uber-iconic Café Tortoni in Buenos Aires serves extremely nice scones.  Take that, Peron!

Lovely, lovely city, by the way. Beautiful buildings.  Great food.  Everyone talks about football all the time.

They then flipped from Eva Peron to Madonna. It does say a lot that Madonna was so absolutely desperate to play the lead role in the 1996 film version of Evita.  Like Bridget Jones J , I pretty much know all the words to The Immaculate Collection.  A lot of people who grew up in the ’80s will do!   You want celebrity, hype, image, and someone who really made the most of what they had?  Madonna.  I can’t imagine ever being friends with her, if I knew her personally, but what a woman!   Really, it was quite a risk for her to become involved in something that was very controversial at the time, because filming took place in Argentina at a time when, in addition to anger over the way Eva Peron was portrayed by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, both Britain and America were very unpopular there.  The programme showed us some of the “Fuero Madonna” and “Fuero Ingles” graffiti that appeared in Buenos Aires at the time.  It wasn’t mentioned in the programme, but the Argentinian government actually produced its own film about Eva Peron, as a direct response to all the controversy.

I can’t believe that the film’s 22 years old! I’ve seen it more often than I’ve seen the stage version (which is now 40 years old!), because cheap and easy to watch a DVD in your own front room, so I know it better than I know the stage version.  I’d never thought that much about the reasons for the differences between the two, but, as this programme pointed out, the portrayal of Eva Peron in the film is much softer and much more appealing than in the stage version.  “You Must Love Me” was a new song for the film, and the portrayal of terminally-ill Eva practically being propped up on the balcony of the Casa Rosada really tugs at the heartstrings.  Was it a sop to Argentinian sensitivies?  Well, the programme didn’t really go into that.  It just said that it was inaccurate, because the real Eva Peron was making feisty, rousing speeches right until just before the end.

It didn’t really answer any questions. It didn’t go into the real history of Eva Peron’s life and Juan Peron’s rule of Argentina, which is now all so confused, between the myths of Eva and the myths of the Evita musical, that it’s very hard to know what to think.  Even putting the myths aside and trying to rely on actual sources, historians can’t agree on exactly what was going on.  What was going on with the money from the Eva Peron Foundation?  Was Peron a fascist?  No-one seems to be sure.  But not too many people in the West talk like this, or even in Argentina, talks this much about General Galtieri, or about any of the umpteen other very questionable people who ruled Argentina or other South American countries during the 20th century.

Musicals and history are an incredible combination, when you think about it. Look at some of the subjects covered by the most popular musicals of all time.  The June Rebellion of 1832.  The Anschluss.  Pogroms.  The rise of the Nazis in 1930s Berlin.  Criminal gangs in Victorian London.  Gangland conflict in New York.  The Vietnam War.  The Second World War in the South Pacific, also covering racism.  The miners’ strike.  Pretty weighty subjects.  I assume that the word “superstar” in the title of this programme was meant to refer to Eva Peron, not Evita the musical, but the image of Eva Peron outside Argentina, certainly in the Angophone world, has largely been determined by Evita.  That says a lot about the power of musicals.  It’s quite frightening, actually!   Imagine if someone did make a musical about Margaret Thatcher, or Donald Trump, or any of the other controversial figures of our times.  Maybe not …

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Miss Saigon and other musicals – some musings, on a nasty wet day

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Some settings/backgrounds for musicals.  The Vietnam War (Miss Saigon), Nazi anti-Semitism and homophobia (Cabaret), poverty and crime and domestic violence (Oliver!), pogroms in Tsarist Ukraine (Fiddler on the Roof), destitution and the failed June Uprising of 1832 (Les Miserables), the Cold War (Chess), the Anschluss (The Sound of Music), corruption and excessive populism in politics (Evita), ethnic tensions and gang warfare (West Side Story), racism in the Deep South (Show Boat), war and racism (South Pacific).   And I haven’t seen Hamilton yet, but I believe that that contains plenty of socio-political messages too.

I was just thinking (sorry, this is all going to be more than a bit gloomy), whilst watching Miss Saigon last night, about how some of the world’s best-known musicals are centred on deep-rooted political and social issues –  many of which are, regrettably, still relevant today, many years after whichever part of the past they’re set in.  Yes, all right, all right, not all musicals are like that!   There are plenty of jolly, cheerful ones, like Mamma Mia and Anything Goes.  Even I can’t really find too much of a significant historico-political message in Cats or Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.  It would be seriously pushing it to say that Annie Get Your Gun was about feminism, Starlight Express contained subversive messages about progress (the electric trains being defeated by the old steam trains!), Mary Poppins was about the suffragettes or Grease was about the problems of peer pressure.  Phantom of the Opera has a historical setting but isn’t really a historical story.  And no-one ever points out that, when they make a state out of this territory and call it Oklahoma, “they” will be taking away the last bit of what was supposed to be “Indian Territory”.

Then there are the musicals which do make a point, but maybe not in such a profound way as those like Miss Saigon and Cabaret.  Rich-poor/class divides in Annie, Dirty Dancing and My Fair Lady.  Family tensions over tradition and religion in The Jazz Singer.  How far is The Wizard of Oz an allegory about the problems in rural America during the 1890s?  Chicago is, obviously, about the issues of the Prohibition era.   And then there are the ones about Bible stories.   But I was thinking about the ones that really do go deeply into political and social issues.

 

One of the most profound political statements of all time – it is, honestly!! – is that political leaders need to remember that it’s not a question of what we want, but of what is right.  No, that was not said by a philosopher or political theorist: it was said by “Mrs Anna” in The King and I, when talking to the Siamese Crown Prince Chulalongkorn about slavery.  The real Anna Leonowens was quite a mistress of fake news, but that’s beside the point!  The King and I deals not only with slavery but also with the horrific treatment of a woman given to the king as a gift, and with the political and cultural implications of Western attempts to gain influence in the Far East.  I love what she says about how it’s not a question of what we want, but of what is right, though.  That line really should be better known than it is!  Chulalongkorn, when he became king, actually did abolish slavery in Siam … but, even in the 21st century, the practice of slavery, whilst no longer legal anywhere (although Mauritania didn’t abolish it until 2007) still exists, notably in the forms of human trafficking, and of the enslavement of women by groups such as Islamic State and Boko Haram.

That was really what I was thinking – how most of these issues haven’t gone anyway.  In fact, they’re rather dominating the news at the moment.   Not Vietnam as such, but the Vietnam War is the ultimate lesson in how getting involved in a civil war in another country tends to end in disaster – especially if it’s, in part, a Cold War proxy war.  Yes, horrendous things are happening in Syria, but getting involved militarily really isn’t going to help.   And, as has been pointed out several times in recent months, the Cold War, sadly, seems to be back with a vengeance … even if it hasn’t started taking over chess again yet.

Then we’ve got governments which seem to lean worryingly far to the right in both Poland and Hungary, and the increasing involvement of the Freedom Party in Austria … where The Sound of Music was only shown on TV for the first time a few years ago.  The 25th anniversary of the senseless, evil murder of poor Stephen Lawrence, and Tom Daley’s speech about the appalling lack of LGBT rights in many Commonwealth countries and elsewhere are important reminders of the fact that racism and homophobia remain significant problems in society; and some worrying speeches were made in the House of Commons last week on the subject of anti-Semitism, which of late seems to be rearing its ugly head more and more.

A recent report in the Manchester Evening News actually used the word “Dickensian” when referring to poverty, homelessness and poor quality housing.   Les Miserables is to some extent about “rich young boys”, but a lot of the rich young boys are killed … and the outstanding characters are Jean Valjean, forced to steal a loaf of bread in order to feed his family, and Fantine, forced into prostitution when she loses her job.  There was a report on Sky News only this morning about the increase in rent arrears, evictions and the use of food banks – linked to the problems caused by the introduction of the universal credit system.  Incidentally, which of the working-class characters in Les Miserables “make it in the end”?  The Thenardiers, who are thieves and con artists!   That’s quite a (les) miserable(s) thought, really.

That’s Paris.  Oliver! is set in London, and West Side Story in New York, over a century apart, but both involve crime and violence, although Oliver! has more in common with Les Miserables in that it shows the lives of the desperately poor – I don’t really like the word “underclass”, but it is relevant in these cases.  Gang warfare in West Side Story, crime and violence in Oliver! … it’s not knife crime as such, but it’s all coming from the same direction.

Then there’s Evita.  Actually, Eva Peron is still hugely popular in Argentina: I went there in 2016, and she’s still such a heroine there.  So, is “bread and circuses” politics, as the Romans would have put it, what works after all?   It’s interesting that “Lula”, the ex-president of Brazil, is attracting considerable support ahead of his corruption trial.   There are certainly some parallels between him and Eva Peron.  Plus ca change …

 

But what is noticeable about a lot of these musicals, apart from Les Miserables, is that there is a sense of hope there, and that that’s usually the American Dream.  Strangely, that’s more in the later musicals than the earlier ones.  Simon Schama said, in one of his BBC history programmes, that Somewhere Over The Rainbow was the ultimate American Dream song, and it is, and that was 1939, but The Wizard of Oz wasn’t actually about American Dream stuff.  There isn’t much of an American Dream in Show Boat, and Maria, Anita, Bernardo, Chico etc in West Side Story have found out that the American Dream really isn’t all it was cracked up to be.  I’m not trying to be critical of America, by the way: I love America!  I’m just saying how things come across in the musicals.

“There are no cats in America, and the streets are paved with cheese.”  Well, An American Tail‘s a musical, isn’t it?!  Going to America isn’t mentioned in The Sound of Music, but we all know that it was where the (von) Trapps ended up. Tevye and his family, in Fiddler on the Roof, escape the pogroms and move to Chicago.  In Miss Saigon (immigration laws having changed since the days of Tevye’s family and the Mousekewitzes), The Engineer is desperate for a visa to enable him to get to America, and Kim kills herself so that her ex, Chris, will take their son to live with him in America.  Chris and his friend John both talk about how they genuinely believed that, as Americans, they were going to Vietnam to “do good”.  That feeling’s kind of gone now.  As I said, I’m not trying to criticise America: you could say the same about believing in spreading British justice across the globe, if that featured in musicals.   Whatever propaganda might appear on TV in Turkey or Russia or elsewhere, how many people actually believe that interference by other countries in Syria is just about trying to “do good”?

Ugh, this has got really doom and gloom-ish!   I think it must be because, although Miss Saigon was brilliant, there was a ¼ hour delay because of a technical hitch, so my mind started to wander, at a time when I was a bit fed up because we didn’t know if or when things’d get going again!   The next musical I’m due to see is the new stage version of An Office and a Gentleman, and that should be cheerful and uplifting – and, hooray, it’s full of lovely music from the 1980s, the greatest musical decade of all time!  Ah – speaking of the 1980s, how about Billy Elliot?  That’s set during the miners’ strike, but it still manages to be cheerful and uplifting, at least at the end.  Mind you, your chances of being saved from poverty by your artistic talent are probably not really that much greater than your chances of being saved from destitution by a long-lost rich grandfather (Oliver!), parent’s guilt-stricken ex-boss (Les Miserables) or random other benefactor (Annie).   West Side Story’s probably more realistic.   Oh dear, down the path of doom and gloom again …

I suppose one of the things with musicals, and with books, films, plays, etc – and it’s no coincidence that many of the greatest books ever written, such as Gone With The Wind and War and Peace, are set in troubled times – is that they personalise the issues, and that that makes you think about them in a different way.  The characters may be fictional, but there were Kims, Fantines, Nancys, and all the others.  And there still are, even if in different places.

OK, doom and gloom waffle over!  Well done if you’ve actually bothered to read it all – which I don’t suppose anyone actually has!   It’s just so sad that, over forty years after the end of the Vietnam War, the world’s still stuck in this relentless cycle of wars and refugee crises.  And that, over 180 years after Oliver! is set, both poverty and crime on the streets of London, and elsewhere, are actually getting worse.  Right, doom-laden rant definitely over now.  I’ll try to find something more cheerful to write about next time!