Friday, November 22, 2013

Evita: Why We Love That Musical about a Dictator

Facts don’t matter . . . in art.

I recently attended a touring performance of the musical Evita by Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice. The production debuted in London’s West End in 1978 and on Broadway in 1979. The show loosely chronicles the rise and short political life of Eva Peron, wife of Argentinian dictator Juan Peron. It is an operatic rags-to-riches love story that ends with cathartic tragedy when the heroine dies of cancer at age 33. The production comes complete with Greek chorus in the form of the character, narrator-critic Che.

Heroine? Therein lies the debate. Can the wife of a dictator be admired, and therefore her artistic portrayal enjoyed, while a talented, professional cast sings and dances to beautiful music in her name?

In art the prickly factual detail of who the historical Evita was is not terribly relevant. Artistic license allows facts to be altered for esthetic purpose. If that were not the case we would have trouble appreciating animations and such science fiction classics as Star Trek and Star Wars. Indeed, the word “fiction” means portrayal of imaginary people and events—not factual ones. And it is precisely contrasted to the word “fact,” because reports of news or historical events are supposed to be true, not creatively crafted stories.

In some fiction there is a phenomenon known as the loveable crook, but such characters are usually either doing a good deed, as Robin Hood stole from the thieving rich to return wealth and property to the dispossessed poor, or are, or become, reformed sinners, such as John Robie in the Alfred Hitchcock movie To Catch a Thief.

Eva Peron is not a loveable crook or loveable dictator. She is loved in the musical (and was in real life) by the poor, but she is (and was) hated by the military and rich. In the show, Che is ideologically sympathetic to Evita’s politics, but he is a critical commentator suspicious of her methods and motivation; he makes sure the audience knows Evita may have done less than nice things. All good stories require conflict and this is it in a nutshell.

But Evita the musical is not about politics. As Lloyd Weber and Rice describe the show it is a Cinderella story. This is the most likely reason the highly stylized musical is loved worldwide and has been a success for so many years. To see Eva Peron as a Cinderella requires a considerable feat of abstraction to dispense with the facts presented in the musical and what we think we know about her historical facts. It requires that the audience not be too literal in their understanding of the show’s characters.*

The stylization of the show helps us accomplish that move away from literalness. “Stylized” means a particular way of doing or presenting something that is distinctively non-naturalistic. Musicals from the get-go, with their singing dictators and dancing soldiers, are stylized. Evita is highly stylized because it is “sung-through,” meaning there is no spoken dialogue, which makes it more like an opera, and it leaves much of the story to be told by the narrator.

In a lengthy analysis of the musical, Scott Miller points out that the original New York production portrayed Che as the Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara, but the intent of the creators was different. Current productions have restored Che as an “anonymous Everyman,” a phrase that stems from the colloquial Argentine meaning of the word “che” as “friend,” “mate,” “pal,” or even “dude.” This stylization further removes the audience from politics and makes Che a more believable Greek chorus.

Evita the musical, therefore, becomes a quite enjoyable, polished, and integrated work of art, not a tome of history—or paean to dictators.

There are many reasons to like and dislike a work of art, but if we focus too concretely on the uprightness of main characters, we are going to have trouble enjoying certain truly great works of art.

The operas Don Giovanni, Rigoletto, and La Traviata immediately come to mind.

*As for the historical facts of Eva and Juan Peron, a considerable revisionist history (1, 2) has portrayed them as less than the villains their enemies claimed they were during their lifetimes. “Peronism” can be described as a somewhat mild—though still not always nice—fascist FDR-ism that promoted such familiar programs as social security and pro-union labor and women’s suffrage legislations. Peron himself was neither anti-Semitic nor the vicious tyrant that subsequent Argentine military leaders became. He did, however, harbor Nazi war criminals.

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