Evita set to score again

As a Lloyd Webber favourite returns, Michael Coveney reveals how a game of football, rather than world politics, inspired the musical about Eva Peron
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A few days after Evita opened at the Prince Edward Theatre on 21 June 1978, Argentina's football team won the World Cup in Buenos Aires, beating Holland 3-1 in a theatrical atmosphere made doubly unforgettable by the storm of blue-and-white ticker tape that flooded the arena at the final whistle.

The two events were curiously interrelated. It was a glorious high summer in London, and the first-night crowd had dressed down in summer suits and floral dresses. They went into the show humming the tunes, as the white-sleeved double album had been a bestseller for more than a year, and "Don't Cry for Me Argentina", a lush, soaring, strangely ambivalent confession of a leader's relationship with her adoring public, hauntingly sung by Julie Covington, had become a surprise UK chart-topping single in February 1977.

There was a mood of high drama and fiesta in the air, and some of it came from the football pitch. Andrew Lloyd Webber is keen on the sport and a devoted Leyton Orient supporter, but in 1974, the composer had gone along to Stamford Bridge with Tim Rice to see an evening match between Chelsea and Sunderland.

The floodlit atmosphere and the ferocity and uniformity of the chanting, some of it racist, made a deep impression on him. The rhetorical world of Evita, the savagery of the crowd scenes, is partly rooted in that experience (as well as in the stamping audience participation in Gary Glitter concerts of the time).

Evita was the fourth and last collaboration between Rice and Lloyd Webber - except for a 25-minute comic oratorio, Cricket, in 1986, and a new song, the Oscar-winning "You Must Love Me" for the 1996 movie version of Evita - and is probably their best work together. Michael Grandage's new production at the Adelphi, opening several World Cups and 28 years later (to the day) next week, promises to be very different from the brilliant, Brechtian original staging by Hal Prince.

"It's a much more architectural and textured production," says Lord Lloyd-Webber, "and I've done a fair bit of work on the orchestrations. We know more about Latin and Argentinian music now, so I wanted it to sound a little bit more as if played by a tango orchestra. A couple of numbers have a more pronounced tango treatment, and I love that interesting sound you get when you double up the bass line with a piano."

So, where does it stand, this musical, in the canon? The premiere preceded not only that Argentinian football triumph, but also the advent of Mrs Thatcher in 1979, who visited the show several times, and three years later, her war against Argentina over the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands. The war did Argentina a favour, ensuring a beneficial, democratic outcome after the ejection of General Galtieri's brutal military junta. And the post-Tim Rice Lloyd Webber shows of the 1980s achieved a sort of theatrical Esperanto, the first artistic global franchise.

There is something in this. Evita certainly marks the high point of Rice's lyrical invention. In a number such as "Rainbow High", the triple-time rhythms sweep across Eva's embodiment of star quality in the beauty salon: "They need to adore me, so Christian Dior me ... it's vital you sell me, so Machiavell me ... I'm their saviour, that's what they call me, so Lauren Bacall me." And the cash keeps rolling in to the sound of a hot shuffle, seven-beats-in-a-bar sequence that acts like a supple support system in Eva's money-raising pitch for her (corrupt) charitable foundation.

The 1996 Alan Parker movie starring Madonna, Jonathan Pryce and Antonio Banderas (as Eva, Juan Peron and Che Guevara, the surprise narrator of the story, respectively) is a slightly disappointing account of a show that, as Tim Rice said in his 1999 autobiography, was a watershed for them: "Like us or loathe us, we were now a showbiz force rather than a fluke. Maybe not quite Establishment at this point, but no longer upstart outsiders."

Rice, a budding pop singer, had been paired by a publisher friend with Lloyd Webber in 1965, a willing Hammerstein, he blithely, and half self-mockingly, said, to the composer's Rodgers. Lloyd Webber was already at work on a musical about Dr Barnardo, the philanthropist who founded the orphanages. Rice spring-cleaned the existing lyrics (by a school friend of Lloyd Webber) and added his own. The result was talented but not all that original, bearing a heavy debt to Lionel Bart's Oliver! and somehow lacking a distinctive flavour. It was never professionally performed and many of the tunes were filed away for later use.

But the couple, each of them tenaciously ambitious, got on well, and Lloyd Webber left Oxford after just two terms (he was five years younger than Rice) to continue the professional partnership, writing pop songs and, eventually, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat for a school concert in 1968. A positive review in The Sunday Times flagged up a show that grew like Topsy - in a remarkable display of theatrical parthenogenesis, wrote the critic Milton Shulman - from a 20-minute cantata to a record-breaking full-blown camp extravaganza starring Jason Donovan at the London Palladium in 1991.

The double-album release of Jesus Christ Superstar in 1970 caused a sensation, followed by the entirely contrasted stage productions in New York and London: the first was a psychedelic love-in, with wind machines and laser beams, directed by Tom O'Horgan, the man behind Hair; the second, a stark and sombre staging by Jim Sharman, who went on to direct The Rocky Horror Show, that opened at the Palace in 1972 and became the longest-running musical in West End history (it closed in 1980, just before Cats opened and set about becoming the next longest-running show in West End history).

Joseph had been a commission from a family friend who taught at Colet Court, the preparatory school for St Paul's School. But Jesus was Tim's idea, born of his fascination with the character of Judas Iscariot and Bob Dylan's great song, "With God on Our Side". A similar impulse was behind Evita, although Lloyd Webber was initially sceptical about doing another piece about another unknown tragic hero who rises to fame aged 33 and then dies. He had decided to strike out on a P G Wodehouse musical with lyrics by Alan Ayckbourn, but when Jeeves flopped in 1975 he returned to Rice's project with a sudden surge of enthusiasm.

Rice had joined the new Capital Radio station as a disc jockey. He was driving to a dinner party at the end of 1973 and was late, so caught the end of a programme about Eva Peron on his car radio. A seed was sown, and when he visited his old school friend Christopher Hampton (Rice was at Lancing College with both Hampton and David Hare), he spotted a book called Great South American Leaders on his shelves. In it, a chapter on Eva Peron was juxtaposed with one on Che Guevara. He had the Jesus/Judas axis again.

Even without lyrics, Lloyd Webber responded (eventually) to the plight of a doomed woman isolated from the crowds who made her, and was fascinated by Rice's concept of Che as a musical alter ego. He also thought of Judy Garland's last, tragic London concert at the Talk of the Town in the late 1960s. He had been there to see her mess up "The Trolley Song" and stutter through "Somewhere Over the Rainbow". Her anthem had turned around to destroy her, and that is how he wanted the big anthem to work in Evita.

Although the success of the album was some guarantee of success for the show, many people in Britain didn't really know who Eva Peron was. What emerged in the first production was not only a sort of joy and liberation in the writing, but a new determination to write theatre music in the numbers for the politicians, soldiers and descamisados (Eva's peasants, the "shirtless") that moved the enterprise towards the operatic. Lord Harewood, in fact, the first chairman of the newly formed English National Opera, wanted to produce the work. I once reminded a high-minded opera critic of this fact, and said that, one day, Evita would be performed in opera houses around the world. "Over my dead body," the critic huffed back. "Well, yes, probably," was the only possible reply.

The show made a star of Elaine Paige and was introduced in New York with Patti LuPone. Both singers could encompass the wide register of chest and soprano tones without a crack, or break, in the voice. Lord Lloyd-Webber says that the new Evita, Elena Roger, the unknown, diminutive Argentine singer who appeared in London with the Tango Por Dos company at the Peacock Theatre in 2002, has the full range for the role. "'Don't Cry for Me Argentina' doesn't have an applause point," he says. "It goes straight into the next scene. 'Rainbow High' is her real aria." And he adds, with a chuckle, "That one sorts out the girls from the girls".

'Evita', Adelphi Theatre, London WC2 (0870 403 0303). Now previewing, opens 21 June. Booking to 21 October