Long before Diana became the people’s princess and Imelda Marcos captured the attention of her nation, there was Eva Perón, a poor villager and onetime actress who rose to become Argentina’s powerful first lady.
In a meteoric life, she became an icon of feminine clout who was adored and reviled in equal measure. That she died young, of cancer at age 33 in 1952, only enhanced her status.
“Because we have all these visible female leaders now, it’s hard for us to imagine what things were like during Evita’s time,” said Hal Luftig, lead producer of the Broadway tour of “Evita” that opens Tuesday at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis.
“Remember, this was the 1940s and ’50s — women didn’t have many rights anywhere. And here she is, a tremendous figure who is asked to run for vice president but cannot, because of her health. Evita was one of a kind.”
Even in death, Eva Perón knew drama. Her embalmed corpse was at one point stolen out of Argentina. She inspired films, books and plays, including “Evita,” the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice musical that opened on Broadway in 1979. That production won seven Tonys, including for stars Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin. The show was made into a 1996 film starring Madonna and Antonio Banderas. “Evita” was revived on Broadway in 2006, and again 2012, running for 46 weeks and grossing $52.7 million.
When he was growing up in Long Island, Luftig used to come into Manhattan for Broadway shows. He saw “Evita” many times and knew, he said, that he would someday like to have his name come before the credits. Now he has.
The show stars Caroline Bowman as Evita.
“Her impact was gigantic,” said Bowman, whose Broadway credits include the Lady of the Lake in “Spamalot” and Elphaba in “Wicked.” “She uses her intelligence and looks to seduce a man and a nation. She was a sponge who soaked up everything and used it all to her benefit and causes.”
Those causes include ameliorating the condition of the poor through her foundation, even if the whole program was built on cults of personality around the Peróns, and a political approach that some historians see as fascist.
In some ways, Eva Perón’s life was made for the stage. Her mother was the mistress of the wealthy married man who also was her father. He died when Eva was very young, leaving his parallel family with no inheritance.
In her mid-teens, Eva went to the Argentine capital, Buenos Aires, to study theater. She was performing at a benefit for earthquake victims in 1944 when she met political and military leader Juan Perón. A year later they were married. A year after that, he became president of Argentina.
The musical spans her life from age 15 until her death. It explores the bonds she was able to form with people. The show also contains a character inspired by another legendary Argentine, Ché Guevara.
There have been changes to the musical. It now opens with actual newsreel footage of Eva’s funeral. Lloyd Webber’s new song from the movie, “You Must Love Me,” is included in the stage version.
The design has been updated. So have the sets. But the story remains the same, with Evita singing the iconic “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina.”
“Because she is a real person, she gives us so much more to go on and she inspires so many conflicted feelings,” said Bowman. “I feel I’m learning from her how to be strong and to use what I have to get what I want.”
Producer Luftig mused: “People may ask, why do this show again?”Perhaps it’s because Lloyd Webber’s music so richly tells a story that still captivates people worldwide.