Tomorrow marks the would-be 100th birthday of Maria Eva Duarte de Perón, better known as Evita. This summer, The Muni is delighted to produce Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical of the same name for the first time since 1984. And although this show is a beautiful tribute to her mythical stature, it is also an artful blend of biography and added drama… That’s my kind of way of saying it is historical flim-flamm-written-by-men-gobbledy-gock.
In an era of ‘fake news’ and women beginning to tear apart the social patriarchy, let’s set the record straight for her gosh darn 100th birthday: Eva Duarte Peron frickin’ ROCKED. Don’t let the narrator CHE, or any other ANGRY MAN SCREAMING IN THE STREETS tell you otherwise. Evita was one of those women determined to claw her way out of poverty and make a difference, and she GOT IT DONE in every way available to her. The musical, beautiful as it is, unnecessarily disparages a lot of Eva’s achievements and doesn’t give her backstory the justice it deserves.
Sure, the basics are all there: she was born poor and moved to Buenos Aires as a teenager, became an actress, met Juan Peron at a fundraiser, married him, he became the President and she became the spiritual leader of Argentina before her untimely death from cervical cancer at the age of 33.
However, the patchwork glimpses we get of her disposition and ambitions are skewed and often one-sided. Che, our narrator, croons to us a lot of unchallenged rumors. For example, he portrays her as a prostitute for fame and power during the entirety of the song, “Goodnight and Thank You”. While ambitious social climbing is one way to understand those (never documented) events, another way is that she was a victim of an entertainment system in which men sexually exploited actresses. (SOUND FAMILIAR, ANYONE? Beuller?) If Eva took advantage of that system, it doesn’t mean it wasn’t deeply manipulative of her at the same time. And let’s not forget she was a teenager during these “climbing up the power ladder” years. I understand consent rules were different then, but do you remember being 15 years old? Exactly how impressively manipulative do you think fifteen-year-old girls are, regardless of the era? I think I managed to seduce the captain of the JV scholastic bowl team to make out with me, and I felt pretty good about THAT. What I’m trying to say is we’re being fed a load of horse-wallop. This is mostly due to the fact that the lyrics and storyline of the musical are based on a 1952 biography, Evita: The Woman with the Whip, which drew heavily upon the accounts of anti-Perónist Argentines. Unfortunately, the book lacked any real historical references or serious research, which is why the audience receives a distorted and unsympathetic portrayal of ma girl, Eva. If you want a more balanced look, you might check out Evita: The Real Life of Eva Peron, by Nicholas Fraser and Marysa Navarro, which was written as a response to the musical.
Most of the critical remarks against her character in the musical come from Che. He’s supposed to be an everyman, but with a name like that and a revolutionist’s heart we cannot help but think of Che Guevara. Over the years (and a few costume changes) he’s become more of Mr. Guevara, and Che as well as Evita symbolize certain naïve, but endearing beliefs: the hope for a better world and a life sacrificed on the altar of the disinherited poor. It must not go unnoticed that both the real-life Che and Evita were idolized, polarized, and perceived martyrs in their own right- him by wanting to overthrow the power structures that created the impoverished, and she by working her way inside of them.
But I digress.
It is my genuine belief that the finest way to celebrate the birth of such an iconic woman is not to point out every historical inaccuracy of the show, but to relish in all of her impressive achievements. So while you enjoy Evita at Muni under the stars this summer, keep this list of her remarkable successes bouncing around in your brain. It will help you to better understand who she was and why so much of an entire country mourned her passing. Since the internet is a place where you read snippets (and if you’ve made it this far you’re probably tired of reading anyways), I have created a top 10 list of her achievements. So here it is.
10 hip, notable things Evita accomplished:
10. She was featured on the cover of Time Magazine in July 1947
Evita is the ONLY South American First Lady to ever appear alone on the cover of Time Magazine, and she was the first woman to appear in public on the campaign trail with her husband.
9. Evita became the highest paid radio actress in Buenos Aires
She also started her own entertainment company at the age of TWENTY called The Company of the Theater of the Air, which produced a series of biographies about famous women. What were YOU doing at 20 years old?? I was delivering pizzas.
8. She founded a union
In May 1943, Evita founded Agrupación Radial Argentina, a union which she was elected the President of a year later. She also doled out generous wage increases to unions after becoming first lady.
7. Evita helped the women in Argentina get the right to vote
Evita championed women’s suffrage, and after the Argentine congress gave women the right to vote in 1947, she rallied them to create the first women’s political party called the Peronist Women’s Party in 1949.
6. She handed out toys to 4 million children in Argentina’s poorest families
Children’s rights were of great importance to Eva because of her own impoverished childhood. Achieving justice for children was a particular focus for her, and they continued to find warehouses filled with toys and goods for vulnerable families until the 1970’s.
5. Evita actually worked at a desk as first lady
She wanted to be a true champion of the working class, so she served her people face-to-face. She opened offices in the Ministry of Labor, sat at the desk and greeted the people in need of help. Evita also responded to all of her mail herself.
4. She continued to work tirelessly even while having cancer
Evita worked right up until her death. In fact, she was so frail at her last public outing that they had made her a wire cage to keep her standing upright. She died at age 33 of cervical cancer, the same disease Juan Peron’s first wife died of. Now that we understand that disease better, it’s highly likely Juan carried an aggressive strain of human papilloma virus that infected and killed both women at such a young age. Why don’t we sing a song about THAT??
3. She ran for Vice President
She was asked to run with her husband in 1951, but unfortunately for Eva she had to pull out her candidacy due to opposition from the military and her failing health.
2. She was given a funeral for a head of state
Evita wasn’t a head of state, but she had one just the same. BALLER.
1. Her body disappeared for two decades
When the army staged a coup in 1955, Eva’s corpse disappeared when soldiers feared that even her BODY might remain a symbolic figure for the poor. She was so powerful that EVEN IN DEATH she was considered a threat. Her body was eventually returned to her family crypt two decades later.
Eva Peron remains an enduring cultural icon in Argentina and most of Latin America, and though she is viewed as many things, one commonality is her love of the arts. Evita traveled to the big city on a dream of becoming an actress; managed to achieve that dream, form her own company and produce theatrical works that helped pave the way for her future success. This is what we celebrate today. We are celebrating the 100th birthday of a woman who loved art, who was art, and who this art was created for.
Political ambitions aside, nearly all of us in the Muni family (onstage, backstage, or in the audience) can relate to being 15 years old and imagining ourselves in the spotlight, or creating spectacular costumes, or speaking into a microphone in front of thousands of people, or being dazzled by watching a large-scale production musical that’s so moving it brings us to our feet.
We celebrate all strong women who are involved in the arts, and recognize they each have their own unique story to tell. Springfield is so lucky to have a place like Muni, where a 15-year old’s dreams of accomplishing those things can come true without ever having to leave home. They did for me. So it is my sincerest hope that you will come and enjoy Evita this summer at Muni, and perhaps one of them will spark for you too.
All views and opinions expressed on The Muni Moment are those of the guest writers and do not necessarily represent the views of the Springfield Muni Opera.