Wednesday, January 17, 2024

Play It Again: Evita's "A New Argentina"

PLAY IT AGAIN: Evita’s “A New Argentina” 

For this new series, Jeff has invited me to choose some classic Broadway show tunes and compare versions of these songs from several different cast recordings. Wherever possible, I’ll link to the songs on YouTube, where I listen to most of them myself.

This week I’ll be comparing four recordings of the first-act finale
“A New Argentina” from Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Evita, including the original concept album, the film soundtrack, and both Broadway incarnations. While the music and lyrics themselves haven’t changed very much in the past fifty years or so, these tracks differ significantly in many ways, making for four very different listening experiences. Given some of the legendary voices represented on these recordings, one could do much worse with a half hour than review this little collection.

In listening to all four versions side-by-side, I’ve noticed that there are two very distinct ways of approaching this song: both the studio album and soundtrack treat it as a guitar-driven rock song, while the two stage versions give it a more orchestral Broadway sound. More details will of course be given below as I discuss each one in turn. (Full disclosure: I don’t consider this one to be a very close contest!)

My overall favorite version is marked with two stars (**); one star (*) is used to indicate that a particular version stands out in terms of singing, orchestra, sound, or other miscellaneous qualities.

- YouTube

Eva Perón: Julie Covington; Juan Perón: Paul Jones; Che: Colm Wilkinson; Dolan Getta: Mike Smith

SINGING: Covington’s voice, while quite pleasant to listen to, lacks the bite of later Evitas; it’s thin and lacking in vibrato and other vocal adornments. She’s actually at her best when reaching for those high notes in the verses. Both Jones and Wilkinson adopt a decidedly rock-and-roll orientation on this recording; Wilkinson’s vocals are particularly raw, gravelly, and loose with the notes. Smith, playing the role of a union leader cut from subsequent versions, has a more traditional stage voice, but doesn’t make much of an impression.

ORCHESTRA: This is definitely a pop/rock arrangement throughout, with lots of funky 1970s-era touches. Unlike the brassy versions discussed below, the chromatic fills between lines in the verses and chorus are performed by guitar and bass. Although the London Philharmonic served as the pit orchestra for this recording, in this song it was only used for string accompaniment in the Eva/Juan conversational section near the end.

*SOUND: Very clear, well-balanced, and glossy, as might be expected for a well-financed studio recording of this era.

MISCELLANEOUS: The tempo here is very sluggish compared to later versions, and the vocal ensemble sounds oddly underpowered. This original version lacks a final chorus, ending starkly with Eva’s determination to “take the country.” Che’s lyrics mention his insecticide project at one point, reminding us that the authors did have Guevara at least vaguely in mind when they initially wrote the show. 

Overall, in terms of casting, orchestration, and production values, this track reminds me a lot of something from the original Jesus Christ Superstar album. This shouldn’t be surprising at all, since the writers were following the same successful path from hit recording to hit stage musical for both shows.

- YouTube

Eva Perón: Patti LuPone; Juan Perón: Bob Gunton; Che: Mandy Patinkin

*SINGING: I probably don’t have to say too much about LuPone’s legendary performance here; the phrase “force of nature” gets bandied about a lot and it’s appropriate here. She is the absolute master of those famous high notes, which are powerful and clear. Gunton obviously has a much less flashy role to play in this song, but is equally effective, coming off as a little meek when giving in to Evita’s manipulation but quite menacing when dealing with Che later in the song. I’ve always thought that Patinkin’s vocals were a little too traditionally pretty for the role, but he does a good job projecting his anger and frustration in this song.

*ORCHESTRA: This is the most varied and satisfying arrangement, with a nice use of guitar, orchestra, and piano throughout. This variety allows for much more contrast between different sections of the song, with mostly strings and harp in the conversational passages between Eva and Juan, but lots of aggressive brass in the louder parts. This contrast contributes to a sense of urgency and forward movement.

SOUND: Mostly crystal clear, with a nice balance between voices and orchestra.

*MISCELLANEOUS: The tempo is pleasantly brisk, and the vocal ensemble is very full and well-used. These features - along with the superior singers and orchestration - help to create a particular sense of drama between the three main characters that is missing from the other versions. 


Eva Perón: Madonna; Juan Perón: Jonathan Pryce; Che: Antonio Banderas

SINGING: Madonna’s singing is effective and very polished here, though not as showy as LuPone or Roger. She doesn’t even attempt those high notes, opting for a lower key, but she makes up for it with some nice vocal acting. She and Pryce both take a very relaxed approach to this song; this works fine in the context of the movie, but it’s not quite as exciting to listen to without the visuals. Che has a different, more limited role in this version of “A New Argentina,” but (looking beyond this one song) I actually think Banderas is the most vocally effective Che overall, and I’m not surprised he’s become a genuine musical theater star in his native Spain.

ORCHESTRA: The arrangement here harkens back to the original concept album, though with a little more orchestral support. I like the beginning of the song (“dice are rolling”), which has a very dark bite to it. The dramatic orchestral fills between Eva’s lines in the verses and chorus are completely missing here, making those parts seem a little bland.

SOUND: Probably the weakest of the four, in terms of clarity of lyrics and musical details. It reminds me a bit of the “wall of sound” approach to pop recordings in the 1960s.

MISCELLANEOUS: The tempo is a little faster than the concept album, but still slow for my taste. The vocal ensemble is very large and sounds great. This version differs significantly from the other three in omitting Che’s verses and the chorus members’ pleas (“shorter hours, higher wages…”), and moving the second conversational section forward, before the “Perón has resigned…” verse. Che instead appears after the main song has come to an end, singing a lyric assigned to Juan in other versions (about the annoyance of having to rely on elections), introducing an instrumental section that accompanies a montage of Perónist violence in the movie.

 - YouTube

Eva Perón: Elena Roger; Juan Perón: Michael Cerveris; Che: Ricky Martin

SINGING: Roger’s delivery is notably clipped and quite strident; she hits the high notes almost as well as LuPone, but the lyrics there are a little hard to understand. Though I don’t really love her interpretation as a piece of musical theater, I have to admit that there’s something authentic about it - and it’s not just because Roger is from Argentina; it’s because her choices closely simulate Eva Perón’s vocal timbre when giving speeches. Cerveris’ voice is as beautiful as always, but with a distinctly startling, almost ghostly feel to it here. In general I could listen to Martin’s voice all day, but for this role it’s long on vibrato and short on subtlety. He does sound terrific when singing along with the ensemble.

ORCHESTRA: The arrangement resembles that of the OBC, but slightly less brash. I like the woodwind touches throughout, especially in the conversational sections. I also  like the subtle use of bass and electric guitar, and the percussion sounds great.

SOUND: The sound is generally clear, with the balance tilted just a bit too much towards the vocals over the orchestra.

MISCELLANEOUS: The tempo here is even faster than on the OBC, which I don’t mind. Though the approach to “A New Argentina” taken on this recording is generally similar to the earlier Broadway version, the separate elements don’t mesh together quite as well, and it lacks the earlier recording’s palpable sense of three-way conflict.

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