Don’t Cry for Her, Argentina; She Landed the Big Role
By JOYCE WADLER
Published: March 22, 2012
EVITAS tend to be formidable women — Patti LuPone, Madonna, Elaine Paige — so Elena Roger, the Argentine actress who stars in the Broadway revival that opens April 5, stuns at first glimpse.
Dramatically collapsed on the floor of a rehearsal hall (no worries, it’s the part of the script where Evita is not feeling so good), Ms. Roger, barely 5 feet tall and weighing 98 pounds, seems not so much an actress as a limp collection of rags. In London, where she played Eva Perón in the 2006 revival of “Evita” that took her from unknown to sensation, great writerly phrases about her size were tossed out in the press: “Shoulders narrow as a bar of hotel soap,” “five foot nothing half feral child,” “ineradicably tiny.”
Then you later watch Ms. Roger in a dress rehearsal at the Marquis Theater, in a number with the pop star Ricky Martin, who plays her acerbic critic Che, and Michael Cerveris, as her husband Juan Perón. Evita is sexually maneuvering her way up Argentine society, and Ms. Roger has seemingly grown three feet. Her voice may not wield the belt of Ms. LuPone, who originated the role on Broadway, but it is rich and powerful, deeply accented with Spanish. She has also been a professional tango dancer. One sweep of her leg, one pasada, and you have four decades of Argentine conflict.
“I feel very connected with the story,” she said.
That has not merely to do with the histories Ms. Roger has digested, or the never-released film she found from when Eva was an actress (“She was quite good”), but the lore Ms. Roger has absorbed about Eva Perón simply by being from Argentina. She speaks of an aunt who hid a bust of Evita when Juan Perón was out of favor and in exile, then displayed it in the dining room when he came back; the family arguments that continued decades after Evita’s death about whether the Peróns had been good or bad for the country.
Mr. Cerveris hears the connection in her way with a song. “The thing that moves me most is the authenticity and the sincerity and the veracity of the voice,” he said, “a tonal quality owing less to Broadway and far more to the Argentine singing and folk and tango tradition that she has by birth.”
“Evita,” with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Tim Rice, has not been produced on Broadway since 1979. The New York and London revivals, directed by Michael Grandage and choreographed by Rob Ashford, feature some changes. Che, portrayed by Mandy Patinkin as Che the revolutionary, will be Che the Everyman, as the role was originally envisioned, the current creative team said. The Oscar-winning song“You Must Love Me,” written for the 1996 film version starring Madonna, has been incorporated into the show. And Mr. Grandage said dance is a more important element.
Yet in sticking with Ms. Roger in the title role of the $11 million musical (Christina DeCicco will play the part at matinees), producers are taking a risk in a star-driven Broadway, which may explain the biggest change between London and New York: the addition of Mr. Martin, who arrives with a built-in fan base.
If the pressure’s on her, Ms. Roger doesn’t show it. Warm and playful, this 37-year-old actress is the sort who greets a newcomer with a hug. In floppy sweats in her nondescript dressing room she’s another vegetarian actress having a salad for dinner. But in Buenos Aires she’s a film and theater star who lives with the film and television actor Mariano Torre. She is also a star in London, where she followed “Evita” with leading roles in Donmar Warehouse productions of “Piaf” and “Passion.”
Though Ms. Roger was born almost two decades after the death of Eva Perón, the first lady of Argentina from 1946 until her death from cancer six years later at 33, debates about the legacy of the Peróns lived on in her family. Her paternal grandparents, who came from Patagonia, in the south, were pro-Perón. Her grandfather worked in the post office and saw the toys that the Peronista government sent to children every Christmas; he was able to buy his home because of government aid.
Ms. Roger’s maternal grandfather, who had fled Italy in 1925 after hearing that Mussolini’s men were after him, took a darker view. His daughter, Ms. Roger’s mother, suspected that the Peróns had bankrupted the country. She told Elena of attending an athletic camp, run by Juan Perón after Eva had died. Juan’s fondness for young women was so well known that Ms. Roger’s mother didn’t want to eat lunch.
“She was scared they had put something in the food,” Ms. Roger said.
She was afraid she would be drugged and taken advantage of sexually? Ms. Roger nodded her head yes.
Yet her research on Eva has led her to be sympathetic. The Peróns did improve the lives of workers. They did give women the vote. And it would be hard for her not to like a character she has to portray. “I try to understand,” she said, “and not judge.”
Ms. Roger, whose father was a rubber salesman and mother was a housewife, grew up in Buenos Aires, the youngest of three children. She studied dance from the age of 8 and singing from 12. Although one director told her she was too short ever to be a leading lady, she worked successfully, often in foreign shows like “Beauty and the Beast,” “Saturday Night Fever” and “Les Misérables,” in which she played Fantine, the role originated in London by Randy Graff.
Argentina’s economic meltdown in 2001 — which included mass demonstrations and President Fernando de la Rúa fleeing the Casa Rosada, the executive mansion, which had been the stage so often for Eva Perón (and where “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina” is sung) — had a personal effect on Ms. Roger. Her father had a stroke, which she is convinced came from the stress.
“This was the end of everything,” Ms. Roger said. “He is not able to move the right side of his body, he is not able to walk, he was 45 days in coma.” He can understand what people are saying, she said, but cannot speak.
The financial crisis also derailed some of her own theatrical projects. Ms. Roger found work in soap operas, performed in concert, and toured Europe for three months with a tango company. Then, in October 2005, an Argentine friend, Ana Moll, who was working in London for Mr. Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Group, heard that the revival was being planned. She recommended Ms. Roger, who flew to London at her own expense.
“It was clear she could sing it,” Mr. Rice said. “The initial concern was whether she had the command of English.”
Determined to win the role, Ms. Roger worked with a bilingual friend on English pronunciation. When she was invited back — this time the company paid — it was apparent she was a quick study. And this time Mr. Lloyd Webber was there.
“Everything was very emotional,” Ms. Roger said.
“When I was singing, ‘What’s New, Buenos Aires?’,” she added, she really knew the places. “Rio de la Plata, Florida, Corrientes, Nueve de Julio. I worked so much in Corrientes, the theater street. I was trying to show in my eyes, ‘Look, I know those streets.’ ”
When she sang “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina” in her last audition, Ms. Roger cried.
“We were in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s house in London,” she said. “Ana came with me because I couldn’t understand English very well. I was singing all the big songs for the producer and Tim Rice, and a great thing was the pianist didn’t have the music for ‘You Must Love Me,’ so Andrew played.
“I suddenly was thinking: ‘Oh, my God, I am from Argentina, from that neighborhood. I am so simple, what am I doing here? And someone like Andrew is playing for me to sing. Wow, life is quite amazing.’ One of the windows was open, and I start singing and getting emotional and the curtain flew like that.”
Ms. Roger does a wave of her hand, intimating a ghostly flutter. “I said, ‘Ana, I felt she was there.’ ”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: March 25, 2012
A cover article this weekend about the Argentine actress Elena Roger, who is starring in a Broadway revival of “Evita,” misstates her age and misquotes her when she refers to a song from the show “What’s New, Buenos Aires?” She is 37, not 39. In quoting the lyrics during an interview, Ms. Roger correctly said, “Rio de la Plata, Florida, Corrientes, Nueve de Julio.” — not “Rio de la Plata, Florida, Nuevo de Corrientes.”
And because of an editing error, the article misidentifies the actress who originated the role of Fantine in the Broadway production of “Les Misérables.” She is Randy Graff, not Patti LuPone.