Just a Little Touch of Star Quality: Ruminations on Evita – January 18, 2013

A healthy dose of charisma and ambition coupled with excellent networking skills and good timing can almost always guarantee success in all aspects of life, though rising to fame and fortune from humble beginnings does have its dangers as well. Such is the case in Evita, based on the life of Eva Peron, the famous or infamous (depending on your view of Argentinian history) First Lady of Argentina in the mid 20th Century, which is currently playing (at least until January 26, 2013) at the Marquis Theatre.

Evita Marquee

[Brief Disclaimer: I have been a great fan of and have seen most of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musicals, and Evita was the fourth and final of what I have dubbed Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical “Big Four” that I had yet see live on stage, the other three being Cats, Phantom of the Opera and Sunset Blvd. and designated as such due to the fact that each of those Lloyd Webber musicals won seven Tony Awards in the year they were nominated. This was the first Broadway revival of Evita since the original production played over thirty years ago, and it’s only now I’ve had a chance to see this production. Also, as I had not seen the original production, (though I had seen the 1996 film adaptation) my frame of reference for the musical is via the various English language cast recordings which interestingly enough, are different from one another (of course, aside from the different casts) – certain songs were changed, and others added in, most notably “You Must Love Me”, which was written for the film adaptation is now included in the musical’s score.]

As often the case, I had obtained my ticket via the TKTS board located in the heart of Times Square, which was fortunate, as it was a full house, aside from a few single empty seats. The show as a whole was great, from the sparse yet effective set design, the elaborate choreography and costumes, capturing the essence of post World War II Buenos Aires. Of course, the “star quality” draw for this revival was Ricky Martin, whose entrance was greeted with much applause – his portrayal of Che, the everyman narrator, was great, though for whatever reason, he elongated every vowel in every word he sang in the opening number “Oh What a Circus”, which seemed to slow down the tempo of the song. This did not occur as much in his subsequent songs, and his charisma shone throughout. As the titular character, Elena Roger, who has the distinction of being the first Argentinean actress to portray the role, she was fine acting-wise, but her singing was quite shrill and vibrato-laden; ironically perhaps, her voice became tolerable and more lyrical as the evening progressed, so that the lament she sings at the end was quietly poignant. But then again, having grown up listening to Julie Covington, Elaine Paige and Patti LuPone on the Original 1976 concept album, the London and Broadway cast recordings, respectively, (and later Madonna in the film adaptation movie soundtrack) the bar was set pretty high on how the songs were to be sung, and my expectations were equally as high. While not having the same amount of songs, Michael Cerveris was fantastic as Juan Peron, displaying a wide range of emotions throughout. Other standout performances were from Max von Essen as Augustin Magaldi, who belted out “On This Night of a Thousand Stars” with much gusto, and Rachel Potter, as the Mistress, who sang “Another Suitcase in Another Hall” with a balance of pragmatism and trepidation.

Evita Curtain Call -forefront (left to right):Michael Cerveris, Elena Roger & Ricky Martin

Evita Curtain Call – forefront (left to right): Michael Cerveris, Elena Roger & Ricky Martin

The stage door experience was a bit more eventful than usual or expected – I should preface this with the fact that the Marquis Theatre is located on the second floor within the Marriott Hotel, and the stage door is roughly a street block distance and on street level from the hotel doors, so there’s quite a distance to cover if one is to attempt to get a good spot to wait at the stage door. All this being said, I’m usually quite agile in getting to the Marquis stage door, and can usually secure a spot right in front of the metal barricades; however, knowing that there would be a larger than usual throng waiting (mostly for Ricky Martin, and some for Elena Roger), I made a mad dash to the stage door and perhaps my forward momentum combined with the occasional wind gusts propelled me forward too quickly and I stumbled roughly midway to the stage door. I was fine, nothing broken, (though I felt a bit bruised as I got up) and there was a tiny gash on my forehead, for which the helpful stage door security personnel directed me back inside the Marriott Hotel to get cleaned and bandaged up. As I (slowly) made my way back to the stage door area, a huge crowd already surrounded the stage door, as well as across the street (as there were cops on horseback on patrol ensuring the street was clear for the oncoming traffic) with the metal barricades a good six feet or so away from the actual door. The stage door security personnel who helped me had allowed me to wait on the other side of the barricade, closer to the stage door.  Probably a good twenty minutes or so passed before the cast started to emerge – of course there was a huge ovation when Ricky Martin came out, and he was good at signing as many playbills as possible before leaving via SUV, after which the crowd thinned considerably. Elena Roger, Michael Cerveris as well as ensemble member George Lee Andrews stuck around to chat and pose for photos.

At the stage door: Ricky Martin, Elena Roger & Michael Cerveris

At the stage door: Ricky Martin, Elena Roger & Michael Cerveris

Despite my aforementioned critiques, the overall production is great, and it’s a shame it’s closing – the official reason is that the producers were unable to find suitable replacements (as I believe Ricky Martin was to depart the show next week). I have a sneaking feeling that one of the reasons is that the producers could not find a replacement of the same celebrity stature as Ricky Martin; there are plenty of capable (albeit not well-known outside the theatre community) actors who could take over the role – Max von Essen, who does understudy for and has performed the role multiple times, could be a viable successor, but alas the business side of show business seems to take precedence these days. I’m glad to have seen this production, and would recommend it.

Signed playbill

Signed playbill

Early Morning Madness and the Magic in the Making: Explaining How My Love for Sunset Boulevard Created the Minskoff Theatre Curse

Speaking the actual name of the Scottish Play in a theater when not performing it. The presence of ghost lights on stage. Not wishing someone “good luck” before a performance. Over the course of theatrical history, there have been superstitions and stories of strange, inexplicable occurrences that have defied logic. Some may dismiss them as coincidence, while others may believe them to be fabricated or embellished; then there are those few who wholeheartedly believe in such things and adhere to the rules around how to ward off bad luck, to appease the ghostly figures that inhabit several Broadway theatres and also the Gods of the Theatre. I never really believed in all that, I thought it had to be sheer coincidence or just mischief-making to propel the veracity of such stories. The evoking of the Minskoff Curse, and the subsequent events that happened made me realize how wrong I was, and even though fifteen (!) years has passed since the Curse was first uttered, its lingering presence remains intact (albeit altered), making its home at the Marquis Theatre.

Before I impart the tale of the Minskoff Theatre Curse, a bit of exposition is required. First of all, for any of this to make any sense, I must mention that Sunset Boulevard is one my favorite musicals, and is in fact ranked third in my list of all-time favorite [excluding revivals] musicals that I have seen live on stage, (after Les Miserables and Phantom of the Opera). I would listen to the cast recordings constantly, and talk about so much to the point that my nickname amongst my high school friends was (and still is) Norma. Sunset Boulevard was the first Andrew Lloyd Webber musical I aware of and followed in its development from the West End to Los Angeles to Broadway (I became aware of Phantom after the show already arrived on Broadway, and Aspects of Love seemed to have opened and closed relatively in short order) and I had also seen and enjoyed the 1950 Billy Wilder film. I still hold out hope that the musical will be made into a movie musical, but considering the recent Hollywood movies based on musicals, most with pretty, young bankable movie stars for the most part can’t do justice to the source material, I should know better. But then again the upcoming movie musical of Les Miserables gives me hope that casting of such projects should have trained actors who have some theatre experience.

But I digress.

Sunset certainly had its share of (presumably) unintended drama off-stage, particularly with its leading ladies. Glenn Close, having played faded movie star Norma Desmond in the American premiere production in Los Angeles, being slated to star on Broadway, despite the fact that Patti LuPone had been promised that honor (LuPone subsequently sued Lloyd Webber over this breach of promise); Faye Dunaway, who was to replace Close in the Los Angeles production was basically fired from the production for not being up to snuff to play the part (she also sued Lloyd Webber). So, even before the show reached Broadway, there was trouble brewing. Nevertheless, Sunset reached Broadway in 1994 with the largest advance tickets sales at the time, the critical reviews were for the most part favorable, and won the appropriate awards. Despite these accolades, the show was not a financial success, considering the production costs associated with the exorbitant sets and lavish costumes, which were amazing. I was only able to see the Broadway production three times (and the second US tour production once), as I was still in high school at the time of the production with little disposable income of my own, and there were not as many discounts for young theater-goers as there are now (had there been the programs and discounts for teens they have now back then, I would certainly have seen the show and many others…).

But I digress.

Again.

While I was unable to see Glenn Close as Norma Desmond, I did see Betty Buckley (twice) and Elaine Paige, who were both astounding. Most likely due to the high weekly production costs of the show, Sunset was also the first Lloyd Webber show of which I was aware to close (Phantom was and is still running, and Cats was still around). I was absolutely livid and quite distressed when I read the news of its closing on March 22, 1997 adding insult to injury, in my opinion, since that day is also Lloyd Webber’s birthday. I soon organized a group outing with a bunch of my friends to see the show one last time on February 20, 1997 (I was unable to attend the final performance due to a school-related activity that required my attendance, which ended up not happening, but by the time I knew that it was too late to get to the final performance). Anyway, my friends and I were seated in the rear mezzanine of the theater, and I was cheering quite enthusiastically, to the point that my voice was quite hoarse by intermission and just about gone altogether by the end of the show, which was not particularly a good thing; that evening was also the very first time I waited at stage door for the actors (Elaine Paige in particular) to emerge. While we waited, we spotted Julie Andrews leaving the Marquis Theatre stage door across the street (she was in Victor/Victoria at the time) and waved at her (and she waved back!) and I organized my friends to be standing in the area between where the stage door and Ms. Paige’s car (yes, I was that determined to meet her). When she did emerge from the stage door and signed our playbills, I had to have one my friends tell her how I enjoyed her performance and ask her if I could have a photo with her, as I literally could not speak to her, which I found pretty embarrassing. Thankfully, I got to meet her again years later at a book signing for her memoir Memories and finally got to speak with her.

My Sunset playbill, signed by Elaine Paige

Me and Elaine Paige, February 20, 1997 (I have no idea who the couple behind me were, but at least they’re smiling too!)

By the time we left the stage door, it was already past midnight, so we all headed to the subway to get home. If memory serves, it was during this subway ride home when I thought up of what will later be known as the Minskoff Theatre Curse, and a complex and specific curse it was. Here’s how it went: I had evoked that no musical that went into the Minskoff Theatre after Sunset that had the letter “S” in its title (either upper or lower case) would last more than three years there, as Sunset ran for just about two and a half years (don’t bother asking me how I did it – that is knowledge that can be dangerous if placed in the wrong hands). Now here’s where things get uncanny and made think that it was more than coincidence:

  • The next musical to play at the Minskoff Theatre was The Scarlet Pimpernel, which had problems of its own – the production played for about a year and a half (two different versions were presented) before closing briefly and moving to the Neil Simon Theatre, where it played under a year before the show closed for good.
  • The next musical to play at the Minskoff Theatre was Saturday Night Fever, which ultimately played a little over a year before closing.
  • The next musical to play at the Minskoff Theatre was The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which only played less than a month, and interestingly enough, the marquee for that production stayed up longer than the production was open.

The Minskoff Theatre remained vacant for several months after The Adventures of Tom Sawyer closed, and it is at this point in time I’m convinced that the mythical Gods of the Theatre took offense at my curse-making and decided to take punitive action. That they did and on a grand scale, for the next musical to play at the Minskoff Theatre was Dance of the Vampires, which marked the Broadway return of Michael Crawford, of whom (as mentioned in a previous blog) I have an avid fan. When I had read about this, I was both overjoyed and worried: delighted at the prospect of seeing Crawford act and sing on stage in a musical (I had seen him in concert a few years prior) and also anxious about that “s” in the show’s title and where the theatre in which the show was to reside. Needless to say, the Gods of the Theatre had relished their machinations, as Dance of the Vampires received the most hateful, negative reviews I have ever read, to the point that the “reviews” were more like personal attacks on Crawford himself rather than on the qualities of the production (or about the other actors). Despite these hateful critiques, the production ran for three months (nearly two of which were in previews) – I managed to see the show nine times: twice in previews and the rest after it opened, and was the first show I saw both the matinée and evening performance, albeit they were the final two performances. The show was (and still is) one of the best musical scores I’ve heard, and was thoroughly entertaining; and to see and hear Crawford onstage in character was a thrilling experience.

After Dance of the Vampires closed, I sought out a way to rescind the Curse and make things right again with the Gods of the Theatre. The opportunity came out roughly a year later, when the next musical to play at the Minskoff was a revival of Fiddler on the Roof, which, while has no “s” in its title, just so happened to be the very first Broadway musical I ever saw (as a school field trip in 1990). I took this as a sign and my opportunity to show my sincerity and remove the Curse. So I then made plans to book tickets for February 20, 2004 and to also to attend the performance with one of the friends who had also gone to see Sunset that night. The Curse was lifted that night (again, don’t ask what I had to do to lift the Curse – it’s not something that can be shared). Suffice to say it worked – Fiddler ran for roughly another year, and the next (and current) show to play at the Minskoff Theatre? The Lion King, which is destined to have a long, long run.

Normally, this would be where the story ends, but another curious thing happened: after the expulsion of the Minskoff Curse, it seems to have regrouped, dropped “the letter‘s’ in the title” component and moved into the closest theater from its prior home: the Marquis Theatre. For the musicals that have played at the Marquis Theatre that were not limited or seasonal productions ran less than two years:

  • La Cage aux Folles: November 2004 – June 2005
  • Woman In White: October 2005 – February 2006
  • The Drowsy Chaperone: April 2006 – December 2007
  • Cry Baby:  March 2008 – June 2008
  • 9 to 5: April 2009 – September 2009
  • Come Fly Away: March 2010 – September 2010
  • Wonderland: March 2011 – May 2011

Currently at the Marquis Theatre is a revival production of Evita, which started its run in March 2012, so I’ll be closely watching to see how long this production runs, though there’s not too much I can do about this, as the phenomenon that currently occupies the Marquis is not the same Curse I had evicted from Minskoff. So I ask you, is this all purely coincidence or is there perhaps something other-worldly that exists in the world of the Theatre? Well, believe what you will; needless to say I’m now more careful with my critiques and thoughts about the theatre and equally careful not to anger the Gods of the Theatre, lest I incur their wrath again. I’ve learned my lesson the hard way.

Update: I know I should have updated this sooner, as it has already been announced that Evita will be closing on January 26, 2013, which (interestingly enough) is also the same date as the 25th Anniversary of Phantom of the Opera. The next production to play the Marquis is the revival of Frank Wildhorn’s Jekyll & Hyde, though that production is (as far as it has been reported) scheduled to be a limited run, so it’s safe from this “curse”.