Alexander and Eva
On the Fourth of July, I finally sat down and listened to all of Hamilton. My wife and I have owned the original cast recording for a while now, but because we rarely have two consecutive hours these days to do much of anything, I hadn’t played the whole album from start to finish with the degree of attention it clearly deserved. Not surprisingly, it blew me away, and I’ve been listening to little else ever since. At this point, the last thing we need is another rave review, so I’ll confine myself to observing that its strengths and weaknesses come from the same place, which is another way of saying that I wouldn’t change a note. It’s written from the head, more than from the heart, and its emotional impact, which is undeniable, is more the result of impeccable musical theater than of an experience that Lin-Manuel Miranda seems to have lived through for himself. At times, it’s so determined to include everything that it narrates the action when it really should be showing it instead. But its compromises are inseparable from what makes Hamilton special. It wouldn’t be so compelling if it weren’t so overthought and overstuffed, and it repeatedly pulls back from being the worst version of itself—a musical that history teachers will play for bored high schoolers for decades—to the best, simply because it has the technical ability to master so much intractable material.
And on that level, it reminds me a lot of my favorite musical of all time, which, oddly, hasn’t been raised as point of comparison before: Evita. I’ve loved it ever since I was a teenager, and I know it better than just about any other show. My cassette tape of the Broadway cast recording wore out from overplaying, and I can still sing pretty much every syllable by heart. I looked forward to the movie version so intensely and for so long that I was recently startled to realize that it came out almost twenty years ago. And I’d frankly have trouble explaining why. When I saw it onstage for the first time in New York a while back, with the competent but charmless Elena Roger in the title role, I was reminded of how deeply weird a musical it is. There are barely ten minutes of unfaked feeling in the entire production, about half of which belongs to Perón’s unnamed teenage mistress, who promptly disappears after “Another Suitcase in Another Hall.” The rest is opportunism, cynicism, or calculated emotional manipulation. Entire verses are devoted to the intricacies of issues like Argentine trade disputes, which is arguably even harder than writing a song about the Federalist papers. Like Hamilton, Evita was inspired by a chance encounter—lyricist Tim Rice caught the tail end of a radio broadcast about Eva Perón one evening—that spiraled into an obsessive dive into research, and in both cases, there are times when we feel like we’re being given a briefing on facts that will appear on the final exam.
Yet Evita works like gangbusters, at least for me, and it took me a long time to understand that I respond to it because of how unlikely it is. I’ll start with the simple observation that this musical wouldn’t come off at all if it weren’t built around one of the great show tunes of the last fifty years: “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” is such a showstopper that the score falls back on it constantly, beginning with “Oh What a Circus” and continuing through “Santa Evita,” as if Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber realized that it was an armature strong enough to allow them to get away with anything. But what, exactly, is the song really about? Even Rice himself dismissed it as “a string of meaningless platitudes,” and it’s only the prettiness of the melody that allows listeners to enjoy it without recognizing that Eva is lying through her teeth. Look at it closely, and it turns into a symbol of how artificial a musical can be and still work—which is why it has never ceased to fascinate me. Les Misérables is probably the gold standard of megamusicals, and I’ve been listening to it a lot, but it’s far easier to ask an audience to care about Jean Valjean, Fantine, and Cosette than about Juan and Eva Perón, and the technical trick that Evita pulls off in making the result even halfway credible still amazes me. This show wouldn’t exist at all if it weren’t executed at a high pitch of proficiency at every moment, and the emptiness at its core only renders the surfaces all the more impressive. It comments beautifully on two insincere people because it’s the most insincere of musicals.
Hamilton has much the same kind of virtuosity, with a far more sympathetic figure at its center, which is why I think it will probably outlive Evita. The most striking difference between the two shows is how effortlessly Hamilton encourages the audience to identify with its hero, while we’re always looking at Eva from the outside. Their narrative arcs aren’t so different: both come from nothing and rise to a position of power and celebrity, and neither is above capitalizing on the openings that circumstances present. Both are driven by ambition and destroyed by fate. But you leave Hamilton wanting to be more like its title character, while you leave Evita wanting, if anything, to be more like Patti LuPone. Part of it has to do with how seamlessly Lin-Manuel Miranda’s presence onstage blends with that of his protagonist: it’s the artistic manifesto of a man who willed himself into his position, as Hamilton did, through sheer brains and talent. Evita is more of a clinical case study written by two men who viewed their subject as a vehicle for their own gifts. I’ve been playing both albums for my daughter, and I suspect that Hamilton will mean more to her over time than Evita will, which is precisely how it ought to be. The latter is a show for viewers who cherish the artifice of musical theater, which has no much in common with the artifice of politics, while the former transcends politics in its insistence that both art and government can be something more than a diversion. These days, more than ever, we need a musical like Hamilton, which encourages its fans to be a lot smarter, work a lot harder, and write like they’re running out of time. Because we are.