Anyone who’s ever been to a Broadway musical, either in New York City or via a touring company near their town, knows that there will be a big, emotional ballad coming down the pike at some point. The worst excesses of these songs and their verisimilitude were parodied brilliantly in Spamalot’s “The Song That Goes Like This.” But the best of them truly can stop the show, causing the house to applaud so wildly that a break needs to be taken before the action resumes.
“Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” certainly qualifies as a legitimate showstopper, even if it made its way to the stage only after a detour to the radio. The song is the emotional centerpiece of Evita by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, which was conceived and recorded originally in 1976 as a concept album centered upon one-time Argentinian ruling couple Juan and Eva Peron. British singer and actress Julie Covington was chosen to portray Eva on the album and sing the song that’s meant to resemble one of the emotional speeches she gave to her adoring public.
According to Rice’s recollections in the book 1,000 UK #1 Hits by Jon Kutner and Spencer Leigh, Covington was a bit of a reticent hitmaker, even though the song rose to #1 in Britain. “”When the single began to show signs of being a hit, she got less and less interested in the project,” Rice remembered. “She began to back away from it and began to feel it was a fascist plot, that we were exploiting the workers. I’m exaggerating a bit but she definitely disapproved of the success of ‘Don’t Cry For Me Argentina’.”
The song and album were naturals for a stage presentation, which it eventually became a few years later. Patti LuPone’s powerful take on the song on Broadway is probably the definitive one, but that hasn’t stopped artists ranging from Karen Carpenter to Joan Baez at taking a shot. When the show was turned into a 1996 film, Madonna got the coveted part and recorded an impassioned version of the song which hit the Top Ten all over again.
No matter who’s on the microphone, the source material is such that “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” is a hard song to mess up if you can hit the notes (no easy feat.) Lloyd Webber’s orchestration provides the pomp suited to a stately speech, but his melody allows us to hear the character’s vulnerability and her genuine gratitude to the people of Argentina.
Rice meanwhile captures the awe and confusion of a simple girl elevated to lofty status in the eyes of people she sees as peers. Evita describes herself thus: “Although she’s dressed up to the nines/ At sixes and sevens with you.” In the second verse, she is almost apologetic for her ambitions, even if all of her adventures leave her a bit hollow: “But nothing impressed me at all/ I never expected it to you.”
She also insists that the trappings of her position aren’t what she truly desires, calling fame and fortune “Illusions.” Her ultimate realization: “The answer was here all along/ I love you and hope you love me.” When she addresses the masses as “Argentina” in the stirring refrain, it’s clear that these people and the country as a kind of figurative Utopia are inseparable in her mind.
Whatever you think of the politics or historical accuracy of Evita, it’s hard to deny the potency of “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina.” That’s especially true when you hear all those would-be showstoppers that turn out to be just another song that goes like this and fall woefully short of this towering classic.