Elena Roger and the Power of Evita

Elena Roger. Jake Chessum for Newsweek

It always sounded like a Hollywood movie: a working-class woman dreams of stardom, falls in love, and has a meteoric rise to become the first lady of an impoverished country. With her death at the age of 33, there’s even a tragic ending. From the beginning, it was easy to see Eva Perón as larger than life. It’s never as simple to find a woman who could play her.

In 1978, composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice premiered Evita as a musical in London’s West End, making a star of fledgling actress Elaine Paige. Patti LuPone took over on Broadway, belting out “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” in more than 1,500 performances. And when the Tony Award–winning musical got the film treatment in 1996, Madonna—the ultimate diva—won the Golden Globe.

Now, Evita has a new leading lady in Argentine actress Elena Roger. She’s played Perón in London since 2006, and the highly anticipated revival, directed by Michael Grandage, previews on Broadway this March. Roger is a massive talent well versed in playing cultural icons (she starred as the fiery Fosca in Stephen Sondheim’s Passion and won an Olivier Award for her West End portrayal of Edith Piaf)—but unlike her predecessors, the diminutive soprano (she stands just over five feet tall) embodies Perón with a patriotic sensibility. “Being Argentinean makes things easier for me, but of course I have still put in the work,” says Roger. “I read about her life, watched films, and found ways to ‘become’ Evita.”

One thing hasn’t changed. The narrative of Evita remains as compelling as ever. “She was a fragile woman with drive and ambition to better her lot,” says Paige. Born into a working-class family, Maria Eva Duarte left home as a teenager to become an actress. Along the way, she met Col.Juan Perón, who was fighting for the rights of agricultural workers as Argentina’s Ministry of Labor leader. It was a match made in populist heaven. They married less than a year later.

In 1946, Juan Perón was elected president of Argentina, but it was the first lady who captured the nation. “Evita was more powerful than Juan Perón because she wasn’t from the establishment—and she was just so clever, so shrewd,” says LuPone. She rose to become the patroness of Peronism and her husband’s Justicialist Party. The working-class descamisados, “the shirtless ones,” loved her devotion to the impoverished. The military and bourgeoisie loathed her, believing she was using government money to fund her tremendously profitable charity, the Eva Perón Foundation.

After women in Argentina were granted the right to vote, Perón founded the Female Peronist Party. Naturally Argentina’s military party disdained the rise of a vanguardista. She’s often compared with Argentina’s revolutionary idealist Che Guevara. (Played by Ricky Martin in the revival, Che is equally larger than life as the show’s sardonic narrator and Evita’s salsa-dancing con-science.) It’s hard not to see Evita’s influence in the rise of female leaders today, including Argentina’s current president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.

After succumbing to cancer in 1952, Perón was buried in Recoleta Cemetary in Buenos Aires, where her tomb is one of the city’s most visited monuments. She started out poor and ended up infamous. “She’s like Marilyn Monroe or James Dean,” says LuPone. “At first she was a shooting star, then she crashed.”

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