In a year that promises to be a boon time for fans of musical theatre, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Evita is among the first of the eagerly awaited musicals to open. The vastly experienced Philip Quast and youthful Matt Rawle play the leading roles of Argentinean leader Juan Perón and narrator Che in this new production. Matthew Amer catches up with the pair at the Adelphi, where they are relaxing in the cool surroundings of their rather large dressing rooms, and drags them away from perusing an interview with Hollywood’s Lindsay Lohan for a rather frank interview of their own…
“It’s a big leap, going from having a day life to suddenly having an evening life,” says current Juan Perón, Philip Quast. “In the back of your mind all day you know you’ve got to go to work; you can’t drink, you can’t talk too much, you’re watching the clock. There’s a sort of tiredness that comes just from that adrenalin being there all the time.” Co-star Matt Rawle, who plays narrator Che, agrees: “It’s all consuming.”
"He was a big man, not as big as I am probably, although he’s a bit fatter"
Quast and Rawle are just getting accustomed to the change in tempo of their lives that comes with working on a major West End musical. For eight weeks before the opening performance they were rehearsing, then checking technicalities, before entering the preview period and finally facing the press. It is only now, at the end of this preparation process, that they can settle into a routine of working towards an evening performance each day – apart from matinees, of course – and they are enjoying finding their rhythm. Quast is slightly irked by the time of year that they have chosen to hit their stride, though; the summer sun is waking him early in the day and robbing him of his sleep.
Evita is one of the most eagerly awaited revivals to be staged in the West End in recent years. Such was the popularity of the 1978 original, which starred Elaine Paige as Argentina’s first lady Eva Peron, that it enjoyed a seven-year run before spawning a feature film in which Madonna took the title role.Rawle is certainly aware of the weight of history behind the production. “I didn’t feel too much pressure about the part,” he explains. “I did feel pressure that the production might not match people’s expectations and it probably hasn’t in some terms, but I think if you’re coming fresh to the show, which a lot of people are, I think they’ll absolutely love it.”
Quast, whose striking build and frank nature can be unintentionally intimidating, shares Rawle’s view that some who remember the original may be surprised by this production, though he is more sceptical about how ‘defining’ the 1978 production was. He likens Evita’s history to an old television show which is fabulous when you watch it at the time, but when it is repeated 20 years later, the clothes, the hair, the dialogue just don’t seem to ring true.
The 2006 production, Quast and Rawle explain, is very different in style to the original. Rawle uses words such as “naturalistic” and “domestic” to describe this production, in which much of the elaborate scenery has been stripped away to focus more on the central relationship between the Peróns. Rawle’s narrator has also changed since Hal Prince’s production: “I’m not playing Che Guevara. I haven’t got a beret on. I’m playing a man of the street; a man who reads The Mirror,” says Rawle. The adjustment in Rawle’s Che gives him more scope to step in and out of the action, driving the musical forward, as he is not tied to a historical character.
"If people like what you do then great, if they don’t then so what"
There has also been no sentiment shown about cutting the musical to fit the new production. When, as Quast explains, eight superfluous bars of music were found that confounded many of the cast and crew as to their purpose, Lloyd Webber was happy to cut them. It turns out that the extra music was most likely added to cover for a lengthy scene change in the original.
This paring down to focus the plot and direction of the production has affected the pace of the show. Quast describes the performance as “a series of sprints, not a marathon. It hits its pace from the moment you [Rawle] start.”Many of the plaudits surrounding the new Evita have gone to diminutive Argentinean star Elena Roger, who travelled from her South American home to audition for the role and subsequently won over the production team. She has also won over her co-stars:
Rawle: She’s a fantastic woman. We’re both big fans. She’s wonderful.
Quast: No pretensions. Honest. Just really hard working.
Rawle: And great.
Interestingly, Roger has a tiny frame, while Quast has a build that would scare you if he stepped out of the shadows. Though he does not think there is any problem with this dramatically – and Rawle thinks it adds an intriguing dynamic to the Peróns’ relationship – Quast does seem a little defensive when broaching the subject: “Perón had a penchant for young girls, don’t forget,” he argues. “He had a 15-year-old as a mistress, who Eva kicked out. He was a big man, not as big as I am probably, although I’ve seen some photos and he’s a bit fatter.”
Quast and Rawle chat in Rawle’s spacious and very white dressing room. Rawle’s near perfect teeth contrast with his chinful of stubble and tousled hair, while Quast cuts an imposing figure, even in shorts and a t-shirt. While Rawle is laid back, almost literally, Quast, though equally amiable, has a presence that suggests you shouldn’t cross him. Both Australian Quast and Northerner Rawle are forthright in their views which Quast believes, when combined with the Latin spirit of a South American leading lady, gives the central roles “a sort of front-footedness that wouldn’t necessarily be there; a bit more fire.” It also means that Quast and Rawle aren’t afraid to speak their minds.“For me, if people like what you do then great, if they don’t then so f***ing what; I don’t want to hear about it,” exclaims Rawle about receiving acclaim and awards. “Not everyone is going to enjoy what you do. I’m not interested in anything negative unless it’s from someone I really love and I ask them their opinion. In this business so many people want to give you their opinion and, I’m sorry, I’m not interested unless I ask for it.”
“As long as your peers respect you, that’s fine,” Quast follows on in support. “If they can’t say anything good, then f**k off.”
Criticism and the weight of expectation sit heavy with the Evita co-stars. “It’s too hard,” says Quast of performing and worrying about acclaim. “We’ve got to make a living. Not only are we competing just for work now, we’re competing against the whole thing of celebrity. Anyone can do what we do it seems now… and sometimes they can. I just want to make a living. I make no judgements about what anyone does any more. I did a Holby City this year and I was amazed when I went to read for it that actors who I idolised were coming in to read for a part that had eight lines.”
As both have performed in musicals before, Quast and Rawle know the pitfalls that await them should they let their concentration and performance levels drop. “You’ve got to try and invent ways of making it interesting,” explains Quast, “a challenge day after day, after day, after day, because a musical is like nothing else. It’s not like a play, where you can free it up, move it around and just have a little bit of fun. You’re set by the conductor and the baton and the music and all these other people and the choreography, and you can’t deviate.” This, of course, has not stopped Quast from taking musical parts throughout his career. All three of his Laurence Olivier Awards – the most held by any actor bar Judi Dench and Ian McKellen – have come for performances in musicals; South Pacific in 2002, The Fix in 1998 and Sunday In The Park With George in 1991. “I don’t regard myself as doing musicals that often,” Quast protests, “but if good acting, singing roles come along then you’re not going to knock them because they are hard to do and they are a real challenge.”
"I think critics sit there in an elitist way with their arms folded"
“There’s a lot of money to be made in these big commercial shows,” Rawle adds, “whereas at the National the money is not so great, or the RSC.” Quast agrees: “If this runs and does well for the year that we’re contracted, I can save money to do other interesting things.”
Rawle: It’s in everybody’s interests that the show is a success, just as the show next door, just as the show next door to that.
Quast: It knocks on. If something’s a turkey, people get a little bit reticent and will go “I went to see that and it wasn’t good, so I’m not sure…” If someone comes and has a really good time at Avenue Q or Spamalot they’ll go “Oh, I think I’ll go and see Evita now.”
Rawle: I don’t know whether there’s enough business to go round everybody, there might well not be, in which case you can get a copy of the Big Issue from me on the corner.
The last word, before the pair has to prepare for Evita’s evening performance, goes to Quast, and this time it is the critics on the receiving end: “The same critics that write for musical theatre also go to plays, and they tend to be a bit jaded, after 30 years, about emotions. I think they sit there in an elitist way with their arms folded when they go to a musical, and they see the proletariat crying and being moved, and they sit there in a supreme way, slightly superior. They believe that language and theatre is the elite thing for the intellectual. But you can do both, there’s nothing wrong with going and seeing a musical, having a good old weep and being moved by it.”