On April 5, the first Broadway revival of Evita opened at the Marquis Theater, and the majority of ink and bits devoted to the show since then have not been on the overall production but on the specifics of its casting, in particular the casting of Ricky Martin as Che. Though celebrity casting is more common in replacement casts than in original casts, and though Martin is a bigger celebrity than say Mos Def, who gave a winning performance in Topdog/Underdog, I don’t understand the preoccupation – unless it’s schadenfreude.
Indeed, Martin has received mixed reviews at best – Ben Brantley called Martin “thin voiced, polite, vaguely charming and forgettable” – but it seems a weak foundation to extrapolate from one performance to an argument that most pop stars have “a straightforward, indicative performance style that has only a tangential relationship to stage acting,” as critic Alexis Soloski suggests. In response to Soloski’s post, director Scott Miller wrote that the argument shouldn’t be about pop stars, or even celebrities, but “the considerable difference between performing and acting.” In what may be considered heresy, Miller also believes, “Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin are performers more than actors.”
Though I don’t agree with his opinion of Evita’s original cast – which he seems to base on a singular TV clip and not the live production, which I remember fondly – I do agree with him that “People come to musicals for the emotion, so to give them fake emotions for their money is fraud. And it’s a fraud perpetrated so widely, especially in commercial musical theater, that audiences generally accept it without complaint. Or they think musicals are just inherently shallow and phony. Which they’re not.” However, that is assuming we’re talking about “book musicals” like Evita and about the protagonists of those musicals, because there are some shows and some roles that demand to be performances.
As Fred Ebb said, “Give ’em an act with lots of flash in it, and the reaction will be passionate.” Of course, he also said, “Long as you keep ’em way off balance, how can they spot you got no talents?”