The musical “Evita” debuted on Broadway nearly 40 years ago, following a 1978 debut in the West End of London.
But in all that time, it’s eluded actor Gary Bartón.
“I’ve never seen the musical,” said Bartón, who plays Juan Perón. “I saw a little of the movie, but not much of it.”
That 1996 movie starred Madonna in the role of Eva Perón, in her rise from poverty to become the first lady and leader of Argentina.
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“I knew that Jonathan Pryce had played the role (of Perón) in the movie and I thought, ‘I probably better audition for this,’” Bartón said from a tour stop in Midland, Texas.
“Evita” has three performances this week at Century II as part of the Broadway in Wichita series, presented by the American Theatre Guild.
Once he was cast in the role, the Chicago native still didn’t watch the movie nor any video highlights of the stage show, which won six Tony Awards in 1980, including best musical, lyrics, music, actress (for Patti LuPone), featured actor (Bob Gunton as Perón) and director (Harold Prince).
“I didn’t want to get influenced,” Bartón said. “I waited till rehearsal … and wanted to be surprised when I heard it.”
Bartón said he preferred an unfamiliarity with “Evita” to keep his role fresh and give him room to create.
“I think of it as an advantage, because I can look at it from just my point of view and do my research as if it were a new show all together,” he said.
The set, he said, is an homage to the original staging of the show but includes three LED video screens that provide a stagewide backdrop, showing the real Eva and Juan Perón, as well as Argentina from the 1930s to ‘50s, when the musical takes place.
“You really get an idea of the history behind the show,” Bartón said.
An accomplished actor, director, playwright and singer-songwriter (under the name of Gary B. Lamb), Bartón said he did some research on Perón, but let the book by Tim Rice mostly inform him of his role.
“You have to let it shape your character a little bit,” he said. “But my background as both an actor and director is that whatever’s in the play is the most important thing — because you’re telling a story.
“If you’re using stuff outside the actual script, it has to support what the script is saying,” Bartón continued. “It’s helpful to learn a lot about the person you’re actually playing, but if it doesn’t move the story along it doesn’t have a place in the show.”
Bartón said he’s developed a rapport with Yael Reich, the actress who plays Eva Perón. But it didn’t happen immediately. They bonded over the song “You Must Love Me,” an Academy Award-winning addition to the movie, sung by Madonna, which won an Oscar for best original song and has been added to this version.
In the new stage version, Perón enters silently as Eva sings the song to herself.
“I sat down with (Reich) when we were in tech rehearsal to say, ‘What’s going on in your head during this song?’ There wasn’t a whole lot given when you’re doing what the blocking is telling you what to do,” he said. “I think it’s grown more to where she needs Perón’s love over time. … I think it helped gel the relationship between the two of us, on stage as actors.”
At 57 – the same age Perón was when Eva died, he points out – Bartón is the oldest member of the cast, but not in the tour bus, which includes a traveling orchestra.
“Evita” is the first tour in three decades for Bartón, whose last lengthy trip on the road did not involve his fellow cast members keeping busy with their phones and iPads on the bus.
“It’s changed a little bit over 30 years,” he said with a laugh. “It’s fantastic. I’ve loved every minute of this.”
When: 7:30 p.m. Monday-Wednesday, March 18-20
Where: Century II concert hall, 225 W. Douglas, Wichita
Tickets: $35.50-$85.50, from the Century II box office, wichitatix.com and at 316-303-8100