Tina Arena is not the type of person to back down from a challenge. Having transformed from Young Talent Time starlet to bona fide legend of Australian entertainment, the Melbourne-born singer-songwriter has sold more than 10 million albums and had the kind of career denied to most women in her industry – one that’s kept her on top for four decades.
But it’s taken much of that time for Arena to feel ready to tackle her next role: Argentinian political leader Eva Perón, whose life is documented in Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s 1978 musical Evita. It marks Arena’s return to musicals after appearing in Cabaret in in Sydney (2002) and Chicago on London’s West End (2007).
“I’ve had my eye on [Evita] for a long time, and it’s also something that I’ve been approached for a couple of different times in my career – years ago,” Arena told Time Out. “But I just felt like I was too young and hadn’t developed enough emotional intelligence for it.”
The musical is best known for Lloyd Webber’s sweeping, chart-topping anthem ‘Don’t Cry for Me Argentina’, but it’s a provocative and darkly funny story about the divisive Argentinian first lady, whose husband Juan was either a dictator or a champion for the working class, depending on where you stand. Eva herself is painted in similar shades of grey in the musical.
“When you’re a performer and you get the opportunity to play a role as idolised and loathed as that one, I think it really depends on where you want to put your focus,” Arena says.
What fascinates her most is Peron’s extraordinary and audacious rise, traced with a score that fuses rock, pop, classical and Latin music. It’s early Lloyd Webber, when he was at his most inventive, and Arena says it’s her favourite of his scores, equal to Jesus Christ Superstar. She’s no stranger to his music, having previously played the narrator in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and performed at the musical impresario’s 50th birthday celebration.
At the centre of Evita is Eva, who roars through some of Lloyd Webber’s most challenging music, pushing into belting territory above even Arena’s ‘Chains’ or ‘Heaven Help My Heart’.
“There’s a certain part of your voice that you probably wouldn’t always use in pop music, and you’ve got to get fit for that,” Arena says. “I just sing through the score once a day to build it up. It’s very high too; almost a soprano role. You’ve got to be classically trained and I ain’t classically trained.”
The role – which has been played by theatre luminaries including Elaine Paige and Patti LuPone – is so vocally taxing that it’s standard for there to be an alternate Eva. But while they’ve usually been scheduled for two of eight performances a week, Arena’s alternate (Wicked star Jemma Rix) will do just one. That means Arena will have to conserve her energy for that taxing schedule for the full run of the musical.
“I’ll have to live in the convent for a bit, unfortunately,” she jokes.
This production is a remount of director Harold Prince’s original Tony and Olivier Award-winning production. Prince – who has 21 Tony Awards; more than any other person – will be remounting it himself. But despite being in the safest of hands, Arena admits her excitement is matched by sheer terror at the enormity of the role.
“There’s nothing safe about this, darl,” Arena says. “There’s nothing safe about pop music. There’s nothing safe about theatre. There’s no safety net in what it is that I do.”
But if there’s anybody in Australia who has the necessary star quality, technical chops and sheer tenacity to pull it off, it’s Arena. Perón’s life is miles away from Arena’s – Perón died at just 33, while Arena is in her 50th year – but both started out as young women from relatively inauspicious backgrounds, and both were underestimated by the societies they’d soon become adored by. Arena’s is a story of triumph, but she says few Australians understand the grit her career has required.
“People have underestimated not only the beginning, but underestimated a lot of things that have gone on during the journey,” she says. “There’s a lot of things that I’ve gone through that I wouldn’t be prepared to talk to anybody about, let alone the media. I think it would be pretty safe to say… I think people are pretty well informed today about what goes on in any industry, but what’s been going on in the arts industry for a long time.
“Hollywood was renowned in the early days for treating their artists pretty poorly and making them addicted to drugs and so forth in order to keep their schedules. There’s all sorts of shenanigans that go on… Everyone knows that you go through the shit. That goes without saying. But how do you come out of that? How do you learn from all of that? How do you turn something negative into a positive?”
She suspects that although much is known about Perón’s life, Arena probably has a fair deal in common with her, and that Perón likely contended with even more adversity than we know.
“I look at it like this: is it really essential information at the end of the day as to how bad a trainwreck is. Do I really need to know about it? Not particularly, I don’t. But what does enthrall me is knowing that maybe there has been a trainwreck somewhere, but I’ve watched that person actually try and stop that train from derailing, and the journey that that person goes through in order to avoid that. That’s what I find inspiring.”
Evita is at the Sydney Opera House from September 13.
Looking for more all-singing, all-dancing extravaganzas? See the best musicals in Sydney.