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Don't cry for Argen-Tina Arena. She's taking on 'Evita' on her own terms

The Aussie pop icon is taking on one of the biggest female roles in musical theatre. She tells Maxim Boon how she's making the character of Eva Peron entirely her own.

When it comes to political drama, Australia boasts more than its fair share. As August rolled to a close, yet another leadership spill saw a sitting PM turfed out and a new head honcho take-up the highest office in the land. But in the days before Scott Morrison emerged victorious from the party room melee, pickings for who might lead the nation seemed to be worryingly slim. If only the Liberal whips had known that outspoken pop megastar and Australia's sweetheart Tina Arena is ready, willing and able to give the Prime Minister's job a red hot go.

"I'd definitely give it a crack. Probably wouldn't survive very long though. I'd probably be blasted," she shares of her hypothetical foray into politics, in typically unfiltered fashion. "But you see, people in my profession [in entertainment] have always been the gatekeepers for the morals and values and social justice we want to see in the world, you know. And let's face it, being a politician can be an incredibly thankless job, and it really disappoints me that in 2018, we're still struggling to find a sense of equilibrium between the government and the media, and I think that includes performers and people in pop culture too. There has always inherently been a struggle between both domains, and it would be so lovely to be able to move forward a little and be more on the same page. I'd really like to see that."

It's apt that Arena should find herself in a political frame of mind. She will soon headline a massive Australian production of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's blockbusting 1978 musical Evita, playing former First Lady of Argentina, Eva Peron. In some ways, it's an uncanny piece of casting, as Arena's own ascension — from Young Talent Time ingenue to international pop icon, with more than 10 million album sales to prove it — bears something of a passing resemblance to Peron's own rise; a girl from a dirt-poor village in the Pampas region who became a political powerhouse and feminist trailblazer.

Where the similarities end, however, have proven to be the aspects of Eva Peron's life most creatively provocative for Arena. As the wife of Argentine President Juan Peron — an army general whose political tactics and support of Argentina's working poor made him a demagogue in the eyes of the nation's bourgeoisie — Eva's own political aspirations were similarly divisive amongst the Argentinian people. Much like her husband, her reputation existed in a state of liminal conflict: to some a beacon of social mobility and populist reform, to others a power-hungry hypocrite, propped up by corruption and thuggery.

For Arena, exploring the many facets of such an inspiring yet flawed and morally complex figure has been a valuable journey of discovery, revealing how best to develop her own characterisation. "What jumped off the page for me, first and foremost, was how she was either adulated or completely loathed. I thought, 'Isn't that interesting that there can be two ends of the spectrum, so different,'" she shares. "The next thing that jumped out at me was, I thought, 'Oh my God, isn't it incredible how that level of envy destroys people.' Those who are feeling that resentment and those that are in the positions of being envied, both horrible things to experience, really. But, when you start learning more about her, how she was and where she came from, it made complete sense that she was going to be heard."

Arena admits that she shares a deep affinity for Eva Peron, who was a figure of tragedy as well as infamy, losing her life to cervical cancer in 1952 at the age of just 33. However, it's a bond Arena is approaching with caution. "I find her very easy to understand. But I also see the danger in falling into buying the bullshit, which is something that I think you've got to be very careful of as an actor, especially when you play iconic roles like her, you know. People always talk about the commitment that's required and how you can be really caught up in a character. And that can be really amazing, to be so immersed in a role, but it can also be pretty debilitating. I think with this role, it's going to be a real challenge to just leave her at work and not bring her home."

This latest Australian touring production is a remount of Hal Prince's original Tony Award-winning staging, premiered at London's Prince Edward Theatre in 1978. Resurrecting its first incarnation offers Australian audiences a chance to witness where the show's illustrious history of past performances began. Since it's premiere, the most well-known iteration of Evita is very likely the 1996 film version, starring Madonna and Antonio Banderas. But before Madge implored to cinemagoers, "Don't cry for me Argentina," several of the most revered leading ladies of Broadway and the West End — bona fide legends like Elaine Paige, Patti Lupone and Elena Roger — had also delivered definitive accounts on stage.

Despite the nail-biting "no pressure" potential of assuming a role with such an intimidating heritage, Arena remains unphased by footsteps she's walking in. Instead of fretting over comparisons, she's fully focused on making her own mark on Evita, on her own terms. "I have to come to something completely fresh. I'm not able to work under any other guise, it's how I've always worked," she explains. "And it's no different with Evita. I've never seen the show. I haven't watched the film. I haven't watched Madonna's performance. I know nothing about it. But you know what, when I did Roxie Hart in Chicago in London, I'd never seen Chicago. I didn't know anything about the show. I'd never seen the show until I started rehearsing it and was on stage playing the role of Roxie Hart. But then I knew it was all my own interpretation, and no one else's. That's the only way I know how to do this job."

Arena's unique perspective on Evita promises to channel her own brand of Star Quality in a performance that plays to the pop diva's considerable strengths, including her mega-watt confidence. "I think, I see it as a role for somebody who's spirited. I'm not quite sure whether that's a role that just anybody can play. Now I say that very naively, but that's just, that's really what I think," she says. "I think that if you're introverted, I think it probably would be difficult to play her. I think you need to have a bit of bite and you know, I've got a bit of bite."

First published 13 September 2018, for The Music