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'She'll Surprise a Lot of People'

As 'Evita' Enters Its Final Weeks of Filming, One Thing Is Clear: Madonna Is Flourishing as Eva Peron

May 04, 1996|DAVID GRITTEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

BUDAPEST, Hungary — Madonna stands in silent concentration on an ornate old staircase in a drab, dusty hallway with no paint on its walls. Nothing about her shrieks high style--not her brunet wig of tight curls, not her plain pink print dress of thin material. One of her taupe shoes is unbuckled; she carries an elderly, battered suitcase in one hand.

A disembodied voice on tape intones "one, two, three" and a melody begins. She descends slowly, lip-syncing to her voice, pitch-perfect and clear as a bell, wrapping itself around the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice song "Another Suitcase in Another Hall."

Near the foot of the stairs, as she lip-syncs the words "Where am I going to?" she pauses between two stone pillars and stares wistfully past the camera that has faithfully tracked her descent. But she has hit her mark early and the routine looks awkward.

"Cut!" shouts director Alan Parker, watching on a monitor nearby. "Never mind, M," he tells her casually in his Cockney dialect, "we'll go again." Madonna ascends the stairs impassively. "I think I got there a bit fahst," she says, credibly imitating his accent.

Countless column inches, mostly speculative, have been written about this $59-million production of "Evita," adapted by Parker from Lloyd Webber and Rice's 1976 musical, since shooting began in Buenos Aires in mid-January. (It moved to Budapest in March and this week arrived at another destination--Shepperton Studios, near London, for its final three weeks.) So here are some quick answers to often-asked questions:

No, there's no visible hint yet that Madonna is with child, though she announced her pregnancy last month. Nor has her condition changed the filming schedule.

Yes, her work in making the transition from pop icon to big-screen musical star seems to have paid off; even show-stoppers like "Don't Cry for Me Argentina," which need to be belted out, sound comfortable for her.

No, Carlos Leon, the personal fitness trainer by whom she is pregnant, was not much in evidence on the "Evita" set here.

And yes, Madonna is getting along famously with her co-stars and crew. They all praise her professionalism, dedication and hard work; she seems to be flourishing in her role as Argentina's former first lady, Eva Peron.

Peron's is an astonishing story: a young woman from an ordinary small town who moved to Buenos Aires, captivated and wed rising politician Juan Peron, and became the most powerful woman in South America. Blond, charismatic and glamorous, Eva ensured Peron's presidential reelection by galvanizing Argentina's female vote and effectively became his vice president. Her death from cancer in 1952 at age 33 plunged Argentina into national mourning.

"They're both strong women so there's a similarity right there," Parker mused as the next scene was being lit. "Madonna sings and acts the part with incredible strength.

"She's really put her heart into it. This work isn't like spending two days on a pop video. There was a huge amount of vocal training to strengthen her voice and extend its range. She went out of her way to do her homework, arriving early in Buenos Aires to meet people who knew Eva Peron. She has not

gone about this frivolously at all. I think she'll knock audiences' socks off--and that's not just publicity bull."

Antonio Banderas, who plays the narrator, Che Guevara, in "Evita," concurred: "She'll surprise a lot of people in this movie. But I won't be surprised. I've never met a harder worker in my entire life. She focuses completely."

Jonathan Pryce, who plays Juan Peron, added, "She's a strong dynamic force and I can only admire that. I've grown to like her a lot. People have preconceptions about her due to the media but you soon learn she's a regular person. True, she doesn't discourage the media too much, but there's a lot of myth created around her."

* MORE 'EVITA'

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Parker exploded some myths about "Evita" itself. His shooting script has almost no spoken dialogue; the story is told through visual images and Lloyd Webber/Rice songs.

"It's through-sung, as Andrew calls it," he said. "It's a new film genre--not opera, not an old MGM musical with people speaking, then bursting into song. I feel today's audiences won't take that. So I felt if it was all to be sung, it should be sung really well."

Actresses like Meryl Streep, Michelle Pfeiffer and Glenn Close were linked with "Evita" over the years. But shortly after Parker took over the film around Christmas 1994, he received an eight-page letter from Madonna explaining why she wanted the role.

"She doesn't do a thing like that every day," Parker said with a chuckle. "She said no other person could play the part, and she'd sing and dance and act her heart out. And she has."

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