The album opens with a bombastic overture (“A Cinema in Buenos Aires, July 26, 1952”) and a bombastic funeral dirge (“Requiem for Evita”). (The latter is spiked by a squealing electric guitar that ends with the mournful chorus lamenting the death of Eva Perón.) Afterward, the first vocal song, “Oh What a Circus”, is performed by Madonna’s costar, Antonio Banderas. Banderas’ involvement is significant because he and Madonna had a brief history: she lustfully pined for him in Truth or Dare. Back then, he was a young and handsome up-and-comer known primarily for his collaborations with Spanish film director Pedro Almodóvar. By 1996, he was an established international movie star. Cast as a fictional version of Che Guevara (who sort of acts as a one-person Greek Chorus), Banderas is almost as prevalent on the album as Madonna. Like her, he has a limited but attractive voice, infusing sensuality in his performances.
“Oh What a Circus” works like a Latin-pop number with nimble, strumming guitars. The sunny number shifts in the middle, changing gears and leaning into Lloyd Webber’s penchant for faux rock bluster. Madonna finally appears near the end of the track, with a truncated version of “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” that’s sung from the grave. It’s a dead Eva Perón urging her devoted followers to cease their grieving. What’s so striking about this Madonna is how high and light her voice sounds; it’s almost childlike. There’s a feathery, gossamer quality to her singing, an impressive way to introduce listeners to this ‘new, improved’ Madonna.
The next Madonna track is “Eva and Magaldi/Eva Beware of the City”, which allows Madonna to act on vinyl. She’s playing a very young and idealistic yet opportunistic Eva Perón (who’s already figured out how to use her limited talents to wrest away from her impoverished background). Again, there’s a precise buoyancy to her singing, ably playing a much younger woman. Because it’s a show tune, it tells a story: Eva’s hooking up with a famous singer who will take her to Buenos Aires. Unlike “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina”, it doesn’t work as a stand-alone pop tune because there are too many tonal and vocal shifts, as well as abrupt tempo shifts. Also, the song’s production sounds quite dated. That said, it does show one important thing: Madonna can display a substantial range of emotion as an actress when singing these songs.
The track “Buenos Aires” follows and is essentially Evita’s “New York, New York”. It’s the piece that sounds the closest to a Madonna pop song. In the 1980s, she went through a Latin-pop affectation and recorded songs like “La Isla Bonita” and “Who’s That Girl?” that featured salsa rhythms, conga drums, and garbled Spanish warbling. On “Buenos Aires”, Madonna sounds as much like herself as she ever will; as a result, it’s probably the best entry on the album. The lyrics are nervy and gutsy (so they’re in Madonna’s comfort zone). Oh, and the arrangement doesn’t suffer from the gaudy excesses of Lloyd Webber’s indulgences.
“Another Suitcase in Another Hall” is an interesting song to pair with “Buenos Aires” because it’s the second most Madonna-like composition here. So it’s not surprising that it was released as a single and climbed into the UK Top Ten. Sounding like one of her lesser ballads, it sees Madonna applying her wounded, vulnerable guise as she trills mournfully and pessimistically. She sounds remarkably assured using a higher registry than usual (often when Madonna reaches for a high note, it’s touch-and-go).
Of course, the soundtrack’s centerpiece is the bathetic ballad “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina”. It’s a sweeping, lachrymose song tailor-made for audience members to reach for their Kleenexes. The song has a long history, beginning with British singer Julie Covington’s 1976 concept album recording. Covington had a number one hit in the UK with it, and thus a talent show standard was born. It became a go-to for any wannabe Broadway baby, and many other female performers (such as Olivia Newton-John, Donna Summer, Karen Carpenter, and the expressly idiosyncratic Sinéad O’Connor) put their spins on it.
It’s such a famous song that its reputation obscures its mediocrity. Honestly, it’s a cynically manipulative tune that works overtime to wring tears from its listeners. Can a good singer rescue it? Possibly, but it’s become the epitome of the corporate conglomeration of musical theatre. Likewise, it’s become the epitome of acceptable, middle-brow, middle-class entertainment. It’s the stuff you hear on cruise ships, plucked on harps in hotel lobbies, pounded out on grand pianos in shopping malls, and shrieked tunelessly on reality singing shows.
And that’s why it’s rather depressing to hear a pioneeringly progressive rule-breaker like Madonna take it on. It’s not that she doesn’t do it well—she performs it okay—but it’s a constricted, corseted performance that screams a desire for respectability. So much of Madonna’s music career has been shadowed by derision for her musical gifts that it seems a defeat to hear her careful, studied, mannered attempt. It’s an effortful performance that sounds desperate to be liked. Despite Roger Ebert’s praise that she “easily masters” the material, it’s an ill-suited attempt at aiming for high art but grasping at trite junk instead. One need only go back one year to her Something to Remember album to hear just how much better she is than “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina”.
“Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” was the second single from the Evita soundtrack and became Madonna’s 30th Top Ten US hit on the Billboard charts. (The suite of remixes made it yet another number one on the dance charts, too.) Yet, it is a low point in Madonna’s storied career on the soundtrack. It’s a swirling moment of schmaltz, crassness, and banality.
The album’s other single, “You Must Love Me”, was written as Oscar bait for Lloyd Webber and Rice. (Unsurprisingly, it worked.) The song was tacked on during a dying montage in which the very ill Eva Perón is taking stock of her relationship with her husband (who would often exploit her for political gain). The tune is a mournful, cello-laden piece that taxes Madonna’s vocals in a way that no other song on the album does. Sadly, it’s here that she falls short.
When the arrangement has Madonna climbing unsteadily to the shaky stop of her range, the childlike glow of the other tracks gives way to a wobbly reediness. It’s an admirable performance, but it’s also somewhat mystifying since it should’ve been done in a more comfortable lower key. Despite the vocal training that the singer mastered, it’s a song that, like “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina”, is best forgotten when taking stock of Madonna’s recording career. (Like “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina”, “You Must Love Me” was another huge hit, too, peaking in the Top 10 on the UK Singles Chart).
To complete her “understated, respectable” phase, Madonna valiantly performed “You Must Love Me” at the 1997 Oscars. Host Billy Crystal praised her attendance, congratulating her for showing up despite being not nominated for best actress. After Crystal’s kind words, the shadiest camera person on the planet cut to fellow Oscar shut out Barbra Streisand, who reportedly refused to sing that night for not being nominated for The Mirror Has Two Faces. Madonna’s live performance was suitably elegant and restrained, and to no one’s surprise, the song won the Oscar. (Two months earlier, it also won a Golden Globe.)
The Evita soundtrack would go on to be another multi-platinum success for Madonna. But, she quickly shrugged off its tedious trappings by returning to dance-pop with her magnum opus, 1998’s Ray of Light. That album, her most significant work, brought Madonna back to dance and queer culture and jettisoned the stodgy trappings of Evita. One of Evita’s most significant lasting legacies is that Madonna emerged from it with a more robust and powerful instrument. It’s akin to when Marilyn Monroe quit Hollywood to take refuge at New York City’s Actor’s Studio to become a better actress. Evita may have been Madonna’s sole movie victory — reviews were respectable-to-good for the most part, and the box office was solid—but it was a sleepy nadir of her career, one that she thankfully escaped quickly.