Juan, Singular Sensation: A Tour of Michael Cerveris' Peronist History Archive, Backstage at Evita

By Michael T. Luongo
January 13, 2013

Before the Broadway reign of Evita ends on Jan. 26, Michael Cerveris, who plays Juan Peron, gave Playbill a tour of his backstage collection of objects devoted to the Argentinean leader who married the iconic Eva.



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There's a calm sense the moment you step into Michael Cerveris' dressing room backstage at the Broadway's Marquis Theatre. The lighting is soft and golden. Incense burns on a ledge as tango music plays lullaby-low from an LP spinning on a portable record player.

"That I have had for years. That accompanies me to all my dressing rooms," Cerveris tells me pointing at the record player. He then motions to the floor, a stack of old Argentine records scattered in a small niche, "it's not easy to find old classic tango stuff in the United States."

Most of the records came from Argentina, ordered off of eBay, becoming part of what the Tony Award-winning actor calls, half-jokingly, "the best Peron research library in Manhattan."

Cerveris plays Juan Peron, the President of Argentina and husband of Maria Eva Duarte de Peron, better known as Evita, in the new production of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's Evita. He began to collect Peronist memorabilia when he went to Argentina to research his role and participate in a photo shoot with his co-stars, Elena Roger, who plays Eva and Ricky Martin, who stars as Che.

An Argentine flag and other notes hang from the wall of Cerveris' dressing room.
Photo by Michael Luongo
I first heard of Cerveris' extensive collection from Gabriel Miremont, the curator of Buenos Aires' Museo Evita after he came for his own backstage tour last September. He was impressed by the range of Cerveris' objects and his well-researched knowledge of the historical figure he plays.

Being an Evita and Peron buff myself, I wanted to see the collection first-hand. The visit is also an opportunity to hear some of Cerveris' thoughts as the show gets set to close on Jan. 26.

Through the visit, Cerveris lifts objects from shelves and tables, all the while pointing out images framed on the walls. He tells me the LP of speeches by Juan and Eva was sent to him by Nicolás Damin, an historian with the Instituto Nacional Juan Domingo Perón, a museum and research center in Buenos Aires. Damin had spent five hours with Cerveris, teaching him about the man he would become on stage. Looking back, Cerveris said, "He's obviously a staunch Peronist supporter, but he is also aware of the criticism as well. And he was very helpful in giving me a whole huge context of the man, and the society and the whole history of the time."

On his own, Cerveris began to collect other material, devouring everything he could on the subject of Peron. He pulls from the ledge several books — examples of what Peron's father, Mario Tomás Perón, had given his young son to read. Cerveris says, "Peron had three books with him his whole life that he kept by his bedside." These were "Plutarch's Lives," to teach Peron about military life, "Chesterfield's Letters" (also called) Philip Stanhope's "Letters to His Son," which Michael said gave, "instruction in being a gentleman in the world." Finally, Michael pulls out a book bound in cowskin, with ancient, tea-colored pages, a bilingual edition of Martin Fierro's "El Gaucho," one of Argentina's most iconic books. "This his father gave him to always remind him of where he came from, and especially of the Pampas, where he had grown up."

Cerveris points to Juan Peron's signature on a government book he bought on eBay for about $150.
photo by Michael Luongo

Cerveris' own most prized piece in the collection is a government planning book signed by Juan Peron himself for Peronist labor leader Florencio Soto for which he paid only about $150. Some of what Michael reads and collects have also been suggested to him by Elena Roger, a native of Buenos Aires, including Tomas Eloy Martinez's "The Peron Novel." All of this has impacted what is seen on stage.

"What I have learned from my research and what Elena brought from her research and also just from her life, has served to color some of the details [of the Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice musical]," he says. "[We] perhaps offer in non-spoken bits alternatives to the party line of the piece itself that I hope ultimately makes it a richer and more complex more satisfying experience for the audience."

A DVD with an image of Juan Peron holding up Evita during a speech.
Photo by Michael Luongo
Cerveris holds a DVD whose cover shows a famous image of Juan holding Evita as she gives her final speech. "When she does her final broadcast and rises from her chair, in the London production, the two nurses help her," Cerveris explains. He learned that on the way to her final speech, Evita, severely weakened from cancer, said, "Juan, don't let me fall."

The actor says, "I just thought that was such a meaningful gesture, that he stands behind her, that he is there literally supporting her. Yes it is an image that they want to present to the people, but it is also a husband looking after his wife. And I said to [director] Michael Grandage, 'I found this research, historically, it is accurate and I like what it adds to the story. [I'd like] for me to do that, rather than for me to just abandon her to the nurses.' At that point in the play, it is really the last physical contact I have with her, really. And that is something that came directly out of the research that I did."

The relationship between Juan and Evita evolves through the play, each defending the other. The same qualities have developed for the two actors playing them. It's a point Cerveris wants to make as the play ends.

"I think Elena is extraordinary, is one of the finest actresses, certainly one of the finest singing actresses, that I have ever worked with, and I was just surprised…that that hasn't been more celebrated and recognized. That's a disappointment to me."

"Michael Grandage's work, and the design work, is extraordinary," he says, adding, "I am really proud to have been a part of this production, and I understand that it is not a recreation in any way of the extraordinary [original] Hal Prince production. It was never meant to be. It's its own creature and I am very proud of what it is and I wish it were running longer for more people to see."

He'll miss his co-workers perhaps the most. He describes them as "this really large group of people who dedicated themselves to a musical in a way that is kind of unusual. They dedicate themselves to the acting and the storytelling of the musical — and not just singing and dancing or drawing attention to themselves. Universally from every ensemble dancer to a huge international popstar, everybody subjugated their egos to telling this story of these people and this culture, and that is unusual and remarkable."

Cerveris holds the Red Book of Peron, which contains political and inspirational sayings of Juan Peron.
Photo by Michae Luongo
Unusual also was the Latin sensibility the musical had through Roger and Martin, which Cerveris says "opened the doors to a Spanish-speaking audience that doesn't always find its stories and its culture and its life represented in the heart of commercial theatre." He says he hopes the doors stay open, flooding Broadway with new stories.

The question, as they ask in Evita, is, "So what happens now?"

With a melodic laugh, Cerveris offers the show's response: "Don't ask anymore…"

But, really? "The one thing I know I am doing that I know is ongoing I have these shows at 54 Below" with his band Loose Cattle. He adds, "January is really kind of closing the book on things that have been part of my life for years," mentioning TV's "Treme" and "Fringe," the latter a show he particularly liked working on, with his role, September, "a character that will be a part of the sci-fi mythology and iconography." Yet he added, "at the end of the day, I think I am first and foremost a stage creature, and I will never stray too far from that."

My final question relates to the legacy of his work as Peron. Historically, those who play Peron have been overshadowed by their counterparts. Many forget Bob Gunton who originated Peron working with Broadway legends Patti LuPone as Evita and Mandy Patinkin as Che. Jonathan Pryce is perhaps better remembered alongside Madonna's Evita and Antonio Banderas' Che. Will Michael Cerveris' Peron be the most-remembered American version?

He says reflectively, "that would be nice, if that turns out to be true," but he credits any success "to a lot of factors, chiefly Michael Grandage's vision for the production — one where that relationship between Juan and Eva was vital. And the show is built, in our production, around the three, Juan Peron, Che and Eva. So I had a director who wanted me, wanted my character to stand toe to toe with the other two and invited me to be part of it to fulfill that, and I have tried to do my best to do that."

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Read travel writer (and Evita maven) Michael Luongo's earlier Playbill.com feature about the real-life people and locations mentioned in the hit musical Evita.

Here's his report about a New York City exhibit of Eva Peron's gowns and personal effects