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Big Screen Divas

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Big Screen Divas

After two decades of estrangement, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice were coaxed into the same room to revisit the scene of their last crime, Evita, and write one new song to commemorate Madonna’s coronation as a real movie actress. The result, ”You Must Love Me,” is a doozy — not because it’s one of the better numbers on Evita — The Complete Motion Picture Soundtrack, but because they may have come up with the quintessential stand-alone Diva Ballad.

Rice’s title is a play on words: Do you put the weight on love so the phrase expresses sweet surprise over unexpected affection? Or emphasize must, making it a petulant command? Madonna’s evasive reading, which accentuates the syllables about evenly, isn’t conclusive. She gets to have it both ways — to demand that we love her for her vulnerability. Which is the hat trick for any Streisand-in-waiting.

With new soundtracks just out from Barbra and Whitney, too, it must be die-and-go-to-heaven month for drag queens. But no queen in recent memory carries the iconic pull of the theater’s Eva Perón. Is Madonna up to the task? You have no idea. The newly pumped-up thrush sings the hell out of the material and, just as significantly, redefines it in ways that might make it her most ”personal” album, if only for the telling adjustments she’s made to an extremely familiar text.

The common joke was that Madonna playing Eva Perón must be typecasting — you know, one social-climbing, bed-trading, ruthless careerist desperately seeking a role as another. No wonder she became so protective toward Perón, recently declaring the libretto ”chauvinist,” suggesting her empathetic portrayal would rehabilitate poor Eva from years of sexist musical slander.

Sympathetic Madonna is, then — as much as she can be without holding Rice at gunpoint for rewrites. Her inflections are consistently softer than in any previous recording. (Revisit the original 1976 album and hear how Julie Covington sounds shrilly, spookily more like Madonna — the old, pre-voice-lessons Madonna — than the Material Monarch herself.) Songs that had Perón jockeying to be named vice president have been jettisoned in favor of a prolonged death scene. And Madonna has appropriated the stage show’s one ingenuously tender number, ”Another Suitcase in Another Town,” from another character — a theft that would make the old, scheming Perón proud.

Fortunately, her attempts to humanize Perón — however PC in intent — give the music more emotional range without undercutting the show’s essentially nasty nature. Evita has a reputation as a reverential bore — not undeserved if all you know is the lifeless American cast album with Patti Lupone. Happily, rock and roll (or a close enough theatrical approximation) has been reintroduced into orchestrations that’re bigger and cleverer than ever, along with renewed surliness from Antonio Banderas’ Che Guevara. (Banderas sings decently, save for some mush-mouthedness when he has to handle exposition and rock out at the same time.) This reinvigoration returns the musical closer to its origins as a satirical romp, a snide, silly spoof of fame that just happened to have some lovely moments, too. For all of Madonna’s solemnity, this is the first time in 20 years that Evita has been — dare we say it? — fun.

Fun isn’t quite the word for The Mirror Has Two Faces — Music from the Motion Picture, which consists mostly of Marvin Hamlisch’s gruelingly cheerful score. Come the vocal numbers at album’s end, things perk up with Streisand and Bryan Adams, their crystalline and sandpaper surfaces rubbing together surprisingly smoothly, especially in a call-and-response section that nearly produces the intended goose bumps. All they’re missing is a coherent song: ”I Finally Found Someone” has the sound of three separate tunes baked into one in a hurry by too many cooks. Climactically, in ”All of My Life,” Streisand reuses the same ”love theme” riff as a soloist, concluding ”I find, when I look deep in your eyes, reflections of me there.” Why is that not a surprise?

Not every diva gets stuck permanently peering into Narcissus’ pond. With The Preacher’s Wife, Whitney Houston had an excuse to make the gospel album she’s forever talked about — give or take a secular ballad or four. The result will instantly overtake Aretha Franklin’s 1972 Amazing Grace as the biggest album of spirituals ever: The Lord is her Bodyguard; sales shall not want.

Best among the non-gospel fare, Babyface’s dance-floor ballad ”My Heart Is Calling” explores Houston’s sexy lower range against his characteristic bed of lush but near-subliminal b.g. vocals. ”Step by Step,” a house throbber penned by Annie Lennox, represents an admirable departure but gets tripped up by a pallid Inspirations R Us lyric and perhaps too much of its author’s stamp.

When Houston sings ”I Go to the Rock,” though, the swing starts in earnest, with sacred assists from Mervyn Warren, the Georgia Mass Choir, and a modest but funk-filled band; plus, guests Shirley Caesar and mama Cissy briefly provide earthier contrasts to Whitney’s coloratura. It’s doubly nice that a superdiva with bravura enough to have sold as noxious a lyric as ”The Greatest Love of All” believes there’s a higher love than self after all. Evita: A-; The Mirror Has Two Faces: C-; The Preacher’s Wife: A-

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