The legendary musical tangos back to Broadway for the first time in a generation. And its new stars -- Ricky Martin and Argentine breakout Elena Roger -- know a little something about Latin flavor

By Adam Markovitz
March 19, 2012 at 04:00 AM EDT

Packed into a rehearsal space above Manhattan’s 42nd Street, 36 performers practice the splashy ”And the Money Kept Rolling In (And Out)” number in Evita, lifting Elena Roger, who stars as Eva Perón, into the air amid a flutter of falling bills. It’s less than a month until the musical’s first preview at Broadway’s Marquis Theatre on March 12, and the cast members are happily drilling their parts to perfection, fine-tuning every step and note. The fact that one of these sweating performers — the one playing the narrator, Che — is the Latin music superstar Ricky Martin doesn’t seem to matter to anyone involved, least of all Martin himself. He’s just another actor stretching and joking and popping Altoids between run-throughs. That is, until Michael Cerveris, the show’s Juan Perón, takes a moment during a break to share one of the cast’s running jokes. ”As we like to say,” he says, flashing a conspiratorial smile, ”we’re living Evita loca.”

Martin’s star power might be a punchline in the rehearsal hall, but for the producers of Evita — the first Broadway revival of the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice musical since its original 1979-83 run — it’s also a key part of a plan to turn the period piece into a brand-new hit. And Martin isn’t their only reason for optimism. Directed by Michael Grandage (Frost/Nixon), with choreography by Rob Ashford (How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying), this iteration of Evita was nominated for the Olivier award for Outstanding Musical Production during its yearlong run in London in 2006-07. Evita‘s leading lady, 37-year-old unknown Elena Roger, is already being heralded as the next great Broadway star. And the truth is, Evita‘s legions of American fans never left her: The show’s rich pop culture legacy includes everything from a 2003 parody episode of The Simpsons to a 2010 Glee rendition of its signature song, ”Don’t Cry for Me Argentina.”

But can an earnest, dialogue-free musical thrive on post-Book of Mormon Broadway? Martin doesn’t take the challenge lightly. ”If I’m doing a classic like Evita, this is not a joke,” he says. ”We need to do this right. It has to have dignity and power and conviction.”

Lloyd Webber and Rice first developed Evita as a 1976 concept album about Eva Perón, the Argentine first lady who became a figure of near-religious devotion in her country before dying of cancer in 1952 at age 33. ”On one level you could say it’s a straightforward rags-to-riches story,” says Lloyd Webber. ”But on the other hand, it’s much more than that. It’s a cautionary tale about what can happen when someone manages to get hold of control and manipulate the media.”

As directed by Hal Prince, the show became a hit in 1978 in London and again a year later on Broadway, where it made stars of Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin and ran for four years. After decades of stop-and-go development (with everyone from Meryl Streep to Liza Minnelli attached), 1996’s big-screen Evita earned Madonna a Best Actress Golden Globe and introduced ”You Must Love Me” — an Oscar-winning Lloyd Webber/Rice song written for the movie and included in subsequent stage productions. In 2004, André Ptaszynski, who oversaw Lloyd Webber’s London theaters at the time, began planning a major revival. ”It was hard to think of any reason why Evita wouldn’t be worth reviving,” he says. ”It’s about power, lust, corruption, ambition. And it’s got the most stunningly beautiful score.”

In directing the new Evita, Grandage hoped to preserve the show’s iconic moments — like the famous balcony scene — while bringing a fresh jolt of authenticity. Historically inspired sets replace Prince’s groundbreaking black-box visual look, and Lloyd Webber reorchestrated parts of his score to reflect real Argentine music. ”Back in 1976 in Britain,” he admits, ”we didn’t have Internets and YouTubes and all those sorts of things, so my knowledge of the Argentine tango and everything was pretty limited, frankly.”

The boldest claim to authenticity may be the casting of Roger, an Argentine who had never worked in English before. After seeing a tape of her one-woman tango show, Lloyd Webber agreed to audition the then 29-year-old along with a host of British and American actresses. ”Elena came in and I remember the word we all used: firecracker,” says Grandage. ”Her energy was disproportionate to her size. She’s diminutive and yet she kept firing this stuff at us.” Roger agrees that her background gives her an advantage, even if she did have to learn her lines phonetically at first. ”I can understand Evita more because I can understand the idiosyncrasies of our people,” says Roger, who is 5-foot-nothing with cat-quick eyes and a thick Buenos Aires accent. ”And because I have my memories. Every time we do Eva’s funeral scene, I have [the memory of] my father crying, watching that funeral again on television. I feel what they felt. It is in my blood.”

It was Roger’s powerhouse performance that inspired veteran Broadway producer Hal Luftig (Catch Me if You Can) to bring the show to New York. ”I was completely blown away by her,” says Luftig. Even so, it took six years to line up the principals’ schedules and find a Broadway theater. After signing Roger as Evita, producers opted to cast fresh, U.S.-based talent like Tony winner Michael Cerveris (Assassins) for Juan Perón. For Che, Grandage and the producers wanted someone in keeping with the show’s Latin flavor. Someone with singing and dancing chops. Someone with, as Evita herself might say, just a touch of star quality.

At 40, Martin is still boyish and cartoon-hero handsome, with thick Jean Dujardin eyebrows that semaphore his feelings. Glibness is not in his emotional vocabulary; a simple ”How’s it going?” draws a thoughtful pause, searing eye contact, and a heartfelt explanation of how much he’s grown over the past few months. He says his decision to do Evita has its roots in his 1996 Broadway debut, playing Marius in Les Misérables. ”That was one of the best years of my life, and I said to myself, ‘I want to feel that again,”’ says Martin, who doesn’t see much difference between Broadway musicals and the concert spectacles he’s put on since his early days as a member of the teen band Menudo. ”My whole life is theater. Menudo was very theatrical: Stand here, talk, sing, say this, move. I considered it an amazing musical.”

Still, Martin’s success as a pop star — he’s sold more than 55 million albums worldwide — gave one of his costars pause. ”I was a little scared before I met him. I thought maybe he would be tough…. Like a diva,” laughs Roger. ”But he is the most amazing person — talented, professional. He gives everything.” Martin, who has signed on to Evita until next January, insists he’s not giving up his solo music career just yet. His last album, 2011’s Música+Alma+Sexo, reached No. 3 on the Billboard 200 and spawned an 82-stop arena world tour that wrapped last November. But he’s happy that Evita lets him settle down a bit. He has a home in NYC’s NoHo neighborhood with his twin 4-year-old sons, Matteo and Valentino.

Martin’s pop culture profile spiked in 2010 when he publicly came out before writing his best-selling memoir, Me, but he says his newfound openness hasn’t changed him as a performer. ”On stage, I never felt limited,” says Martin, who’s in a longtime relationship with banker Carlos González Abella. ”I think that’s when I really allowed myself to just be. But yes, there is an evolution from me in 2000 to me today.” And for the record, he loves his new show’s unofficial slogan. ”Living Evita loca — that should be our T-shirt!” he says with a laugh. ”At the beginning, it really was crazy — loco. It was insanity putting it all together. Now it’s flowing beautifully.”

Evita Through the Years
Eva Perón
Evita’s inspiration was only 33 when she died in 1952.

Elaine Paige
She originated the role in 1978 on London’s West End.

Patti LuPone
LuPone and costar Mandy Patinkin won Tonys in 1980 for the Broadway production.

The megastar won a Golden Globe for the 1996 film, opposite Antonio Banderas.

Elena Roger
The Buenos Aires native is the first Argentine to play the role on Broadway.