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Crying’s Over, ‘Evita’ Finds Backers : Movies: Disney plans to make the musical about Argentina’s First Lady with the help of two investors and director Oliver Stone.

TIMES MOVIE EDITOR

Don’t cry for her any longer. With significant financial help from two producer friends, Disney Studios has revived plans to make the long-delayed movie version of the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice stage musical “Evita.” Oliver Stone will direct the film based on his screen adaptation of the Tony Award-winning production.

Disney’s Hollywood Pictures banner, headed by Ricardo Mestres, is looking to begin production on the estimated $40- million musical in the next 18 months, after Stone completes his next movie for Warner Bros., “Noriega,” about the ousted Panamanian dictator, Gen. Manuel A. Noriega. Al Pacino is in negotiations to star as Noriega, who is currently serving a 40-year jail sentence in the United States for drug crimes.

Stone, who will co-produce “Evita” with Robert Stigwood, Arnon Milchan and Andy Vajna, is not expected to focus on the production for a while. There is no actress yet lined up to play Argentina’s notorious first lady, Eva Peron, a role that, during “Evita’s” tumultuous 13-year path to the big screen, has been considered by such stars as Madonna, Meryl Streep, Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler, Elaine Paige, Patti LuPone (who created the role on Broadway and won a Tony) and pop star Mariah Carey. Cuban-American singer Gloria Estefan’s name also has been bandied about lately.

But those involved in the project say Stone could very well cast an unknown in the role. There are also no firm plans for the role of Peron’s husband, Argentine dictator Juan Peron, although at one time, Jeremy Irons had been rumored as a possibility.

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Stone was out of town and unreachable for comment.

In a phone interview from London on Thursday, Stigwood--who along with Lloyd Webber and Rice first mounted the stage musical “Evita” in London in1978 and who has been trying to get a movie version off the ground since the early 1980s--said “casting is wide open” at this point.

Stigwood, who originally set “Evita” up at Paramount under the former regime of Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg (now honchos at Disney), with Ken Russell to direct, contractually has some creative approvals on the movie, including cast, as do Lloyd Webber and Rice.

The producer, whose previous credits include the 1973 screen version of the Lloyd Webber-Rice stage musical “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Tommy,” “Grease,” and “Saturday Night Fever,” said that while “Evita” has encountered several false starts during the years, he feels confident that the movie will roll this time. “I’m delighted we have Oliver, since I commissioned his script all along. . . . I think it’s the best screenplay of the work and is very cinematic.”

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Stone had originally expressed interest in “Evita” about five years ago when the project was set up at Weintraub Entertainment Group. Streep had planned to star but then pulled out, reportedly over creative differences with the director. Carolco Pictures, where Stone had a production deal, tried to restart the project, but never did, so he lost interest.

Disney, after acquiring the rights from WEG, came close to making “Evita” three years ago with Glenn Gordon Caron directing and Madonna starring. Even though the studio amassed $2 million-$3 million in development costs, it aborted plans for production in May 1991 when the budget swelled to $30 million. The filmmakers argued they could not realistically make a period-costume musical for less. But Disney was unwilling to spend more than $25.7 million. After all, that was the year of the famous Katzenberg memo, which lambasted the big-budget mentality.

The project lay idle until a few weeks ago, when Hollywood Pictures senior vice president Dan Halsted “rekindled Stone’s interest and turned what everyone considered ancient history into reality,” said Mestres. Stone’s involvement “combined with the financial backing of Arnon (Milchan) and Andy (Vajna) made the project come together,” he added.

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Rather than shoulder the financial risk, Disney turned to Vajna, whose company, Cinergi Prods., has an exclusive long-term distribution deal with the studio, to fund the movie. And, to help cover his risk, Vajna approached Milchan and says the two have agreed to co-finance the movie. Through his company New Regency, Milchan--a producer of Touchstone’s 1990 “Pretty Woman” and executive producer of “JFK"--has a long-term deal with Stone.

Vajna, whose two latest movies for Hollywood Pictures, “Tombstone” (due at Christmas) and “The Color of Night,” are poised for release, said, “We’re putting this big conglomerate together, and it will go under my overall deal at Disney, who’s giving me some (cash) advances for various rights.”

Hollywood’s Mestres said that he expected “Evita” would be Oliver’s next movie after “Noriega” but that the musical probably would not go before the cameras until 1995.

Also speaking from London, Tim Rice, who wrote the book and the lyrics for “Evita,” said he was still somewhat skeptical that the movie would go, given its history. But, he allowed, “Now it seems to be a strong possibility and I’m delighted. . . . We have a good team in place and everyone seems to be going down the same track.”

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Rice said he originally conceived “Evita” in late 1973 after hearing a half-hour BBC radio documentary on the controversial Argentine first lady. “I’ve been living with Eva Peron ever since.”

Rice said that while he is “not remotely interested in the business end,” he would like to be involved creatively on the movie. Stone’s script, he said, “followed the basic structure that we assembled very closely. There’s very little missing, very little added. He said he and Lloyd Webber, who have not worked together in 15 years, would likely have to re-record the music for “Evita,” since the existing recordings were made so long ago.

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Rice recently teamed with Alan Menken to write three songs for Disney’s “Aladdin,” including the Oscar-winning “A Whole New World,” and collaborated with Elton John on songs for Disney’s forthcoming animated feature “The Lion King.” He is currently polishing songs for the stage production of Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast,” which just opened in Houston and is headed to Broadway on April 9.

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While Disney seemingly has a golden touch when it comes to making animated musicals a success (“Aladdin,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Little Mermaid”), its live-action musicals “Newsies” and “Sarafina!” (which it marketed and distributed only) flopped badly. Live-action musicals are risky ventures but for a handful of strong performers, including “Grease” ($153 million); “Flashdance” ($94.7 million); “Saturday Night Fever” ($94.1 million), and “Footloose” ($80 million).

Recently, director James Brooks decided to switch his intended musical for Columbia Pictures, “I’ll Do Anything,” starring Nick Nolte, to a straight drama after test audiences reacted negatively.


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