'She'll Surprise a Lot of People'

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Madonna stands in silent concentration on an ornate old staircase in a drab, dusty hallway with no paint on its walls. Nothing about her shrieks high style--not her brunet wig of tight curls, not her plain pink print dress of thin material. One of her taupe shoes is unbuckled; she carries an elderly, battered suitcase in one hand.

A disembodied voice on tape intones "one, two, three" and a melody begins. She descends slowly, lip-syncing to her voice, pitch-perfect and clear as a bell, wrapping itself around the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice song "Another Suitcase in Another Hall."

Near the foot of the stairs, as she lip-syncs the words "Where am I going to?" she pauses between two stone pillars and stares wistfully past the camera that has faithfully tracked her descent. But she has hit her mark early and the routine looks awkward.

"Cut!" shouts director Alan Parker, watching on a monitor nearby. "Never mind, M," he tells her casually in his Cockney dialect, "we'll go again." Madonna ascends the stairs impassively. "I think I got there a bit fahst," she says, credibly imitating his accent.

Countless column inches, mostly speculative, have been written about this $59-million production of "Evita," adapted by Parker from Lloyd Webber and Rice's 1976 musical, since shooting began in Buenos Aires in mid-January. (It moved to Budapest in March and this week arrived at another destination--Shepperton Studios, near London, for its final three weeks.) So here are some quick answers to often-asked questions:

No, there's no visible hint yet that Madonna is with child, though she announced her pregnancy last month. Nor has her condition changed the filming schedule.

Yes, her work in making the transition from pop icon to big-screen musical star seems to have paid off; even show-stoppers like "Don't Cry for Me Argentina," which need to be belted out, sound comfortable for her.

No, Carlos Leon, the personal fitness trainer by whom she is pregnant, was not much in evidence on the "Evita" set here.

And yes, Madonna is getting along famously with her co-stars and crew. They all praise her professionalism, dedication and hard work; she seems to be flourishing in her role as Argentina's former first lady, Eva Peron.

Peron's is an astonishing story: a young woman from an ordinary small town who moved to Buenos Aires, captivated and wed rising politician Juan Peron, and became the most powerful woman in South America. Blond, charismatic and glamorous, Eva ensured Peron's presidential reelection by galvanizing Argentina's female vote and effectively became his vice president. Her death from cancer in 1952 at age 33 plunged Argentina into national mourning.

"They're both strong women so there's a similarity right there," Parker mused as the next scene was being lit. "Madonna sings and acts the part with incredible strength.

"She's really put her heart into it. This work isn't like spending two days on a pop video. There was a huge amount of vocal training to strengthen her voice and extend its range. She went out of her way to do her homework, arriving early in Buenos Aires to meet people who knew Eva Peron. She has not

gone about this frivolously at all. I think she'll knock audiences' socks off--and that's not just publicity bull."

Antonio Banderas, who plays the narrator, Che Guevara, in "Evita," concurred: "She'll surprise a lot of people in this movie. But I won't be surprised. I've never met a harder worker in my entire life. She focuses completely."

Jonathan Pryce, who plays Juan Peron, added, "She's a strong dynamic force and I can only admire that. I've grown to like her a lot. People have preconceptions about her due to the media but you soon learn she's a regular person. True, she doesn't discourage the media too much, but there's a lot of myth created around her."

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Parker exploded some myths about "Evita" itself. His shooting script has almost no spoken dialogue; the story is told through visual images and Lloyd Webber/Rice songs.

"It's through-sung, as Andrew calls it," he said. "It's a new film genre--not opera, not an old MGM musical with people speaking, then bursting into song. I feel today's audiences won't take that. So I felt if it was all to be sung, it should be sung really well."

Actresses like Meryl Streep, Michelle Pfeiffer and Glenn Close were linked with "Evita" over the years. But shortly after Parker took over the film around Christmas 1994, he received an eight-page letter from Madonna explaining why she wanted the role.

"She doesn't do a thing like that every day," Parker said with a chuckle. "She said no other person could play the part, and she'd sing and dance and act her heart out. And she has."

Music permeates Parker's movies (think "The Commitments," "Fame" and "Pink Floyd: The Wall") and he was determined to make the singing in "Evita" as good as possible. So he assembled his principals in London last October for four months of vocal training and recording. "We had 400 hours in the studio," he said. "That's why I'm tired now. Recording the music, then shooting the movie has been like making two films."

Parker pulled a coup in persuading Lloyd Webber and Rice to compose a new song, "You Must Love Me." The two men, who were estranged for years, met with Parker at Lloyd Webber's house in the south of France. "It was the first time Andrew and Tim were in the same room for a while," he said. "But I was in the middle so it was easier.

"I wanted to stress the strange, complex relationship between [Juan] Peron and Evita, and no song in the show articulated that. So Andrew wrote a melody and Tim added lyrics."

Parker has watched "Evita" closely since it was released as a double album 20 years ago. "Within a week of its release I asked about filming it," he said. "But Andrew and Tim wanted to see it on stage first."

In 1979, Parker was approached about directing it. "But I was just coming off 'Fame' and didn't want to follow one musical piece with another," he recalled. "Normally, I never regret turning work down but I felt resentful I'd let it go."

In turn, directors like Ken Russell, Glenn Gordon Caron and Oliver Stone were linked with "Evita"--but 18 months ago Cinergi boss Andy Vajna secured film rights from producer Robert Stigwood and Parker was back in the frame.

He has clearly chosen an epic approach. Parker assembled a 10-minute show-reel for distributors, which he showed his crew last week. It contains several big, sweeping scenes with thousands of extras--and proves Madonna, Banderas and Pryce are in fine voice. For a rough cut, it is surprisingly moving; many of the mainly British crew fought back tears when they saw it, an unusual reaction from an often cynical group.

"Well, it's been a long haul," Parker said. "We've been through a lot together." This included open hostility on arrival in Argentina from Peronist elements who feared the filmmakers would dishonor Eva Peron's memory. Graffiti on walls proclaimed "Chau [goodbye] Madonna" and "Fuera [go away] Parker." "It was scary at first and President Menem, who's a Peronist, wouldn't cooperate with us," Parker said.

"We wanted to use the actual balcony of the Casa Rosada, or Pink House, which is what they call the presidential palace. Finally he relented, partly because he realized only a minority of people were against us.

"I already knew this; I'd seen the graffiti. Knowing a bit about typography, I guessed it was one person's work. Also, the phrase 'English task force' was spelled wrong every time. So I came to think our only opposition was one dyslexic Peronist."

Back on the staircase, Madonna, hitting her mark perfectly, gets the next take exactly right. Seven or eight crew members, squeezed into the narrow hallway to shoot the scene, exhale in relief. "Lovely, M, just the job," Parker chirps. Madonna stays silent. But she allows herself a tiny enigmatic smile.

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