Out There

Cult of personality
Cast recording/soundtrack
Warner Brothers Records

Whatever you may think of her personally, Madonna's credentials in the realm of popular music are unimpeachable. She began her career as a coy teen queen singing trendy, digestible songs and parlayed early success into an entertainment empire. Along the way, she managed to do the unimaginable: progressing in style and ability--while carrying her core following with her. (She's even managed to pick up new admirers in the process.) Madonna's now no more a singer than Brando is an actor. She's reached iconographic status: Her name is adjective as much as noun, her technique a template against which other musical styles are defined.

There's no sense quibbling with the fact of Madonna's talent, merely the ways in which she's chosen to channel it. Her controversial lifestyle was at the heart of the outrage felt by many Argentines when she was cast in the film version of Evita, the Webber-Rice rock opera about Argentina's infamous yet beloved former first lady. "How could someone so trashy deign to play Eva Peron?" the skeptics demand. The answer may be unwelcome, but it's accurate: They have a lot more in common than you might care to admit. As a rock opera, the soundtrack to Evita is a virtual road map of the movie's plot, tracking Eva Duarte from obscurity to the heights of superstar status, and it would be impossible not to acknowledge the sometimes eerie similarities between singer and subject. That a lyric written in 1976--"She's a new-world Madonna with a golden touch"--had to be replaced by one with less self-reference (real or perceived) may be the most telling evidence of the producers' worry that too much irony can be a dangerous thing. But irony is precisely what fuels Evita and the canny choice of Madonna for the title role. Her phrasings have always been clean and audience-friendly (key attributes in the musical theater, too), and that clarity mixes with her own personality to deliver a weightiness that substitutes for her lack of storytelling skills.

Madonna, though, is by no means the album's singular voice. Antonio Banderas hasn't the length of bone vocally to compete directly--he relies more on expressiveness than musicality--but Jonathan Pryce uses his round, delicate voice perfectly. Pryce is stage-trained, and he knows how to get under the skin of a song, to convey moods and messages lyrically. He keeps the stakes high and certifies Evita as something more than Madonna's latest project, a passing fancy as disposable as Dennis Rodman. Pryce gives the album what it needs: emotional heft.

--Arnold Wayne Jones

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Arnold Wayne Jones

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