To get the original flavor of “Evita,” Aaron Rocklyn could simply play the record album on the stage of the Rochester Repertory Theatre.
That, you see, is how the hit musical, which opens Friday at the Rep, was first conceived — as a record album.
“Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice did ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ that way, and it worked so well they decided to repeat the formula,” said Rocklyn, who is directing the Rep’s production.
So, after writing the songs for what became “Evita,” Webber and Lloyd started hunting not for actors but for singers. The album was always going to come first. “Jesus Christ Superstar” had been a huge hit as a recording before becoming a stage musical, and “Evita” was designed to follow that same path.
“I can’t think of anyone else I’ve read about doing it that way,” Rocklyn said. “I would imagine it was for marketing reasons.”
Recorded and released in 1976, “Evita,” the recording, did indeed pave the way for the stage version, which debuted in 1978 in London and promptly won Britain’s Olivier Award for Best Musical. A year later, “Evita” came to Broadway and won the Tony Award for Best Musical.
The tale of Eva Peron was made into a film in 1996 (starring Madonna and Antonio Banderas) and has continued to fascinate audiences.
“I’d have to say the story is the biggest part of it,” Rocklyn said.
The musical tells the story of Eva, a poor girl from rural Argentina who moves to Buenos Aires, achieves some success as an entertainer and eventually becomes the second wife of Juan Peron, Argentina’s president.
The production includes 23 songs, and like others, Rocklyn is puzzled by exactly how to describe the show. Is it an opera, a musical or an oratorio? “You couldn’t even say light opera,” Rocklyn said. “Musical drama is the closest thing I can apply to this.”
Among the songs are the bit hit, “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina.” Jaymi Wilson, music director, will work with piano, electronic keyboards, drums and violin.
As Eva, Rocklyn has cast Lisa Modry, who has been seen in several dramatic and musical roles on local stages in recent years. Randy Peterson, another Rep veteran, is cast as Peron, with Dylon Starr as Che Guevara.
There are 26 people in the cast. “Every Rep show I do, I probably have one more than last time,” Rocklyn said. “But to tell these bigger stories, you have to have at least 20.”
Next question: How will they all fit on the relatively small Rep stage? “I don’t think it will feel crowded,” said Rocklyn, who has become accustomed to shepherding large casts at the Rep.
Rocklyn said he hopes audiences will be both entertained and intrigued by the saga of Eva Peron.
“The thing that gets me is how much mystery there is about Eva,” he said. “I hope people are curious enough to check out more about her.”
This is the closing production in the Rep’s 2014-2015 season.
If you go
When: Opens Friday. Performances at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday through May 23.
Where: Rochester Repertory Theatre, 103 Seventh St. NE, Rochester
Tickets: $25; 507-289-1737