London Evita Headliner Samantha Pauly on Channeling Beyoncé and Ariana Grande to Find Her Inner Superstar

London Evita  Headliner Samantha Pauly on Channeling Beyoncé and Ariana Grande to Find Her Inner Superstar
Samantha Pauly and company in "Evita"
(Photo: Marc Brenner)

Chicago actress Samantha Pauly has been in three previous productions of Evita, none of which can have been as conceptually daring as the director Jamie Lloyd’s provocative and edgy current take on the iconic Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice musical, now in its final weeks at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theater in London. Stripped bare and packed with balloons, confetti and all sorts of political resonances, this is an Evita for our time, as its hugely gifted Eva Peron was more than happy to discuss between shows one recent afternoon with

What did you know about this Evita going into it, given how wildly different it is from the iconic Harold Prince production that first stormed London and New York?
It was made clear that this would be an entirely different concept, which sounded really interesting, and I think we all trusted Jamie [Lloyd, the director] to make us look good and to put together a show that not only will the audience enjoy but that we would enjoy doing eight times a week. Since we opened, Jamie has been in New York for his play Betrayal [on Broadway, starring Tom Hiddleston], so we haven’t seen him since press night: this has been all about trust.

How do you think Eva Peron is meant to resonate as a character in this production?
Jamie really liked the idea of Eva as a sort of pop star and how people can rise to fame in that way. We’re on bleachers, so it’s almost like Beyoncé at Coachella. I tried to use people like her and Ariana Grande to access that superstar mentality.

Was that difficult to do?
I kind of think of myself as a normal everyday person, and Jamie had to sit me down a couple of times and say, “You don’t realize it, but you are a star: you know you can do this, and that is where you have to go.” It’s about making me feel like a superstar every night [laughs]!

Were there ever moments during rehearsal where you wondered what the finished result would be, given that the production doesn’t indulge the traditional imagery? [Only belatedly do you see the onetime first lady of Argentina “dressed up to the nines,” as Rice’s song lyric puts it.]
There were so many days where we were told to hold this balloon or wear this thing or start out on the floor, and I would say, “What is this? What are we doing?” Jamie’s response was, “Don’t worry about it,” which was kind of cool. He was putting everything together so that it would kind of all click at one time. The whole thing was very collaborative, which I really enjoyed.

Was it hard not to fall back on your previous experiences playing the same role?
There were times when I would kind of go into my previous Evita mode and Jamie would catch me doing that and would tell me to throw it away. He wanted Trent Saunders [Che] and me to forget everything we had ever done, which I think we did.

How do you think your Eva connects with audiences?
I feel like the characters in our production are incredibly accessible. Eva is a powerhouse but she’s usually this unobtainable idea of a person, but I think by stripping away the giant costumes and the crazy set and all the typical things people expect from Evita that it allows scope for people to identify with and feel for her. People watch the show and go, “Oh wow, she was kind of crazy,” and yet they still feel bad for her in the end; it’s very sad.

Samantha Pauly and company in Evita
(Photo: Marc Brenner)

How are you managing eight shows a week as Eva—which is virtually unheard of?
I knew I had two covers so I was just waiting to show up [for rehearsals] and be told, “So you’ll do these seven performances and someone else will do the eighth,” but that never happened, and it’s been OK. So far so good. Every week I give myself a pat on the back.

Have you been able to sit out the extra matinees during the show’s occasional nine-performance weeks?
Absolutely! I couldn’t do a ninth show! I did ask multiple times whether I could sit and watch the show during one of those performances, but Jamie didn’t want me to see it, which I understand. He didn’t want me to start using something that I hadn’t seen before or to be aware of anything happening that I hadn’t noticed while onstage.

Were you nervous when Elaine Paige—the original stage Eva [Julie Covington first sang the role on vinyl]—came to see the show, only then to rave about it on her weekly radio program
I was just so excited to have Elaine there! Afterwards, she was incredibly generous and so sweet: she said she loved the show, and I take her at her word. I remember prior to that when we found out that Andrew [Lloyd Webber] was coming in previews that I broke down in tears—not because I was nervous or upset, but because I never in a million years thought this would be happening to me.

Did you ever think you would be in four different iterations of the same musical?
[Laughs] Isn’t that nuts? The first time around I played the Mistress [who gets one song] and was going to play her again [in Chicago] when one of the assistant directors pulled me aside and said, “We know you can sing Eva, but you don’t look old enough to play her”—which I then did. The third production was at Westport Country Playhouse early last year.

Did you ever have any contact with the original production’s legendary director, Harold Prince, who died just recently?
Before opening night in Westport, Hal sent us all this lovely video recorded message which I had totally forgotten about until someone reposted it on the day he died. The news [of Prince’s death] was kind of surreal: we were in technical rehearsals holding for something and Jamie had his phone out and, all of a sudden, he was, like, “Hal Prince has died.” It was so sad. It would have been really lovely if he had been able to come see this.

Have you had a visit from Broadway’s first Eva, Patti LuPone?
No, I wish, I wish! Maybe she’ll come surprise us. And I really want Mandy Patinkin [Broadway’s original Che] to come see the show just because I love him so much.

Have you used your first-ever trip to London to research the historical character of Katherine Howard, whom you played in the Chicago premiere of the musical Six—a show to which you are returning?
Yeah, I’ve gone to the Tower of London to see where she and Anne Boleyn were beheaded and my husband and I went out to Hampton Court Palace to see all of that. Last Sunday I went to go see Six here at the Arts Theatre, which was really great because I hadn’t gotten a chance to just sit and watch the show. It was so much fun.

What next, given that Six is a show on the move, as, one assumes, this Evita is too?
After this I leave London on September 23 and will be joining all the Six girls when the show goes to Canada. In terms of what is happening with Evita after this, I don’t know anything. I’m just along for the ride as well.