“Oh What A Circus” — David Essex/ Antonio Banderas

Photo by Rafael Leão on Unsplash

40 years ago people living in major Western democracies made fun of tin-pot dictators in Third World countries. Now the joke’s on us…

Right across the political spectrum, you don’t need to go far to find a personality cult and the unquestioning adoration of millions of followers. Both right and left prioritise PR and boondoggles for their own supporters over the realities of trying to improve the lives of the majority of their citizens.

There’s that old line about those who don’t remember history being condemned to repeat it. I might update that a little to say those who don’t know the history of musical theatre are condemned to live it out in real life…

That’s because, if you want a perfect take-down of modern-day political hubris, you don’t need to look further than the Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Tim Rice musical Evita.

Tim Rice is one of my all-time favourite lyricists although it’s probably fair to say he’s not that well known as a writer of songs packed full of searing political commentary.

But despite many angrier and more vocal people giving it a jolly good try, “Oh What A Circus” can’t be beaten as a critique of vapid, personality-driven politics…

She had her moments, she had some style
The best show in town was the crowd
Outside the Casa Rosada crying “Eva Peron”
But that’s all gone now
As soon as the smoke from the funeral clears
We’re all gonna see, and how, she did nothing for years

Now it has to be remembered that around the time Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd-Webber were writing “Oh What A Circus”, politics could hardly have been less personality-driven in both the UK and the US. James Callaghan was the British Prime Minister and Jimmy Carter the US President.

Both were decent men, beyond question, but personality-wise they were both about as far away as it’s possible to get from Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s fictionalised representation of Eva Peron.

Ha, how we laughed at the idea that a major democracy like ours might go the same way as a Third World republic. We we were too rational for all that. Too sophisticated. Too worldly-wise.

Until we weren’t…

In many ways, what bothers me isn’t so much some of our deeply-flawed political leaders on both right and left. There are plenty of deeply-flawed people around. But not all of them get to take high political office.

No, it’s their enablers who trouble me most. Those who know the truth, and who might be decent people at heart, but who swallow their decency and sense of right and wrong because of some tribal need to back “their guy” whatever they do.

When Margaret Thatcher…in the UK, at least, still a divisive figure…left office, she wasn’t voted out by the public. It was when her closest and most trusted advisers told her that she’d lost the confidence of her party in the House of Commons that she realised her time in office had ended and voluntarily stood down.

Nowadays, I suspect the response by our current political leaders in a similar situation would be to sack their PR team and bring in someone new who was prepared to double down on nastiness to get some positive column inches and the unquestioning support of a 24 hour TV News channel or two.

Back in fictionalised Argentina, Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd-Webber put Eva Peron’s passing in this context…

Oh what an exit, that’s how to go
When they’re ringing your curtain down
Demand to be buried like Eva Peron
It’s quite a sunset
And good for the country in a roundabout way
We made the front page of all the world’s papers today

Then Tim Rice turns up the sarcasm to 11…

What kind of goddess has lived among us?
How will we ever get by without her?

As it turns out, in the story of Eva Peron there was more smoke and mirrors than in a Las Vegas illusionist’s stage act.

In her life, she was larger than life. In her death, she was larger than she’d ever been in life.

After all, how many political leaders have hit West End and Broadway musicals written about them? You’ve got to have quite a story to tell to keep audiences coming back night after night.

I just hope in another couple of decades there is a lyricist around as good as Tim Rice to capture what’s been going on in politics in the 2010s. There’s a story to be told for sure…and great tunes and sardonic lyrics are definitely the way to do it…

The trouble with personality cults is that sooner or later, like in the Wizard of Oz, someone comes along to lift the curtain. When the truth is laid bare, shorn of the PR spin from people no longer getting paid to tell tall tales, it’s usually not very pretty. Some people find that hard to deal with…

You let down your people Evita
You were supposed to have been immortal
That’s all they wanted, not much to ask for
But in the end, you could not deliver

Sing you fools, but you got it wrong
Enjoy your prayers because you haven’t got long
Your queen is dead, your king is through
And she’s not coming back to you

The original UK hit version of “Oh What A Circus” was by David Essex, who took a rather church-music style version of the song to Number Three in the singles charts in 1978. David Essex had played the Che Guevara narrator character in the original West End production of Evita.

It wasn’t a massive hit internationally, but the Evita bandwagon hadn’t really started motoring back in 1978. We all still thought politics was about as exciting as Jim Callaghan and Jimmy Carter.

But by the time Madonna spearheaded the making of the stage musical into a film in 1996, everyone around the world knew the story of Evita.

The film version didn’t always get positive reviews, but I really enjoyed it. Antonio Banderas took the David Essex/Che Guevara role in the movie and I like what he did with “Oh What A Circus”.

There’s a lot less church music in there and a more Latin vibe. And while David Essex interpreted the role as being the faithful reporter of events, Antonio Banderas injects more of his own emotion and perspective into it.

Whichever version you prefer, “Oh What A Circus” is a fantastic song, and we were immensely fortunate to have a lyricist with Tim Rice’s talent telling the story of someone most of us at the time had never heard of…and telling it so well he created a legend that went around the world.

Thanks to the stage musical, and later the movie version, of Evita most of the world knows the dangers of letting PR, spin and propaganda crowd out reality in our public discourse. And as I’ve started saying…those who don’t know the history of musical theatre are condemned to live the experiences being lampooned on stage in real life…

The David Essex version of “Oh What A Circus” is here… https://youtu.be/YInWq7qt4PA

But as I prefer his version, here’s Antonio Banderas from the 1996 movie version of Evita, with “Oh What A Circus”…a metaphor for our times…

If you’ve read this far, thank you for spending a few moments in the company of one of my favourite songs. The video is below, but if you prefer listening to your music on Spotify, you can find today’s track here… https://open.spotify.com/track/0XXvv9AZ62nHtMDKK4lHlr

Without words, it’s just a nice tune. Add words — now you’ve got a song. And songs can change your world. I write about some that changed mine.

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