Sammi Cannold admits that her passion for the musical “Evita” borders on the obsessive. As a teenager, Cannold saw the 2012 Broadway revival and was “knocked out” by the story of Argentine first lady Eva Perón and the show’s score. At Stanford University, Cannold directed a production of the rock opera for her thesis. As part of that project, she traveled to Argentina to research Eva’s life. In 2019, she helmed a concert-style production of “Evita” as part of the Encores! series at New York’s City Center.
“When I first saw the show, I hadn’t really come across a musical, let alone a piece of art, that unabashedly told the story of a powerful woman,” says Cannold. “I became obsessed with her story.”
As a young woman on the cusp of college, Cannold wasn’t sure what she wanted to do with her life. “It was partly from seeing ‘Evita,’ ” she says, “that I was like, ‘Oh, I want to be a director because I want to tell stories like this one.’ ”
Now Cannold is living her dream: She’s directing a new revival of “Evita” at Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater, May 17-July 16. The show is presented in association with the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., where it will be mounted next season. There are hopes for an eventual Broadway run.
The musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber (music) and Tim Rice (book and lyrics) features indelible songs such as “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” and “You Must Love Me” (written for the 1996 film adaptation starring Madonna). At the ART, Shereen Pimentel will play the title role.
Audiences have long since become familiar with the show’s touchstones: Eva’s glittering white strapless Dior ball gown, her blonde bun, her sparkling earrings and diamond necklace, her arms raised in triumph. But Cannold wanted to capture the human behind the icon, dig into the character’s contradictions and create empathy for Evita, despite her flaws.
“The musical doesn’t shy away from talking about both her complex relationship with power and her desire to have an impact and make a difference,” says Cannold, who previously directed “Endlings” at the ART. “When she makes mistakes later in her journey, what does it mean to feel conflicted about how you fell in love with her in Act One, and now you’re like, ‘Ah! Why are you doing that horrible thing?’ ”
In Argentina, Eva, who died in 1952 at age 33, remains a polarizing figure. Many view her as the opportunistic wife of a fascist authoritarian, Juan Perón, who enacted violent crackdowns on dissidents. They criticize her for fostering a cult of personality around her husband. Others see her as a populist champion of organized labor and as a friend of the poor, one who came from impoverished circumstances herself. “She understood the plight of the working people from a very personal perspective, and that was her secret weapon,” Cannold says. “The musical does an incredible job of showing how she utilizes that aspect of her identity to relate to the people that they govern.”
Cannold was struck by a lyric early in the show — “There was nowhere she’d been at the age of 15” — that speaks to Eva’s youth and naivete when she first meets and becomes romantically involved with tango singer Agustín Magaldi (Gabriel Burrafato).
“People referred to her [disparagingly] for ‘sleeping her way to the top,’ and that shaped much of her reputation later in life. But when we think about it through a modern lens, would we call a 15-year-old who slept with a 36-year-old man a ‘slut’ today? Probably not. We would say that’s statutory rape,” Cannold says.
“I think modern audiences in the MeToo era are primed to sympathize with a young woman who’s being taken advantage of by an older man.”
Young Evita, Pimentel says, is often judged as promiscuous, conniving, and manipulative. But perhaps it was simply a means of survival. “That was a big thing we landed on. Everything she did was for survival at a young age,” says the actress, who played Maria on Broadway in the 2020 revival of “West Side Story.” “Then she started to gain power and notoriety, and now maybe it starts to go to her head and becomes this larger-than-life idea that overtakes her.”
It’s important to connect audiences with Eva’s predicament as a young girl, so they’ll feel “conflicted later on when she becomes a bit megalomaniacal,” Pimentel says. “I wanted to figure out how to endear an audience to her early on, so that when she’s being power-hungry, we’re still on the train with her.”
Cannold also wanted to infuse Argentine culture into the production. She hired award-winning tango choreographer Valeria Solomonoff as the show’s co-choreographer (with Emily Maltby), and 2008 Tango World Champion Melody Celatti and her husband, Esteban Domenichini, are part of the ensemble.
During one of four research trips to Argentina, Cannold met Maria Eugenia Alvarez, 95, who was Eva Perón’s private nurse during the last years of her life. Alvarez explained that Eva was determined to make sure Argentine women exercised their then-newfound right to vote in 1951 and worked long days, even while in the throes of the cancer that would eventually kill her. “To this day, if you talk to [Argentine] women, so many of them are so grateful to her for the doors that she opened,” Cannold says.
Still, from her travels, Cannold learned how Eva’s legacy remains controversial. “When you ask [Argentines] about [Juan] Perón and Eva, it’s very black-and-white. Some people will start talking about how much they hate them,” she says, “and some people will cry and start talking about her as a saint.”
Even among the Argentine members of Cannold’s cast and creative team, feelings are divided. The father of the show’s costume designer, Alejo Vietti, was in the military at the time the Perons were in power; Vietti shared with Cannold the story of Eva coming to meet the men in his father’s unit. When she got to the end of the handshake line, they took off their gloves and tossed them on the ground as an insult. Eva responded by throwing the officers in jail. The anecdote has been incorporated into the show.
“When I first directed the show in college, I was so obsessed with Eva that I sort of glossed over anything bad that the Peróns did,” Cannold says. “As I’ve gotten older, I realize I have a responsibility to reflect the negative aspects of [the Peron] regime.”
Cannold says her production “pays homage” to director Hal Prince’s 1978 original — indeed she feels a responsibility to both reflect the authentic history of Argentina and to honor the legacy of a beloved piece of musical theater. “Rarely do you get to have such a long relationship with a piece like this,” she says, “and I feel very lucky that I get to keep revisiting it.”
Production by the American Repertory Theater in association with Shakespeare Theatre Company. At Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge. May 17-July 16. Tickets from $30. 617-547-8300, AmericanRepertoryTheater.org/Evita
Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at email@example.com.