At age 16, Sammi Cannold saw the 2012 Broadway revival of Evita and something clicked. The ascent of Eva Perón, the wife of Argentinian president Juan Perón, and her complexities hit her in the gut. She wanted to reconcile the woman who championed the Argentinian suffragist movement, advocated for the poor and working class, but who was also party to dictatorial acts. She devoured documentaries and books about Eva; she saw the Broadway production as many times as she could afford.
“What fascinated me the most was who this person is as a human, because I think we know about her as an icon,” says Cannold. “We know about her as a white dress, we know about her as this woman with her arms up, we know about her as a woman with a blonde bun.”
Nothing Cannold encountered satisfied the need to know the human behind the politician. In an attempt to answer her questions, Cannold was determined to direct Evita when she went off to college—which she did. Now, she revisits the material with the City Center revival of the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice-Harold Prince musical, playing November 13–24. But like she did prior to her Stamford University production, Cannold knew she needed to take a trip first—a trip to Argentina.
“I feel this way about a lot of the work that I do that represents cultures or places that I am not familiar with, that it is my responsibility to go and familiarize myself if I am going to say that I am in a position where I can represent them,” she says. “That felt especially true in the case of Argentina because Evita is so present in everyday life in Argentina.”
What’s New, Buenos Aires?
Rice completed a similar expedition when he was writing the show and, given all of the fresh literature on Eva over the past 40 years, his lyrics are still remarkably accurate. Cannold wanted to dig deeper into the culture and Eva’s past, but time was dwindling. “She died in 1952, so there are very few people who are still alive in Argentina who have had firsthand experiences with her,” she explains. “I thought, ‘If there is a time to go and try to find out more, it’s right now.’”
This past summer, Cannold and her associate director Rebecca Aparicio traveled to South America twice, intent to learn about Eva in a way journalists and authors never could. Though Eva’s inner circle wouldn’t speak to the press (given divisive politics), Cannold gained access to key figures in Eva’s life, including María Eugenia Álvarez, Eva’s nurse and confidante during her terminal battle with cancer. “She is 92 years old and she remembers absolutely everything about her time with Eva.”
From her hours with Álvarez, Cannold began to grasp the ferocity and sheer amount of fight in Eva. “You’re talking to somebody who held her hand when this woman who’s larger than life died,” Cannold continues. “It all of a sudden felt so real to me, because I think Evita has felt like something that happened in the past.
“I think of her now as a human instead of an icon because I met humans who knew her.”
Cannold also wants her production to be a conduit of cultural understanding. Through the production’s costume designer, Alejo Vietti, Cannold tracked down Juan Carlos Pallarols, a silversmith whose father was the silversmith who created Eva’s tomb. His father was ordered to destroy pieces of Eva’s tomb by the anti-Peronist regime, but risked their lives to hide and preserve them. Where Álvarez provided an understanding of character, Pallarols conveyed the heartbeat of the national conflict.
Of course, there are the hours they spent with archivist Santiago Régolo at the Eva Perón Museum in Buenos Aires, the trek to Junín where Eva grew up, as well as Eva’s birthplace of Los Toldos and the new museum there dedicated to her.
“The more people I talked to in Argentina, the more I respected her, but I felt very conflicted about it because, of course, the regime was responsible for atrocities that are hard to reconcile,” Cannold says. “But the more information I got the more I got to understand that she—certainly there’s a degree of complicity—but I think it is not as active as pop culture would like you to believe it was.”
Still, Cannold has no interest in being the arbiter on Eva Perón’s legacy. Her directorial choices are not meant to sway audiences one way or another, but to enrich and contextualize, particularly from a female perspective.
Rice’s lyrics acknowledge that when Eva met singer Agustín Magaldi she was 15; he would have been 36. Rumors of an “affair” buzzed, but Cannold holds society accountable by examining the actual power dynamic between provincial Eva and a famous singer 20 years her senior. “I think when you’re looking at a 30-year-old or 40-year-old Madonna [in the movie], your brain doesn’t do the math on what that means,” says the director.
So Cannold cast 19-year-old Argentinian pop star Maia Reficco as Young Eva and Hamilton alum Solea Pfeiffer as an older Eva (an idea Prince had toyed with) to force audiences to consider: What does that do to a young girl? How does that affect the rest of her life?
Whether Eva and Magaldi were, in fact, sexually involved, the relationship in Evita “is representative of things that happened in her youth that she then get a bad reputation for in her adulthood. That bothers me because she’s a victim who’s using her oppression as a way to—she learns how to flip sexual power so that she’s using it as a way to climb out of her oppression,” Cannold says. “I don’t understand why that allows pop culture to say ‘What a whore.’ I’m like, ‘What a genius.’”
Because of the re-framing, “Another Suitcase” has become what Cannold calls “the crucible moment” of this Evita.
“The mistress in ‘Another Suitcase’ is Eva. Her story of being thrown out by men who have used her is Eva’s story and we do a lot with the staging of that number to elucidate how it relates to Eva’s narrative and what it means for her to kick this girl out and realize, ‘Oh my God I just did to myself what so many women have done to me.’
“As far as her sexual politics go, I see a woman who has a lot of trauma inside of her and who uses that trauma as fuel that gets her where she goes.”
With this ambitious production, Cannold aims to show both sides of the coin: the traumatized woman who survives and thrives, and, at times, a brutal leader.
She Kept Her Promise
Cannold also leans on her creative and production teams, which includes eight Argentine members, to infuse authenticity on both perspectives. “Our costume designer, Alejo Vietti, his father was in the Navy in Argentina when Eva was in power,” Cannold explains. Vietti’s father was required to shake her hand when she greeted the naval officers. In protest, the officers then threw their gloves on the ground; she threw them in jail. “As much as we are trying to humanize Eva, it would be irresponsible to ignore her actions.”
Yet every layer inspired by Cannold’s on-the-ground research arrives without changing a word of the libretto. “If you just closed your eyes and listened to the show, it would sound like it does normally,” she says. But her visuals render this Evita unlike any other.
This Evita also marks the first major production since Prince’s death; and while Cannold consulted closely with Rice and the Webber estate, she never did speak to the original director about her vision. Still, “everybody who was close to him has said he felt so strongly that nobody should replicate his work,” says Cannold, “that as time moves on creatives should consider the work in the time and place in which they’re creating it.” Looks like he’s getting his wish.
WATCH: A Sneak Peek at City Center’s Evita