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Beyond the ballgown

Staging the ‘unstageable’

Arts & Humanities

Beyond the ballgown

Shereen Pimentel (Eva)

Arts & Humanities

Beyond the ballgown

Shereen Pimentel (Eva) and members of the company of “Evita” at American Repertory Theater.

Credit: Nile Scott Studio

‘Evita’ director casts Eva Perón in new light on A.R.T. stage

American Repertory Theater’s musical “Evita” is being performed at the Loeb Drama Center through July 30.

“Evita” Director Sammi Cannold shares her vision for the iconic musical with Diane Paulus, Terrie and Bradley Bloom Artistic Director of the American Repertory Theater.

Q&A

Sammi Cannold

PAULUS: We are so excited about “Evita.” I want to start at the beginning — can you tell us about the journey of this production thus far?

CANNOLD: It’s been a long journey: I first saw a production of “Evita” when I was a teenager. I saw the 2012 revival on Broadway, and I was completely rocked by Evita’s story. I had never encountered anything in art that resonated so deeply with me. It was the story of a young woman who wanted to have a voice in rooms where there weren’t many young women, who wanted to make a difference in the people’s lives, and who in many ways felt these ambitions were misunderstood, and I was so drawn to that.

When I went to college, I drove everyone crazy, saying “I just want to direct a production of ‘Evita.’” We had a 1,700-seat proscenium theater, and the amazing theater and performance studies department there eventually let me do a production in that theater for my thesis. That’s when I first started to tease out some of the ideas that we’re still wrestling with in the piece.

Four years later and after I had graduated, Jack Viertel, the former artistic director of New York City Center Encores, asked me what revival I would like to do in New York. I said, “You know, ‘Evita’ is my favorite musical.” And they gave me a life-changing opportunity to direct the show in 2019. At City Center, you have 10 days to put up the shows — they’re full productions, but they’re made rapid fire, and that’s part of the joy of them. But now, to have the opportunity to dig deep in a lengthier process — and being four years older — it feels very different. I’m grateful and very excited.

Director Sammi Cannold with a doll that was given out by the Fundación Eva Perón.

Director Sammi Cannold with a doll that was given out by the Fundación Eva Perón. “She was so much about redistributing wealth, and part of that desire came from her experience of a very impoverished childhood.”

Photo by Maria Baranova

PAULUS: Let’s talk a little bit about the score. Did you know the music before you saw the revival when you were a teenager?

CANNOLD: I think, like any theater kid, I knew, “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina.” But I didn’t know the context, and I didn’t know the plot. I was immediately hooked by the story and how the writers told it. Of course the entire score is iconic and stunning.

PAULUS: After so much work on the show now, do you have a favorite song?

CANNOLD: My favorite song is “Rainbow High.” To me, the vocal gymnastics of the number match Eva’s ambition and emotion with a beautiful synergy. I love that song, and it’s thrilling to work with a performer who can knock it out of the park.

PAULUS: The score is just so visceral. I think it’s one of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s best.

CANNOLD: It’s my favorite, certainly. The way he captures Eva’s spirit is extraordinary to me. And Tim Rice’s lyrics are so poetic, so clever. I’ve been so lucky to be in conversation with the writers during my work on this production. It’s been such a gift to hear about the genesis of different elements of the show, and to get their feedback on some of the ideas that we’re hoping to bring to the table.

It’s also important to me that our production pay homage to Hal Prince’s original, which is indelible. We aspire for our production to be the grandchild of that production — not in the sense that we want to copy what Hal did, but we want to celebrate some of the iconic elements of his direction as, 40 years later, new generations encounter “Evita.”

PAULUS: Can you tell us a bit about your research process for the show?

CANNOLD: I have been very lucky. Over the past 12 years now, I’ve gone to Argentina four times to do grant-funded research, to dig deep into the history of Eva’s legacy and Peronism in Argentina, to really understand the cultural context. It’s been remarkable, because many of the people who lived under Perón in the 1940s and ’50s have been willing to talk to me and the show’s associate director, Rebecca Aparicio, who’s been a leader on two of those research trips as well. It’s been incredible to have conversations about history that is still very much alive. The impact — both the good and the bad — of that regime and Eva’s reign as first lady is still palpable. I also got to visit a lot of antique markets to find physical evidence of that period to share with the production.

Antique Argentinian ID cards

Antique Argentinian ID cards in the “Evita” rehearsal room.

Photo by Maria Baranova

PAULUS: What did you find?

CANNOLD: So many amazing things: a doll given by the Fundación Eva Perón to children, picture books about all the things she gave to kids — there was a lot of propaganda. But you know, she really was a Robin Hood. She was so much about redistributing wealth, and part of that desire came from her experience of a very impoverished childhood. For some reason, these antique markets also sell a lot of old ID cards, so each time I’ve been to Argentina, I’ve brought some back. I give them to the ensemble to use as a starting point for developing their characters. They’ve had a lot of fun with that.

PAULUS: That’s amazing.

CANNOLD: To me, it’s about making this history feel real. We have a responsibility to the people who actually lived through these events: we have to tell their story in a way that is accurate, depicting reality as objectively as we can. At the same time, I’ve seen a lot of productions of “Evita,” and I’m very opinionated about them, because I’ve seen the story told through the perspective that this is a woman who simply “slept her way to the top” and nothing more. That interpretation of a text that says much more than that bothers me, and we’re trying to flip that narrative on its head in this production.

PAULUS:  What particular elements of “Evita” do you think resonate with the moment we’re living in today?

CANNOLD: I think that Eva’s trajectory as a young woman living in a patriarchal society jumps off the page in the year 2023. The musical was written in the 1970s, but the writers clued into something about this young woman’s rise to power that feels potent and relevant today.

I first saw the show when I was a teenager, and I was struck by an early line: “There was nowhere she’d been at the age of 15.” Thinking about Eva’s age at that point in the story has led us to take another look at relationships that some historians have classified as “sleeping her way to the top,” as demonstrating that she was a slut or a whore. No — she’s a victim, and she learned how to flip that on its head and use her womanhood as power to get out of the hole that she was in.

PAULUS: And you’re the first woman to direct a production of “Evita” at this scale.

CANNOLD: It’s an honor. And I’m so thrilled to be creating this production alongside a female music supervisor, and two female co-choreographers, including Valeria Solomonoff who is also Argentinian. I think that the composition of our team adds a new layer to the question, “Who is this woman who is so often seen as an icon, as a white ballgown, as a blonde wig?” Eva Perón is so strongly associated with all of these symbols, and we want to ask “What’s the human being inside of these symbols going through? What’s going through the head of this woman, never educated above grade six, who became the first lady of a country at age 27? What is that journey like?”

PAULUS: You mentioned choreography — how are you incorporating dance into the show?

CANNOLD: When we started crafting this production, it was important to me that the show be as authentically Argentinian as possible. Part of that feeling comes from tango, which is present and beloved all over Argentina. Our choreography team is co-led by Emily Maltby, who is a theater choreographer, and Valeria Solomonoff, who is a tango choreographer from Rosario, Argentina. These two tremendous artists have melded their worlds together to create a vocabulary for that is equal parts theater-style dance and tango.

That’s not to say that we get to a scene and just say, “Now, there’s tango!” We’ve infused tango vocabulary throughout the choreography of the entire piece. The ensemble includes performers from around the world, including several accomplished tango artists from Argentina. Our rehearsal rooms are running in both Spanish and English. That process has been very exciting — we’re figuring out what musical theater performers can learn from tango performers, and vice versa.

PAULUS: Can you tell us anything about what you and the creative team are thinking about the design?

CANNOLD: Absolutely — we’re lucky to have an incredible design team. A.R.T. Audiences will remember scenic designer is Jason Sherwood and lighting designer Bradley King. We also have folks who are new to A.R.T., including costume designer Alejo Vietti, sound designer Connor Wang, music supervisor Kristen Blodgette, and intimacy director Claire Warden. I’m thrilled to be working with these incredible artists.

As for what we’re thinking, it was important to us to interrogate the iconography around Evita. So when you walk into the theater, you will see a giant white ballgown hanging in the space over a bed of flowers, which become the flowers at Eva’s funeral. From there, we play in a space which is a nod to a Hal Prince black box. It’s magical: things come out of darkness, all of a sudden we’re in a different place.

PAULUS: During the pandemic, you directed the Apple TV documentary “The Show Must Go On,” which follows the theater industry during the first years of the COVID-19 crisis. How does that process continue to influence your work?

CANNOLD: When I shot that documentary, I was in South Korea for three and a half months in 2020. It was very early in the pandemic, and there was very little to no theater anywhere else in the world, basically. And it was inspiring to see the Korean theater community charging ahead, saying “the show must go on — safely.”

When I came back from that trip, I was often asked about protocols and all the specifics, but for me, the biggest takeaway was really that in Korea, the performing arts are a cultural priority. The schools were sometimes shut down when the theaters were open. I think they understand in Korea that a culture needs theater — it is essential. And in this country, the arts were deemed non-essential. Of course, there was a period where we certainly did need to shut down. But I also think we can look to our friends in Korea and learn about rebuilding with a narrative that the arts are essential.

PAULUS: You’re giving me ideas! Sammi, we are so excited to have you back in Cambridge. I wonder if, in closing, you could speak to what this opportunity means to you in terms of your history with the A.R.T.?

CANNOLD: It really means the world to me. I don’t mean to be cliché — I really mean it: if you had asked my 18-year-old self, “What is your life’s dream?” I would have said, “To direct ‘Evita’ at the A.R.T.” I started working here when I was 19, and this will be the 10th A.R.T. production that I’ve worked on. The productions here, and your work, are so much of the reason that I am a director in the first place. So it feels very full-circle.