Home Entertainment With ‘Evita,’ a young director follows in a Broadway icon’s footsteps

With ‘Evita,’ a young director follows in a Broadway icon’s footsteps

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Sammi Cannold was a Tony Awards intern a decade ago when Harold Prince, the director behind “Sweeney Todd,” “Cabaret” and “The Phantom of the Opera,” arrived for the ceremony’s dress rehearsal and was unceremoniously turned away by a staffer who didn’t realize she was in the presence of Broadway royalty.

That was, until a teenage Cannold intervened.

“I said, ‘Excuse me, I’m sorry — he’s allowed to come in. It’s fine. I vouch for him,’” Cannold recalls. “And he winked at me and said, ‘Thank you so much.’”

That was the only time Cannold and Prince crossed paths before his death in 2019 at age 91. But Cannold, now 29, has since become a generational directorial talent in her own right — with a particular knack for following in Prince’s footsteps.

Forty-four years after Prince oversaw the original Broadway production of “Evita,” Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s seminal musical about former Argentine first lady Eva “Evita” Perón, a Cannold-directed revival will grace the Shakespeare Theatre’s Harman Hall through Oct. 15. Later this fall, Cannold will helm her own first Broadway production: “How to Dance in Ohio,” a new musical Prince was developing before his death.

“I think a lot of people have sort of created this narrative that I was his protégé,” Cannold says. “I didn’t really know him. I just worshiped him from afar.”

Even if Prince didn’t knight Cannold as his heir, she’s still making a name for herself in the theater community. The New York-based wunderkind has already left her mark on the D.C. scene, directing Kennedy Center productions of “Sunset Boulevard” in February and “Rent in Concert” in July. In between, she staged the first leg of this “Evita” co-production at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass. — circling back to the musical she directed as her undergraduate thesis at Stanford in 2015.

“To be completely honest, I’ve never stopped to think about her age or her experience at all,” says Alejo Vietti, the Argentine-born costume designer on “Sunset Boulevard” and “Evita.” “I mean, she came so prepared to this project. She was more knowledgeable than anyone else in the room about the life of Eva Perón.”

Cannold’s expertise has long belied her age. The daughter of Hollywood producer Mitchell Cannold and Broadway producer Dori Berinstein, Sammi Cannold fondly recalls observing how “Legally Blonde” and “Thoroughly Modern Millie” came to fruition onstage. (Her mother produced both.) When Cannold was 13, she directed her first show: a summer camp production of Lloyd Webber and Rice’s “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” Reflecting on her rapid rise with gratitude, she cites Malcolm Gladwell’s theory that it takes at least 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert in any endeavor.

“I feel like my 10,000 hours started when I was a kid,” Cannold says. “I was very lucky because directing is usually something that people come to a lot later.”

Cannold originally planned to study education, policy and international relations at Stanford but reconsidered after three weeks and ultimately majored in drama and history, followed by a master’s in arts in education from Harvard. She was just 22 when she worked under Tony winner Rachel Chavkin as the associate director of the 2016 Broadway production of “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812.” In 2019, Forbes Magazine named her to its 30 Under 30 list in the Hollywood and entertainment category. That same year, she directed a gala version of “Evita” for New York City Center’s “Encores!” series that set the stage for this year’s full production.

Although Perón, who died in 1952 at age 33, is typically depicted onstage as a social climber who sleeps her way to the top of Juan Perón’s dictatorship, Cannold has posed a more feminist interpretation. In a concept explored in her thesis and deepened with each subsequent staging, her Perón is portrayed as a victim of abuse — particularly when it comes to her first dalliance, as a 15-year-old bedded by the 36-year-old musician Agustín Magaldi.

“My excitement about it came out of conversations around #MeToo,” Cannold says. “How do we evaluate the legacy of somebody who is often called a slut and a whore but whose journey started as a 15-year-old being taken advantage of by a 36-year-old? And how did that color the relationships or interactions that she had with men throughout the rest of her life?”

“Hal Prince’s version [of ‘Evita’] is revelatory,” adds Shereen Pimentel, the actress starring as Evita. “But I think being able to have a woman’s perspective on the piece really changes the lens we look at it through.”

After first traveling to Argentina as part of her thesis project, Cannold has returned several times to dig deeper — polling citizens on the street, perusing the Evita Perón Museum and interviewing the nurse who looked after Perón on her deathbed. (Cannold plans to also use that research in a Perón-focused documentary.) She populated her cast and creative team with Argentine talent, including a pair of elite Buenos Aires-based tango dancers, and encouraged her designers to layer the show’s visuals with historically accurate minutiae.

“It’s such a fun, welcoming creative process,” says Gabriel Burrafato, the Argentina native who plays Magaldi. “When we see her so passionate about it, we can’t help but follow her.”

Having remounted “Evita” for the Shakespeare Theatre, which continues to stretch the boundaries of its programming beyond the classics, Cannold will pivot this month to the workshop for an unannounced new musical. From there, she’ll two-step into rehearsals for “How to Dance in Ohio,” a stage adaptation of a 2015 documentary about a group of autistic young adults preparing for a spring formal. And Prince’s creative energy will pulsate throughout her “How to Dance” staging, which Cannold says was influenced by recordings of discussions he had about the show before his death and copies of the script with his handwritten notes in the margins.

Coming off one Prince-involved production and bracing for another, Cannold looks back at that chance encounter before the Tonys with particular poignancy. That interaction, it turns out, was as fortuitous as it was fleeting.

“That’s the only time we ever met,” Cannold says, “but I feel there’s some cosmic something there.”

The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW. 202-547-1122. shakespearetheatre.org.



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