Eva Perón, icon and spirit, is reimagined on the Stanford stage
Students perform the musical Evita while artifacts from Hoover's Juan Domingo Perón papers, Eva memorabilia and contemporary video interviews of Porteños are featured in a companion exhibition.
Stanford junior Sammi Cannold is a great admirer of fem-icon Eva Perón, Argentina’s first lady from 1946 until her death in 1952. It all started with Evita. After seeing the 2012 Broadway revival in New York several times during her senior year of high school (it was at the top of her gift wish list throughout the year), she spent time in the New York Public Library Archives watching the original production, regional productions and the movie version. Three years later Cannold made a pilgrimage to Perón’s hometown of Junín, Argentina, and her gravesite in Buenos Aires, and started collecting all things Eva.
The tirelessly ambitious heroine whom Cannold came to know, one who rose to power in a culture and era when very few women were in leadership roles, resonated with Cannold. This year she is directing her sixth Stanford production and she chose to revive Evita – and Eva.
The spring Department of Theater & Performance Studies production in Memorial Auditorium May 28-30 faithfully includes all the Andrew Lloyd Webber and Time Rice scenes and songs from the theatrical production, but it also includes the spirit of Eva. “We created a version of Evita in which Eva basically gets to tell her own story,” Cannold said. “In most productions, the critique on Eva’s life is one-sided – told by a cynic named Ché. Our production attempts to balance that dialogue by putting a second version of Eva into the piece to defend her choices and protect her legacy.”
Recipient of the 1979 Tony Award for Best Musical, the original Evita tells the controversial story of Perón’s rapid ascent from poverty to fame and power. This re-imagined production draws on conflicting historical depictions to provide new perspectives on the familiar story. It also examines how Eva’s story affects contemporary views of female empowerment, achievement, success and love.
Cannold established herself as an innovative thinker on campus by staging one of her productions on a moving bus (Violet, 2013) and creating a pre-show experience that immersed audience members in 19th century France for another (Les Misérables, 2014.) Off-campus work at American Repertory Theater, with its mission to expand the boundaries of theater by reinventing the relationship with the audience, fueled her creative approach to directing.
In addition to inserting the “spirit” character Santa Evita in the Evita production, Cannold is also presenting a collaborative exhibition of historical documents from the Hoover Institution’s Juan Domingo Perón papers and some of her own Eva Perón memorabilia and video in the theater lobby.
The collaboration with Hoover began when the institution hosted the conference Perón in Exile in February. Peronist scholars convened at Stanford to discuss Perón, Eva, their legacy and the years following the first regime. Cannold met Herb Klein, curator of the Latin American Collection at Hoover, and proposed the exhibition in the lobby.
During Cannold’s trip to Argentina, she interviewed Porteños (a common nickname for people who live in Buenos Aires) for this project, asking what they thought of the former first lady. “I was floored by the perception of Eva Perón and her legacy in Argentina today,” she recalled. “Answers were always along the lines of either ‘I love her’ or ‘I hate her.’ It was so black and white – nobody felt neutral about her, because she was such a polarizing figure, and one who had an enormous impact on the people whom she presided over. I’m incredibly excited that video footage and interviews will be playing in the lobby of our production.”
Getting into character
Cast, crew and orchestra have put in a tremendous number of hours sharpening their historical perspective on the musical. In addition to watching documentaries about Eva’s life and reading countless biographies, dramaturge Greg O’Rourke consulted with the actors on everything from gender norms in 1940s Argentina to Eva and Juan’s personal lives. Cast and crew also met with Peronist scholars and Cannold and the principals mined every word in the text for historical context and reference.
Cannold distributed to the cast vintage ID cards of Argentine citizens from the 1940s that she found in a Buenos Aires thrift shop to help them develop their characters. The cast also watched film footage of Argentines meeting Perón and attending her funeral.
Amy DuBose, who plays Eva Perón, acknowledges that her character looms large not only in the Argentine consciousness, but as an international icon who symbolizes the intersection of fame, beauty, politics and ambition. “Telling her story in a way that does her justice is a challenge, but also an exciting task,” she said. “I have landed on a version of Eva that attempts to highlight her humanity. Rather than adhering to the prevailing, generalized legacies – Eva was a philanthropic saint or Eva was power-hungry to a fault – I’ve tried to bring both to life.”
Nearly show time
With show time nearly upon the cast and crew, and the end of the academic year just a few weeks away, stage manager and senior Kelly Gregg reflected on her Evita experience. “One of the most exciting challenges with this production has been getting to work with the TAPS department on a musical. Some of the students had worked together on musicals before through student groups like At the Fountain and Ram’s Head and some of the other students and members of the production team had worked together on plays with the TAPS Department before, so it has been really exciting to see this team come together, contributing strengths from each of our backgrounds and experiences.”
Evita is Gregg’s fifth Stanford production as stage manager and it is her senior project for TAPS. She says it has by far the most moving parts. “Every cast member has multiple costume changes, the set transforms completely with the movement of three 14-foot platforms and staircases, and the show is completely sung-through,” she said.
Cannold put her heroine and her production in perspective “While many worshiped and adored Eva, others derided her. I think there’s a lack of focus on what drove her and who she – as a human – truly was. Our production of Evita and the historical exhibition featured in our lobby attempt to fill that gap – to help you understand Eva and the culture of adoration and hate that surrounded her, because, after all, over-achieving Stanford students are oddly similar to the unbelievably ambitious, driven and constantly strategizing young Eva Duarte who we meet in 1934 Junín, Argentina.
“In the most honest assessment, I see so much of Eva Perón’s insane and tireless ambition in myself and my peers that telling her story has become a way to reflect on our own stories.”