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Chita Rivera: ‘You can take the girl out of the chorus…’

Chita Rivera. Photo: Marie Duncan

Back in 2007 Chita Rivera was described by The New York Times critic Charles Isherwood as “one of the last living embodiments of the golden age of the musical theatre who continues to perform”. This is still true, triumphantly as well as defiantly, as Rivera finds herself back on Broadway – her lifelong theatrical home – in The Visit, for which she has been Tony nominated for the 10th time (she has, so far, won twice; we’ll know if it’s a third time on June 7).

chita rivera cvShe has always known how to make an entrance, and has no plans to make an exit any time soon. As Ben Brantley put it in his review for The New York Times: “When Chita Rivera steps solemnly to the edge of the stage in the opening scene of The Visit, she sweeps the audience with a gaze that could freeze over hell. Yet a quickening warmth spreads through the Lyceum Theatre. The woman who stands so regally before us may appear as glacial as Siberia. But longtime theatregoers know that beneath the frost, this ice queen is hot stuff.”

She made her Broadway debut 65 years ago. Before she last came to appear in London in 2008 (in a cabaret show at the Shaw Theatre), I met her in New York and she told me then of more than half a century of appearing on stage: “Nobody told me it’s 50 years – I’ve been living the life of a 35-year-old woman for the past few years. Time is amazing. Thinking about those 50 years, I don’t know where they all went.”

She had just turned 75 at the time, and added: “My spirit wants to keep going. You really have to be in touch with your soul and spirit and your imagination – it keeps you in shape, and it makes you like yourself a bit more.”

Now that she’s 82, she’s still in shape, bathing me in warmth and anecdotes as we chat again, this time by FaceTime on her stage manager’s iPhone. In the show, she plays a vengeful rich woman Claire Zachanassian, who returns to the town where she grew up and was cruelly rejected by the love of her life. “The world has made me into a whore,” she sings. “I make the world my brothel now.”

Chita Rivera in West Side Story. Photo: Martha Swope
Chita Rivera in West Side Story. Photo: Martha Swope

When we speak, she’s in her dressing room, high up backstage at the Lyceum Theatre. “It’s a wonderful room, but there are so many steel stairs to climb, it’s disgusting!”, she exclaims, and adds how she had to discourage Harry Belafonte from climbing them a few days earlier to pay a visit. I remind her of the Elaine Stritch anecdote about a veteran prostitute saying, “It’s not the work, it’s the stairs!” Rivera hoots with laughter: “That’s Elaine.” Stritch was like Rivera: unique and seemingly unstoppable.

Now in the show, Rivera’s character also says, “I’m unkillable.” And that much seems true of Rivera, too. She suffered a catastrophic accident in 1986 when her car collided with a taxi in Manhattan, and she broke her leg in 12 places, but she picked herself up, brushed herself down, and started again. Nowadays, she points out: “Everything stretches a little differently when you have 16 screws in your leg and a new hip.”

She’s also been part of a lot of shows that have stretched Broadway in different directions, too. She was the original Anita in West Side Story (debuting the song America) and starred in the original production of Bye Bye Birdie in 1960, both of which she would reprise in London when those shows transferred. She also played Velma Kelly in the original Broadway production of Kander and Ebb’s Chicago in 1975, opposite Gwen Verdon’s Roxie Hart. She had first worked with Verdon 20 years earlier, taking over as a dancer in Cole Porter’s Can-Can.

“I was in awe of her,” she says. “I would just stand in the wings and watch her all the time.” She subsequently took over from Verdon in Sweet Charity, and says now: “That was a very exciting experience. Of course, no one could replace Gwen, but I was honoured that Bob [Fosse] cast me.”

chita rivera q&AChicago was also the work of Fosse, and Rivera had a long association with him. But, more significantly, she went on from Chicago to become one of Kander and Ebb’s signature artists – appearing in the original productions of their subsequent shows The Rink (premiered on Broadway in 1984, starring opposite Liza Minnelli) and Kiss of the Spider Woman (at London’s Shaftesbury Theatre in 1992 and then subsequently on Broadway in 1993), winning Tony awards for best actress in a musical in both.

Now it is Kander and Ebb who have brought her back to Broadway yet again. But it has been a long, slow journey to get there: “This is wonderful, this is thrilling. It has been 14 years in the making and we’re all still here, with the exception of our lovely Freddie,” she says, referring to Fred Ebb, who died in 2004. Rivera first starred in The Visit at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre in 2001 and subsequently in a revised incarnation of the show in 2008 at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia, both of which were directed by Frank Galati. “All the previous incarnations have led up to this, and now John Doyle [director], Roger [Rees, her co-star] and my soul sister Graciela Daniele [choreographer] have all added great value.”

At this point, Daniele interrupts our chat as she pays Rivera a backstage, pre-matinee visit. It leads to Rivera and me discussing both their origins as show dancers. “There’s an expression, you can take the girl out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the girl. Well, you can take the girl out of the chorus, but you can’t take the chorus out of the girl.”

She’s suddenly very pleased with herself. “I don’t think I’ve ever said that before and it’s very good.” And Rivera is, if nothing else, the ultimate show gypsy: “That foundation [working in the chorus] is extraordinary. I always tell kids today never to look down on the chorus and working there. It’s an extraordinary place to be – you will learn everything you will eventually have to do.”

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