Entertainment » Theatre

Flashback: A Conversation with Chita Rivera

by Robert Nesti
EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor
Thursday Oct 4, 2018

EDGE spoke to Chita Rivera two years ago shortly after the Broadway legend made her Carnegie Hall debut on Election night eve at the age of 83. Now two years later she comes to Boston's Calderwood Pavilion as part of the newly initiated series "Broadway @ the Huntington" where she will appear with musical director and host Seth Rudetsky on Saturday, October 13 at 5pm and 8pm. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit the Huntington Theatre's website.

This partnership between the Huntington and producer Mark Cortale brings to Boston the successful format Cortale and Rudetsky have been doing in Provincetown for the past few summers in which Rudetsky, the Sirius Radio host and Playbill columnist, hosts an unscripted mix of music and behind-the-scenes conversation with Broadway personalities.

Ms. Rivera makes an ideal subject, having come to the theater some 67 years ago when, still a teenager, she scored a role in the chorus of the national company of "Call Me Madam." This led to roles in "Guys and Dolls" and "Can-Can." Her breakout role came in 1957 when she played Anita in "West Side Story." She followed that with one big hit ("Bye Bye Birdie") and a string of flops ("Zenda," "1491," "Bajour"). In 1975 she created the role of Velma Kelly in "Chicago"; nine years later she won first Tony Award for playing Liza Minnelli's no-nonsense mother in "The Rink." Her second came with another iconic turn, that of the title character in "Kiss of the Spider Woman" in 1992. Since then she took showy roles in revivals of "Nine" and "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," as well as being a pivotal part of "The Visit" (one of the last collaborations of John Kander and Fred Ebb) that she premiered in Chicago in 2001, finally making it to Broadway in 2015. For the role she received her 10th Tony Award nomination.

In the past few years she also developed and toured "Chita Rivera: A Dancer's Life," a musical revue in which she recalled her career, and was the subject of the PBS documentary "Chita Rivera: A Lot of Livin' to Do," which was a project she was somewhat reluctant to participate in for the simple reason that she didn't think she deserved the attention. Such is the humility of Ms. Rivera, who remains one of the most loved stars by those in the musical theater community and out of it.

Below is an edited transcript of a conversation EDGE had with Ms. Rivera two years ago just days after Donald Trump was elected President.

Live in the moment

EDGE: You have been a regular on Broadway since the early 1950s. Have you ever calculated just how many performances you have done there?

Chita Rivera: Gosh no. I have no idea. It's not as if I wake up in the morning and say, 'Gee, I like to figure that out.' I think it would scare me to find out. I appreciate and am grateful for the past, but I live in the moment. God knows I try.

EDGE: I think I read somewhere that you see yourself as being 35 at heart?

Chita Rivera: I thought that was a good joke. Don't ask me why I picked the number 35, but actually what I say is don't let the number of your age mean anything to you. You got to take care of yourself, but just go on with your life and do what you feel and what you want and what makes you feel good. Keep alive and keep going. But it is a funny line, I think.

EDGE: But you continue to work very hard. Do you exercise every day?

Chita Rivera: You know what, when you live as long as I am, just being you is exercise. In other words, I am high energy. I don't sit around. I do things. It helps to have a spirit that wants to do things, so I do. And because of all the training and all the dancing, I am always doing an exercise, even when I am walking.

EDGE: I also read where you consider yourself a Broadway gypsy at heart?

Chita Rivera: Yep. Absolutely. I wouldn't change that for the world. It keeps you grounded and you are never along. You never feel that you alone. You just feel connected when you're a gypsy. You understand the basics of life. You are at least aware of them, And you try not to let your head get too big, because you will topple over.

Post election blues

EDGE: You mentioned your disappointment with the recent election results. What would you say to a younger person about coping with Trump's election?

Chita Rivera: Just do exactly what I have been trying to do. I have not had the news on. Usually I wake up in the morning and put CNN on. I love the news. I was just in Italy and England before we started rehearsals for this and I heard what the world was thinking. But when I woke up on that Wednesday morning and never turned on my TV and went on with my life. That's what I would tell kids today. Still believe everything that you believe in yourself. Make sure you are around the right people and continue to believe this is a wonderful country and continue to try to keep it that way. Without going any deeper into my feelings about you know what, that's all I can say to them, Stay positive and pray that we can get along with the rest of the world and not be selfish Americans.

EDGE: I take it you were surprised by Trump's popularity...

Chita Rivera: That is my problem. We've seen the kind of person that has been chosen. We have a right to feel the way we want to about individual people, but you worry about yourself if you feel that way about a huge group of people. But I don't know any of those people. Who are they who voted for him? I am terribly curious about what our country is thinking. I am living in the country, and I did see a few of the signs and I thought, 'Okay. They're up here.' But when someone shows you exactly how they think, exactly how they are. I give him one bit of credit -- he let you know who he was and it was up to you if you wanted him to represent you. I don't know who these people are who voted for him. But you got to give it to him. He let you know who he was. He did not try to hide it. Even when he read it off a teleprompter, he was stupid. I don't dislike people unless they're cruel and mean; but this is the first time in my life that I have this hole in my chest, that I really disliked someone. And I didn't like that feeling. I don't like to feel like that. I am guilty of going to an ugly part of myself. I haven't gone to the streets about it, but talking about it now brings me back. Frankly speaking, I am glad that I am talking about it because I am able to vent just a little bit.

Favorite roles

EDGE: You have done so many shows -- both hits and flops. Are there of the latter you regret didn't connect with audiences?

Chita Rivera: This is recent, but we were desperately in love with 'The Visit.' I understand it was dark, but theater is about every emotion, every story. And I thought John (Kander) did a brilliant job with the story. It's not 'Mary Poppins,' but I thought those who saw it could take it. It was given a chance, but I feel timing is important, the right theater is important -- all of those things have something to do with why some things succeed. I do believe our company was extraordinary.

I also did one called '1491' with John Callum, and that was obvious, I think -- it was Columbus discovering America, and it wasn't very good, but was fun. And there was one called 'Zenda' with Alfred Drake that I thought was really interesting. It had a wonderful score by Vernon Duke. It was a great movie, if I recall. I have a tendency to forget nasty things. And I had a lot of fun with 'Bajour,' but I do remember Fred Ebb saying to me, it's a nasty story. It's about people stealing money and things from people. And I said, okay, maybe people don't want to see those things.

But nowadays people want to see everything -- they want to see the murder right there on stage. They don't want to see it like the way Jerry Robbins had the body gracefully carried over the heads of the kids without blood dripping from the body. But I love 'The Walking Dead' -- there's a confession from a Catholic girl. I think the story's great and the characters are great. Sometimes it can be a bit too much, but I am fascinated by that kind of thing.

My favorite leading man, by the way, is Boris Karloff, so you see where I am come from. That kind of horror leading man and that kind of movie. Those were beautiful, amazingly photographed films. Halloween is a fun night for me. I have graveyards in my front yard with skeletons and the kids all look forward to it. But I hate this blood and gore, but I have made a confession, I love 'The Walking Dead.' It is all about survival -- what a human being would do in a situation if anything like that happened.

A crazy sense of humor

EDGE: In 1986 you were in a serious car accident in which you broke your leg and required 18 screws to mend. Yet you recovered and were working, first opening a restaurant then back on stage, in no time. Can you talk a bit about your recovery process?

Chita Rivera: It (the recovery process) was good in that I knew that I was doing something. First of all, I have to be active. I have to have something to do that is positive, so when I went into the hospital and the nurse said, 'you really did a good job on yourself,' I felt my body shift, like in a gear shift. I said, okay, all right, and I went into recovery gear. I am a very good patient. I do exactly what I am told. Most dancers of my era certainly do that, if there are any left. That was something great to do and I felt myself getting better. It was something to work for and a goal to work to. It took me 11 months, but I was busy in that 11 months. It was like taking class, really, because I was going to all kinds of physical therapy and taking all kinds of exercises. So 11 months really wasn't terrible. Gary Criss, a beautiful dancer, said to me a long time ago, 'you're going to be different after this.' And I said, no, but he was absolutely right. Every day we wake up we are absolutely different. So I have learned to live with these 16 screws in my left leg and it gotten to a point where I can just use it. I use it in another way. So that's that.

What's funny is I also have a new knee. I got it eight months ago. I like challenges, and since I got it, I feel you might as well use it. I do feel my new knee. I do feel it is different than the other one. After Carnegie Hall when we worked so hard, I said to myself, I wish I had the other knee done too. It can be painful, but dancers are kind-of used to some kind of pain. Freddy wrote this amazing number called 'Pain' for me and it is really, really funny. I have very crazy sense of humor and like to laugh at what really hurts. So I can get through it by making light of it. I mean I have a brand new knee, for me it seems that if we could get all kinds of parts together we could last quite a while.

A good example

EDGE: I read you were surprised by a documentary that PBS made about you. Why was that?

Chita Rivera: Because, I don't know. It's not as if I think little of myself, but there are so many people out there that are doing absolutely amazing things, and I don't think I have done anything amazing. I think I am a good example for kids if they want longevity and good training, but there are people out there doing extraordinary things. It came out very nicely and I think it's very human -- I think my life is very human. I am very -- how can I say it? I am very lucky and very grateful for the things I have been able to do. And I think it give kids hope.

EDGE: Back in 1951, you came to New York to be a ballet dancer. Then you went to an audition for dancers for 'Call Me Madam' and pretty much put ballet behind you. Did you ever regret making that choice?

Chita Rivera: No. At one time it ran across my mind. I didn't regret it, but I thought, 'gosh, what would it have been like?' And there was that question. Just that. It wasn't as if I would exchange this life for one ballet. I did it in concert with my ballet teacher in DC when I was still in school, but not with the NY City ballet. And it would have been quite different. But, no, I have just been too fortunate to be stupid enough to say that I would exchange 'Spider Woman,' 'Chicago,' 'West Side Story,' all those wonderful shows for something else. I think you have to take what you've got and do the very best you can with it.

Chita Rivera and Seth Rudetsky appear at Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts on Saturday, October 13 at 5pm and 8pm. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit the Huntington Theatre's website.

Robert Nesti can be reached at rnesti@edgemedianetwork.com.


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