Chita Rivera turns back time

Chita Rivera. —Photo by Laura Marie Duncan

Chita Rivera. —Photo by Laura Marie Duncan

If you love Broadway musicals, make a beeline to the Ridgefield Playhouse on Nov. 20 to share an evening with the legendary Chita Rivera.

This two-time Tony Award winner – who also makes her debut at Carnegie Hall on Nov. 7 – will sing her way through a review of a remarkable career that started on Broadway more than 60 years ago.

“I am amazed and grateful,” Chita said during our recent conversation. “It is wonderful to do what you love and to have the foundation of wonderful material that has been entrusted to you. Yes, I would love to be 40 or 50 years old, and have more time, but to have been born in what they call the Golden Age of Broadway was a good thing. I met and worked with the best.”

After first appearing on Broadway in Guys and Dolls, Chita became a star when she played Anita in the original production of West Side Story in 1957 before co-starring in Bye, Bye, Birdie in 1960 with Dick Van Dyke.

“Dick makes everybody happy. He is iconic. And he is a fabulous dancer but he doesn’t know it. You know, Birdie defines me, in a tremendous way, with its technicolor kind of laughing. It was so much fun. I have also always loved the passion of West Side. They are all a part of me.”

As the 1960s closed, Chita found herself in Hollywood playing opposite Shirley MacLaine in the film version of Sweet Charity. And she discovered the movies were not for her.

“It was a great experience and I loved the challenge but I came back and I still wanted the theater.” So she headed to Broadway in the musical Chicago, created by Bob Fosse and co-starring Gwen Verdon.

“When I stood with Gwen, I couldn’t believe we were at that stage where I could dance with her. She was one of a kind. There will never be another like her with that bubbly voice, that way of being so sexy, that red hair, that smile and those blue eyes. Yet she had the power of any guy as a dancer. And Bobby was wonderfully moody and really witty and funny. He was a great choreographer with a great style.”

Chicago also marked the first time Chita performed the music and lyrics of John Kander and the late Fred Ebb who would later write the songs for her Tony-winning turns in The Rink and Kiss of the Spider Woman as well as her return to Broadway last season in The Visit.

“These are makers of my career, great friends, two of the greatest composers and lyricists in our theater. Whatever I am, they pretty much made it. I loved and adored Freddie, and still do with John. I wish Freddie was here. Kander is the nicest guy anyone would ever want to meet and writes the most beautiful melodies. If you were to imagine music flying through the air, all the chords, and he is so humble that you want to smack him some time!

"She’s my girlfriend. A one of a kind," says Chita Rivera."Liza makes everyone want to be Liza."– Photo by Ken Howard

“She’s my girlfriend. A one of a kind,” says Chita Rivera.”Liza makes everyone want to be Liza.”– Photo by Ken Howard

“With Spider Woman I was curious about life after death and, with The Rink, the opportunity to work with Liza Minnelli. She’s my girlfriend. A one of a kind. Liza makes everyone want to be Liza. She pulled away from her Mom and she was herself. And she was great to share the stage with.”

Chita is especially proud of The Visit, which opened on Broadway in April 2015, was nominated for five Tony Awards including Best Musical and Best Actress, but closed in June before the audience had the chance to discover the magic of the show.

“Oh it meant so much. I desperately try not to get sad about it. Just after it closed I would get upset, I thought maybe it was bad timing or maybe it wasn’t the right theater, you try to find something. It’s dark, you know, it’s not Mary Sunshine, it is not a typical American musical. But that is what the theater is all about, bringing new things and educating, and taking chances.

“I thought John Doyle did a fabulous job, and Graciela [Daniele, the choreographer] did a fabulous job, and of course Freddie and John and the cast, especially Roger Rees. It was just magic. The best thing about this business is you take the ups and the downs. I am grateful that we got it done and, who knows, maybe it will pop its head up again. I love describing the story and watching people’s faces.”

Chita is especially proud when young people discover the magic of live theater by experiencing the magic of watching Chita Rivera.

“That makes me really happy. I love it. I am so excited when I see kids in the theater. I work even harder if I know there are kids out there and I could affect them. It’s our responsibility to do just that. It’s not for us any more, it’s for them. I hope they have enough courage to believe they can contribute just as I have. And that they don’t give up until they have some satisfaction of what they really want to do.”

And though Chita takes her work seriously, she never takes herself seriously. She laughs as she remembers the famous sequence in the musical satire, Forbidden Broadway, that imagines a competitive duet between Chita and Rita Moreno (who won an Oscar for playing Chita s role in the movie of West Side Story).

“I loved the number. I thought it was fabulous. I have a sense of humor and everyone around me has a sense of humor. You can’t get through this world without laughter. You can’t think straight without laughter. You have to laugh at yourself. And, you know, it was an honor they thought of doing that and, I remember when I heard they were doing it, I asked, ‘Do I come out okay?’ As long as I come out okay! Oh, I had such a good laugh.”

And, then, Chita laughs. Such a hearty, healthy and human laugh.

From a woman who makes us smile. And loves to sing and dance.

Chita Rivera will appear at the Ridgefield Playhouse on Sunday, Nov. 20, at 7 p.m. For information and tickets go to ridgefieldplayhouse.org or call 203-438-5795.

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