With 9 Tony nominations and 2 wins, legendary performer Chita Rivera deservedly earned her status with a limitless talent, an incredible endurance and longevity, and that certain something that has made her a crowd favorite for five decades. The daughter of late musician Pedro del Rivero, Chita was born in 1933 and was training in ballet by age 11 in Washington D.C. She moved to New York with her family and auditioned as a young teenager for choreographer George Balanchine and his American School of Ballet. Quite taken by her potential, she won a scholarship. However, fate took over when at 17 she happened to audition (by accident) for a chorus part in “Call Me Madam” and won it . The rest is musical theater history. Hit after hit followed with Chita now the lead femme. “Bye Bye Birdie,” “The Three Penny Opera”, “Sweet Charity”, “Kiss of the Spider Woman”, “Nine”, and “The Rink” just to name a few highlights of her spectacular work. Chita Rivera was the first Hispanic woman to receive a Kennedy Center Honors Award.
ANDREW MARTIN-WEBER: I read that when you were first starting off as a ballerina, you went along with a friend to a chorus audition for “Call Me Madam”._ _This was of course choreographed by Jerome Robbins, who loved you and later cast you in “West Side Story”around 1957. So I just want to ask a little bit about “West Side Story”…can you describe the impact of that show at the time in terms of its racial impact and also what I would refer to as its “muscular theatricality?”
CHITA RIVERA: Well, actually, yes, muscular meaning impact…meaning the subject matter itself was a very powerful subject, which of course is William Shakespeare. Meaning basically it had a huge impact because it was tragic at the time, and unfortunately still is, and people just don’t like hearing things that are in their own backyard…that’s the beginning of the show. We thought, “what do we do if people actually get up and leave?” When we took it to London, they seemed to get it more. It was actually more successful in London, I thought, than it was here. As a matter of fact, I sadly say that as good as “The Music Man”:_ _was, it won the Tony that year instead of us. We didn’t even realize at the time that we had a classic on our hands and we had a far more important show than “T_h_e_ _M_u_s_i_c_ _M_a_n_”,_ _but I’ll never forget the opening night when we were all totally shocked at the reviews. At least when we got to London, they were sensational.
ANDREW MARTIN-WEBER: And in New York they were not?
CHITA RIVERA: No, T_h_e_ _N_e_w_ _Y_o_r_k_ _T_i_m_e_s_ _did not give it a good review. We did win a Tony for best dancing but we did not win Best Musical. “The Music Man” _won…that’s making it safe.
ANDREW MARTIN WEBER: I agree with you that it’s a beautiful show but it’s cotton candy.
CHITA RIVERA: Oh, a wonderful show! But you can’t compare it to something as powerful as “West Side Story”.
ANDREW MARTIN-WEBER: Yes, so certainly, it’s almost a cliché and I don’t like to say it but it was ahead of its time.
CHITA RIVERA: Yes, but we’re still having problems with that ridiculous subject. In spite of what I’m saying, the subject but a different setting…the difference between people and how they’re frightened…but it’s the same dance subject every single time….I love the way you called it a muscle…it was and it was physically powerful.
ANDREW MARTIN-WEBER: It is, of course. I saw a production in Sydney in 1980, or something, and I’ve seen productions in London and here in New York. Arthur Laurents did the last one here which was using Spanish dialogue. Did you happen to see that production?
CHITA RIVERA: I did.
ANDREW MARTIN WEBER: Any thoughts?
CHITA RIVERA: (silence) Was that a wave of air that came through the phone, did you get that? I was disappointed and I can say it now because Arthur is gone. I probably wouldn’t have said that if he were still here, because I wouldn’t want to insult him, but although the idea of mixing Spanish with the English was sensational, I thought there was too much Spanish. You can’t do an entire song in Spanish to English-speaking people – you have to assume that some people don’t know the show. You can’t assume. It’s like walking on stage and assuming everyone knows who you are and what you’ve done.
ANDREW MARTIN-WEBER: Well, speaking of Mr. Laurents, I was just reading his last book and in it he says, “there are no accidents, all coincidences,” and your career path has seemed to change from Broadway to ballet by coincidence.
CHITA RIVERA: (laughs) Well, I agree that there are no accidents. When I did go to that audition, I went with a good friend. My intentions were to join the ballet company. My friend didn’t have the funds for classes anymore so I just went with her. That’s the terrible thing about fear. When you’re frightened, you almost aren’t even yourself a lot of times. I wasn’t frightened because I didn’t care about the audition, and I was down front and very courageous and she was in back and I could present myself better than she could because she was so frightened. I got it and she didn’t.
ANDREW MARTIN-WEBER: Exactly, and lucky us.
CHITA RIVERA: Lucky me!
ANDREW MARTIN WEBER: So, just another question because I’m actually on the board at the American Ballet Theater…
CHITA RIVERA: Oh, you are?!
ANDREW MARTIN-WEBER: Yes, I am.
CHITA RIVERA: I was just with the Miami Ballet. I just got back.
ANDREW MARTIN-WEBER: Oh, they are wonderful.
CHITA RIVERA: They were doing a West Side Story scene and so they asked if I would come down and have a Q & A, and watch some of the ballet and it was really wonderful to watch it.
ANDREW MARTIN-WEBER: That’s lovely. It was nice to show them something different…
CHITA RIVERA: not Russian Romantic…
ANDREW MARTIN-WEBER: Exactly, exactly.
CHITA RIVERA: They can learn what it is really like to be real people and to hear their own voices.
ANDREW MARTIN-WEBER: Yes, moving on a little bit…I was just trying to put together questions for you and it took me awhile because I couldn’t select your career highlights when there seems to be nothing but.
CHITA RIVERA: (laughs) Well, that’s how lucky I’ve been. We call it the Golden Age. But every single theater show was a hit and so the revivals today that were in all the theaters, I was part of…
ANDREW MARTIN-WEBER: Bye Bye Birdie, of course being one of them. Now in the film version of that you were always played by Janet Leigh and it seems kind of right to ask you about how you feel about that now.
CHITA RIVERA: Well, first of all, I really liked her in Bye Bye Birdie. She was charming and a very smart woman and she knew very well that she wasn’t totally right for that role, but I understood it.
ANDREW MARTIN-WEBER: So, how do you feel that the studio’s decision was not by “star power,” per se, but by you being a Hispanic woman?
CHITA RIVERA: Oh, no, no, no. I don’t think that has anything to do with it.
ANDREW MARTIN-WEBER: No?
CHITA RIVERA: It was all about a movie name and it’s all unfortunately about how many bottoms you’re going to put in theater seats. How many tickets are you going to sell? She was just so darling and when I met her she was apologizing saying, “I can’t dance…I know I’m wrong for this.” And I tried to make her feel better because I completely understood. The only thing was when they were preparing for the show, I was in London doing Bye Bye Birdie with Peter Marshall, and I got this note that said, “May we film you for reference?” I thought, “ahhh…” I’m a pretty nice person until I get pissed. (laughs) The note came up so fast.
Andrew Martin-Weber: Well, it’s disrespectful.
CHITA RIVERA: It’s very disrespectful, and silly and stupid. I’m sure that Janet had nothing to do with it, but people will do what they can get away with.
ANDREW MARTIN-WEBER: I know. I wasn’t going to say this but I’m going to say it. There is a great line in this film called, The Star about a down and out actress who says, “Take your 10 percent hands off me!” (laughs)
CHITA RIVERA: (laughs) That is so true…that is a fabulous line and it’s true!
ANDREW MARTIN-WEBER: Let’s move onto Chicago where no one needs an introduction of the film, but to everyone’s delight you appeared in prison!
CHITA RIVERA: (laughs) It was like Cher in drag.
ANDREW MARTIN-WEBER: It was a very interesting melange.
CHITA RIVERA: (laughs)
ANDREW MARTIN-WEBER: The wig. The wig and of course, what people forget is that the show did have a rocky start, thanks to many reviews that found it too cynical. The question is does that make you laugh now? And begs a greater question, how as a performer do you feel the audience has changed over the years?
CHITA RIVERA: Well, I always tell the kids that they have to follow their heart and their dreams because these critics dominate how people feel about themselves. A lot of people quit because a critic says, “This is no good.” I say, don’t listen to anybody other than your teachers and your creative team. Don’t listen to critics-just do what you have to do.
ANDREW MARTIN-WEBER: You also do a lot of work with Broadway Cares?
CHITA RIVERA: Well, as much as I can. I’m proud to say that we did a benefit and it was extraordinary. I have been at the will of Broadway Cares since the ‘70s. I mean, whatever it is they want me to do, I do. We just lost Larry Kirk and it’s about him…the song, “Circle of Friends.” But anyhow, this last thing, I just did a benefit about three weeks ago for Broadway Cares and it was extremely successful and they made a nice amount of money. I was very pleased.
Andrew Martin-Weber: Yes, I think people are realizing that they need to step up to the plate. The government is not doing what it should, perhaps.
CHITA RIVERA: No, it’s not. They have kind of quieted down, now that they think everything is fine but it’s not.
Andrew Martin-Weber: Of course.
CHITA RIVERA: We still have to stick it right out front in everyone’s face and continue to do as much as we can.
Andrew Martin-Weber: Agreed. Now, just looking forward a little bit; there is a marvelous play called, The Visit, which was also a film, and I know you’ve done it as a musical. Can you talk a little bit about that?
CHITA RIVERA: It’s an extraordinary, passionate European love story. A lot of people like to call it a story about revenge. I don’t believe that, but those are Americans talking. They want everything to be sunshine and roses and sometimes don’t even recognize a love story when they see it. But this is a very dark and interesting piece of theater. I believe they chickened out in the film and she didn’t kill him, she didn’t have him killed.
Andrew Martin-Weber: It’s still pretty bleak.
CHITA RIVERA: Yes, it’s bleak! It’s interesting, the characters are fantastic and the score is brilliant, so we are going to do it next summer and…
Andrew Martin-Weber: In New York?
CHITA RIVERA: We’re doing it in Williamsburg or Williamstown. I cannot remember which it is now, in Massachusetts. Let’s pray that it’s a third time lucky.
ANDREW MARTIN-WEBER: Right, and, let’s finish on a candid note show: the one, well, there’s two, which brought you your first Tony, The Rink and the show, what memories do you have of that?
CHITA RIVERA: Oh God! I got to work opposite my buddy, Nigel. He was great and he made me laugh. It was a fabulous experience. I thought the score was fabulous.
ANDREW MARTIN-WEBER: So, all good memories?
CHITA RIVERA: All fabulous memories.
ANDREW MARTIN-WEBER: We don’t want to know about fabulous memories, we want gossip! I’m kidding, I’m kidding! I’ve been absolutely delighted to speak with you and I hope that you have had an enjoyable moment with me.
CHITA RIVERA: Oh, absolutely I did, and unfortunately with me, we have to have a martini before the gossip comes out.
ANDREW MARTIN-WEBER: Oh, you’ve got the right number! (laughs) Tell me a little bit about how a legend lives day-to-day.
CHITA RIVERA: She lives like everyone else: she loves and cries like everybody else.
ANDREW MARTIN-WEBER: (laughs) And she gives the world an enormous amount of pleasure. I cannot thank you enough, Ms. Rivera…bye
CHITA RIVERA: Bye bye Darling!