January 31, 2024: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler.
Chita Rivera first started kicking her legs up on Broadway at age nineteen and she didn't stop until she was ninety-one. Female legends of the musical theatre are a rare breed: Merman and Martin, Gwen and Angela, and Chita. No question she's up there on that proverbial Mount Rushmore. Her specific gifts as a dancer, singer and actress were unique and she created four iconic roles in Broadway musicals that are still being performed today. I'm speaking of Anita in West Side Story (1957), Rose in Bye, Bye Birdie (1960), Velma in Chicago and the title role in Kiss of the Spider Woman (1998), for which she won her second Tony. Add to the list her first Best Actress Tony as Anna in The Rink (1984) and her final portrait, Claire Zachannassian, the madwoman at the center of The Visit (2015), as well as wonderful turns in revivals of Nine (2003) and The Mystery of Edwin Drood (2012), and it's a bit of a mind boggle. Her legacy will also include the gifts of friendship and support she gave to countless pros and non-pros in the theatre community, of which she was an official ambassador for decades.
Born Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero was the child of a Puerto Rican father and a mother of Scottish and Irish heritage. Her father died when she was seven and her mother went to work at the Pentagon in Washington D.C., where she grew up. For a time, she was inspired by the words, costumes and theatricality of the mass and toyed with becoming a nun. That she instead fell in love with the stage was the church's loss and the American theatre's gain.
Her first professional job was at nineteen on a tour of Call Me Madam that starred Elaine Stritch and her Broadway debut came a year later as a replacement Hot Box girl in the chorus of the original production of Guys and Dolls. She followed that as a replacement chorus member of Can-Can, where she first met Gwen Verdon. In those two shows, she went by the stage name of Conchita del Rivero, which she then shortened to Chita Rivera, which was how she was billed when she had a featured role in the Sammy Davis Jr 1956's vehicle, Mr. Wonderful. You can hear her belt on its original cast recording in her unmistakable singing voice in "I'm Available" (although you'll have to imagine her moves when the dance music kicks in).
Her next show was one for the record books — Jerome Robbins, Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim's West Side Story. As Anita, she dazzled audiences and made an indelible impression on critics and audiences. Surprisingly, she was not nominated for a Featured Actress Tony, an award that would elude her for nearly thirty years (she won for The Rink and again for Kiss of the Spider Woman). In total, she earned ten nominations (more than any other actor) plus a Lifetime Achievement Tony in 2018.
Originally written as a character of Polish descent, Rose in Bye, Bye Birdie was originally intended for Carol Haney, a brilliant dancer and quirky personality. But when that didn't work out, Chita Rivera's name was thrown into the mix and Rose Grant became Rose Alvaraz, very happily for all concerned. It was this turn on its original cast recording that cemented me into a lifelong fan. I couldn't possibly begin to count the number of times I've listened to "An English Teacher." Of course she's most famous for her dancing but I loved, loved, loved her singing voice (and I wasn't alone). It's a shame she didn't make more albums, but at least we have the handful she did produce.
As with West Side Story, Rivera lost the film version of Birdie. She never had a career in the movies or very much of one on television, although she's a lot of fun in an old episode of the classic sci-fi series The Outer Limits, which you can find streaming on Amazon Prime (Season 1, episode 20 "The Bellero Shield." Rivera was truly a creature of the theatre and for that we are all eternally grateful. Past Birdie, I was fortunate to see her strut her stuff in most of her Broadway originals with her Velma in Chicago my personal favorite. She absolutely killed in that 1975 production from the moment she entered in "All That Jazz" to the final cartwheels in "Nowadays." Of course, working alongside Gwen Verdon and Jerry Orbach elevated the whole show, but Chita was the one whose praises I was singing as I exited the theatre. She had it all — the comic timing, the voice and the dancing, which was extraordinary. At forty-two, she was very much in her prime. Glorious.
She really let loose nine years later with The Rink, a musical Terrence McNally, John Kander and Fred Ebb wrote specifically for her talents. Though not exactly a glittering bauble of material, Rivera treated it as if it were gold. The night I saw it was the one and only occasion I met her, treated to a dressing room visit by my old friend Jason Alexander, who got to sing a love ballad to her every night, "Marry Me." I also know personally that it was Jason, while serving in 2002 on the executive committee for the Kennedy Center Honors, who pushed to make that honor happen for her.
This clip from an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show is so 1960s that it's a hoot. Most probably a portion of her nightclub act, it aired in 1962 and shows off her distinctive singing voice and those gorgeous gams.
"The first time I saw Chita Rivera she was so great I wanted to rush up on the stage and throw my arms around her and wring her neck. She's got too much talent!" This from Judy Garland's intro for her appearance on The Hollywood Palace. "Too much talent," indeed.
I feel fortunate to have seen her when she headlined 54 Below in 2019 for the last time where the love in the room was palpable. One story she told that bears repeating is about the time when she was asked by Bob Fosse to take on the role in the national tour of Sweet Charity that had been created by Gwen Verdon. “I said, ‘I don’t think I could ever step in the shoes of Gwen Verdon.’ But a little angel on my shoulder told me ‘You don’t have to step into her shoes. You can bring your own shoes.’ And that’s what I always say to the kids: Be on time, be ready and bring your own shoes.”
Rest in peace, Chita Rivera.
If you enjoyed this, please check out Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. To receive all future columns by email, hit the blue FOLLOW button.