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Chita Rivera talks 'The Visit' and her Broadway career

From left, Terrence McNally, Chita Rivera and Tom

From left, Terrence McNally, Chita Rivera and Tom Kirdahy at the VLA Awards 45th Anniversary Champions of The Arts Awards at Capitale, NYC on March 2, 2015. Credit: / Owen Hoffmann

She was the original Anita in "West Side Story" in 1957. Eighteen years later, she was Bob Fosse's first Velma Kelly in "Chicago." In 1993, she climbed a gigantic web as the femme fatale in the musical adaptation of "Kiss of the Spider Woman."

As for the rumor that "The Visit" will be Chita Rivera's last Broadway performance, well, she says we should forget it. "I might have said that to someone last summer, that this is such a wonderful experience that, if it turned out to be my last, I'd be happy with that," she told me in a recent interview, trying to figure out where anyone got such an annoying idea. "But that is very boring -- and very wrong."

Rivera, ageless at 82, is the real deal, primary-source material, whose understanding of musical theater is bone-deep and singular. When the two-time Tony winner says she has worked with the "best of the best," she is not boasting. As she joked on Broadway in her 2005 autobiographical showcase, "In this job, it's not who you sleep with but who you dance with."

On Thursday, she opens in "The Visit," a show famous for having been circling Broadway, in various incarnations, for almost 15 years. John Kander and Fred Ebb, dark musical masters of "Cabaret" and "Chicago," first wrote the score for Terrence McNally's adaptation of Friedrich Duerrenmatt's menacing 1956 tragicomedy for Angela Lansbury. Her husband was dying, however, so Rivera stepped in.

There was a premiere in Chicago in 2001 and another in the Washington, D.C. area in 2008. When I interviewed her in 2003, she said she expected "The Visit" to open on Broadway the following season. Last summer, original director Frank Galati and choreographer Ann Reinking were gone and John Doyle ("Sweeney Todd") and Graciela Daniele were in charge. The show, about a rich old woman with a disturbing agenda and a man (Roger Rees) who once abandoned her, was well received last summer at the Williamstown Theatre Festival.

"It's very challenging for me . . . different from anything I've ever done," said the star. Considering that her range includes the original Rose in the 1960 "Bye Bye Birdie" and dancing the tango with Antonio Banderas in the 2003 revival of "Nine," this is saying a lot.

Over all these years, why couldn't anyone just let this one go? "It's a project that insists upon being told," she explained, as if the show had a life of its own. "It's very complicated, very political, very passionate. It wants to be heard -- and I'm not going to deny it."

Besides, she loves working with new material -- even material she has been working on for so long. Years ago, I asked how bad it must have felt to have missed out on being cast in the movie of "West Side Story" because she was in a tryout for "Birdie" -- and then not getting the "Birdie" movie either.

"I'd much rather breathe the first breath of life into a play than be in the film," she explained without apparent bitterness. "You can't have it all. It's better to have been there when it started."

Performing started for Rivera -- born Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero in Washington, D.C. -- when, as she remembers it, her mother sent the family tomboy to ballet class "to make sure I didn't break up the house." Her Puerto Rican father was a woodwind player who died young. Her mother was Irish-Scottish. The girl won a scholarship in New York to the School of American Ballet after being auditioned by George Balanchine himself.

"I'm chiffon," she said long ago, "but I can be steel." She needed the steel in 1986, when she broke her leg in 14 places in a car accident. That leg is held together by 14 screws, but she wasn't sidelined for long.

For all her star billing, she remains the ultimate chorus gypsy -- a generous, disciplined class-act and a triple-threat workhorse. She has been touched by just about all the 20th century's major stage wizards -- Jerome Robbins, whom she considers her biggest influence, as well as Fosse, Harold Prince, Jack Cole and Peter Gennaro.

Doyle, celebrated for having actors play musical instruments in "Sweeney Todd" and "Company," said in a statement that "working with Chita Rivera has been one of the greatest pleasures of my career. She is a great actress, a great lady -- and the best fun! I feel lucky to call her my friend."

Luck is something she never fails to mention, citing her daughter Lisa Mordente with her ex-husband, Tony Mordente, whom she met when he was A-Rab to her Anita in "West Side Story."

She has no explanation for her professional longevity. "We can say genes," she said. "We can say training. . . . I have had a career that has been stimulating, a life that has been stimulating. I've worked with great artists. And I love to laugh."

But she never took any of it for granted. In 1975, she told the Village Voice, "I have this picture of myself getting up one morning and there is my talent, lying there, and I say, 'Come on, just give me one more day.' "

And now comes one more show. And if she and the theater have anything to say about it, she'll be back for more.


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