Chita Rivera is one of the few people in this world who can legitimately claim the label “icon.” Or “legend.” Or “triple threat.”
The three-time Tony Award winner was just a young up-and-comer back in 1957 when she exploded onstage as the fiery Anita in ”West Side Story.” She went on to star in other popular musicals (“Bye Bye Birdie,” “Nine”), but it was a lead role in “Chicago” that changed her life, cementing a lifelong collaboration — and friendship — with songwriters John Kander and the late Fred Ebb. Together (with playwright Terrence McNally) they wrote material for her for decades, including the musicals “The Rink,” “The Visit” and “Kiss of the Spider Woman.”
Fans can catch her at the Adelphi University Performing Arts Center in Garden City on Friday, Sept. 28, when she’ll perform an intimate concert, sharing music and memories from her career. The 85-year-old will also appear in Manhattan at Feinstein’s/54 Below for a week in January.
Some actors are great in roles but aren’t comfortable as themselves onstage. Others are great in concert . . . but less convincing as a character. You do both. Which comes more easily?
I have to give it all to Freddy — Fred Ebb. It was on our first day of rehearsals for “Chicago” — I’d been living in California, but I’d moved back [for this new show directed by Bob Fosse]. I’d gotten my daughter in school here, rented all the furniture, the whole thing. We broke for lunch and, when we came back, Gwen [Verdon, Rivera’s co-star, and Fosse’s wife] was called out of the room. It was then we heard he’d [Fosse] had a heart attack. The rest of us were bumping into each other, saying what are we gonna do? Rocco, my assistant, hairdresser and dear friend said, “We go to Bloomingdale’s.” So we did. [She chuckles.] But Fred and John had better ideas. They said they wanted to write an act for me. I said I can’t stand in front of people and . . . just talk. Well, Freddy wrote a wonderful club act, he wrote every word that came out of my mouth, even the ones that seemed like ad-libs. It was nerve-racking . . . but I eventually felt more comfortable. One day I called him and said, “Would you allow me to change [something]?”
Ahh, the baby bird leaves the nest.
Exactly! Since then, it’s been wonderful. I do material in my act by Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Cy Coleman, and the stories I tell are real. So I can talk now, as Chita, then go into characters. And I have Freddy and John to thank.
And Fosse, who luckily recovered. I guess you had no idea back then you’d all be friends for a lifetime.
No. I live in the moment, always have. . . . I’m not a dreamer.
You hope you get a job, and if you like what you’re doing at the audition, then you really hope you get it. You may pray — I do a lot of praying. But I don’t dream. I'm more straightforward than that. … What comes my way comes my way. It’s work. My very first show — I’d just gotten out of high school. I couldn’t believe my mother let me go. But she did. And I didn’t question, I jumped at it. And it went from there. You keep going forward. I’m a very positive thinker. And I work at it.
You just — well, I tell the kids, ”Your eyes are made to see.” Dancers are taught to see behind them. We can see 360 degrees. Your ears are made to hear — be quiet and listen. Your heart is made to feel. Your mouth is made to speak, but be careful what you say. I try to do that, because I don’t like myself when I’m angry. It’s not pretty. Road rage . . . things like that. [She laughs.] You get some stupid guy on the parkway and you don’t let him in because he’s been tailgating you. I‘m the kind of person who . . . if I’m in a fight, I’m in it to win. [She laughs harder.] I don’t know why I’m telling you all this!
I love it. I asked how you work at positivity because I feel I’m at a real cranky point in my life right now. I’m trying not to be that way.
I knoooow. You’re not alone. It’s a very, very big club. That’s a good word — cranky. It’s a funny word. “Cranky” is just kind of . . . off-kilter. So let yourself be, but warn everybody: “I’m a little cranky today so . . . be careful.” [She laughs again.]
Thanks. I’ll do that.
And don’t stop laughing, whatever you do. Don’t stop laughing.