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Still Flying After All These Years

Broadway has its goddesses, too, and there is no question that Chita Rivera belongs in the pantheon. The perennial star dishes with SCOTT BARNES about the Great White Way, then and now — and why she doesn’t consider herself a diva.

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Portrait by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders
© Timothy Greenfield-Sanders/Corbis Outline 2012
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The Chita charm, backstage in 1960
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Singing in 1956
© Ted Streshinsky/Corbis 2012

At seventy-nine, two-time Tony winner Chita Rivera is the materfamilias of a vanishing breed of star musical-theater performers who made their careers without major television or film credits. For more than half a century, Rivera has been the sine qua non of triple-threat spitfires, Gypsies and exotics on Broadway — the singing and dancing star of hits such as West Side Story, Bye Bye Birdie, Chicago and Kiss of the Spider Woman, the embodiment of Spanish fire and Broadway razzle-dazzle. How did a little Latina from Washington, D.C., end up winning a Kennedy Center Honor and being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama?

"You know, I have to tell you," says Rivera, "at first I thought, 'What the heck is OPERA NEWS calling for? Especially now that I'm a baritone, not even in the female category!' And then I found out it was for the Divas issue. I have to tell you, I loathe the word diva! They have taken that word and applied it to these silly little people who have not had a tremendous amount of experience. They simply haven't earned it! The word has been cheapened and put into all the wrong places. For me, 'diva' will always belong in the opera world. Leontyne Price is a diva. Years ago, I finished a number, and the audience response was fabulous. A guy in the show comes out onstage, gets on one knee and shouts, 'Diva!' If you could have seen my face! My voice lowered about three octaves, and I said, 'Get. Up.' It's just wrong. I am not a diva. I've been trained brilliantly, and my training has allowed me to exist as long as I have, and I'm still — thank God — pleasing the audiences, and that's what I am!"

Every summer brings an influx of "bunheads" to Manhattan's Upper West Side — young ballerinas from all over the world, who come to study at the School of American Ballet, the official school of New York City Ballet. With their long, skinny legs, feet turned out in a duck-walk and their hair skinned back into buns, they walk three and four abreast on Broadway, going from class to class. When she was seventeen, Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero was one of those girls. ("With a name like that on the marquee, you'd have to wear a mantilla and carry a rose in your teeth. [Producer] Ben Bagley made me change my name. I was mad about Maureen O'Hara, so for three weeks in 1954, I was Chita O'Hara.")

"Yes, that was me," she says. "I was on scholarship to City Ballet. I didn't even know that 'Mr. B' was Mr. B! A dancer friend who was not on scholarship asked me to join her at an audition for the tour of Call Me Madam, starring Elaine Stritch. Back then, there was a dancing chorus and a singing chorus, so I didn't audition as a singer at all, but I got the show."

In those days, there were "middle players" who did the small parts and odd lines; neither the singers nor the dancers spoke. "That's exactly right," says Rivera. "I had no idea I could sing, but when we were on tour in Chicago with Madam, the kids would go out to a piano bar after the show. The singers would sing, and the dancers would make fun of them. One night, our pianist, Sammy, leaned back to me and said, 'I want to see you tomorrow morning.' I went, and he wanted to teach me how to sing. I had about eight classes with him. One night, after being at the bar, I said my goodnights, and one of the singers barred the door and said, 'Oh no you don't. We know what you've been up to.' The fear of God came into me — I prayed that the ground would open up and swallow me. He picks me up, puts me on the piano, and I think I sang 'My Man's Gone Now' — what did I know? That was the first time I'd opened my mouth in front of anyone but Sammy, God love him. The first time that I was paid to sing would be The Shoestring Revue in 1955. The only person that I ever studied singing with was [well-known Broadway teacher] Keith Davis, but I learned through the greatest teachers — composers Leonard Bernstein, Charles Strouse and Lee Adams, Cy Coleman, John Kander. Those were the scores I had to learn. They were my teachers. When I had to learn the score to Zorba, I replaced an incredible singer who lost her voice because she was not used to singing eight shows a week. I didn't have her voice, but I knew how to do eight a week. I got stronger from singing the score every performance. Of course, at this point, I just 'get it out,' and I'm lucky to do that! I think that the dancer is helped, because we've trained our bodies for so long that we have more stamina."

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Rehearsing Mr. Wonderful with Sammy Davis, Jr.
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Although Rivera's early dance training was strictly classical, she attributes her signature theater style to classes with Broadway great Peter Gennaro, who was the co-choreographer of West Side Story. Like her colleague Gwen Verdon, Rivera also worked with notoriously tyrannical choreographer Jack Cole, who invented the American show-dancing known as theatrical jazz dance. His protégés include choreographers Bob Fosse, Michael Bennett, Gower Champion, Jerome Robbins, Michael Kidd and Alvin Ailey.

"Jack's work was a combination of all kinds of ethnic styles, including East Indian and African. We worked together doing a show called Zenda,and I spent hours and hours just studying his technique before he even choreographed one step. I loved Bobby Fosse's choreography, because I always liked dancing with the boys in ballet class. I had lots of energy. I loved the jumps. I was up in the air all the time! When we were doing the original Chicago in '75, we were working on my number 'I Can't Do It Alone,' and Bobby had me doing all kinds of acrobatics on the chair. Well, finally [Fosse's assistant] Chris Chadman said, 'Come on, Bobby, you gotta get her off the chair! She wants to fly!' And I just kissed him all over. When he finally got me off the chair, he moved me all around the stage. In those days, we had the time to learn what became the Fosse style, on the job."

Rivera became a Broadway star at a time when individuality was celebrated. Many stars didn't possess virtuoso singing voices but instead had quirks or eccentricities that set them off from all others. Just consider the women who did the title role in Hello, Dolly!Carol Channing, Ginger Rogers, Martha Raye, Betty Grable, Pearl Bailey, Phyllis Diller, Ethel Merman and, in London, Mary Martin. Each of these women is unique — immediately distinguishable from the others. However, when Les Misérables came to Broadway, it launched a casting revolution. The term "track" replaced "role." Belters were hired for the "Fantine track," and they would also play a boy on the barricade. The show became the star, and the performers, now reduced to tracks, were more or less interchangeable.

"Oh, God! When I heard 'tracks' the first time was when I was asked to do the revival of Chicago. I said, 'Nononono, that's not my neighborhood. That's another neighborhood altogether.' Then they asked me if I would go to London. Well, I'll do anything to go to London. I realized that the word 'track' had replaced 'part'! It dehumanizes things. I tell kids that you must bring yourself to the process. The part is written on the page, but the director and choreographer often don't really know who she is. You show up and give them the idea of what to do with it."

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Rivera as a 2002 Kennedy Center honoree with James Earl Jones, James Levine, Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Simon
© Pete Mitchell/WireImage/Getty Images

Although Rivera's bio now refers to her as an "actress/singer/dancer," as opposed to the reverse order, she never really sits still for very long. In 1986, a car accident resulted in a crushed right leg and a long recovery period. "At the moment, my workout consists of looking at a Pilates machine," she quips. "Actually using it gets closer and closer. And of course, I do my concert show, which has dancing in it. I can't do a ballet barre anymore. But dancers who just want to hang find each other. There will be four or six of us, and we'll do a class. I can't put a ballet shoe on — the muscle was shortened, and so I have to be in heels. You just have to adjust. Sometimes I set off the metal detector at the airport. I really love to see their faces when I say, 'I have sixteen screws — would you like to feel?'"

Since the accident, Rivera has relied more heavily on her singing and acting chops. (Although never trained as an actress, she had already played a non-dancing role in Jacques Brel and leading parts in straight plays Born Yesterday and The Rose Tattoo.) "Whaddya gonna do?" she says. "You adapt. I never even considered that I wouldn't be able to do it again. That's just the way I'm built. If you can't do it the way you used to, then you do something else. You find a way. It takes years to heal. After the accident, I did Can Can, and then Spider Woman. And Robby Marshall really set the part on me, and what I could do. It's just like life — a door opens, and you might not jump in, but you can peek in."

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In Kiss of the Spider Woman
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Like Cher and Liza, Chita has been elevated to one-name status for several decades; it seems to have happened some time during the run of the original Chicago, as the same is true for her costar, Gwen Verdon, referred to as simply "Gwen" by Broadway insiders. "I was in Japan, and I saw a huge tour bus bearing a banner that read, 'CHITA!' That was quite fun and extraordinary. It's nice to be known that way — it's very warm and friendly. But I'm clear about where the imaginary line of respect is. Don't call me 'honey' unless you know me. Don't presume an intimacy that hasn't been earned. Actually, my assistant had a T-shirt made with a quote that came out of my mouth in an interview. The guy asked me what was it about me that people might not know. I live with drama and humor being very close. So the shirt says, 'I WORK WITH CHITA RIVERA' on the front and 'SHE'S NOT NEARLY AS NICE AS SHE APPEARS TO BE' on the back. Fred Ebb said he was afraid to come up to me before we worked together, because I looked so mean!" 

George Dvorsky, who costarred with Rivera in the 2000 Paper Mill Playhouse revival of Anything Goes, disagrees. "What I love about Chita is that she's always the same — funny, bawdy, totally professional, a team player. There's no line between the pro and the person. When my mom died, she was one of the first to call. Chita's always surrounded by family and friends, and if you know her, you know them, too, and you're included. I've seen other stars rip into people who overstep their boundaries. Chita finds a way to deflect with humor. She thinks she can be hard-ass, but it never comes off that way. When we were rehearsing Anything Goes, I really thought, 'Where are these great Broadway stars now? They don't exist anymore!'"

Having come up through the ranks of the chorus gypsies, Chita has always identified more with the life and discipline of the dancer than the party-going and limousines of the star. "I believe in team spirit in the theater. When I do a show, my door is always open. That's how I was encouraged all along the way. I owe it to them, and I owe it to myself. I'm proud of the way I act and the way I do my job.

"I really do look for the good in people," says Chita. "I'm holding on to what little naïveté I have left. When I go, I go — but I like to think that there's much more goodness in the world than we've been seeing. And I don't mind being the one who gives a little. When you know you're holding the cards, you can afford to be gracious. It's like with martial arts. You're not on the attack, but you know how to preempt a strike. It worries me sometimes that the dance world has become so cutthroat. The competitions that you see on TV with them fighting with each other, and the mothers fighting, that's totally wrong. I try to encourage the young dancers that their friendships are important, being kind to each other, being prepared and listening to their teachers. They don't get a lot of that. These days everybody gets a trophy. They've got collections of them! They're not being trained for the long haul. I've known my best friend [choreographer] Dee Dee Wood since we were eighteen! These relationships are the food of your life. It's now all about being a star. We never even thought about stardom — we just wanted to get that part with one line when she walks across the stage." spacer 

SCOTT BARNES is a New York-based acting coach and audition strategist for opera singers. 

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Current Issue: October 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 4