By Sandi Durell
It was a grand night for the League of Professional Theatre Women on May 7, when multi-award winning Chita Rivera (2 Tony Awards, 10 Tony Nominations) sat on the stage of the Bruno Walter Auditorium in conversation with Richard Ridge! Not an empty seat and every eye riveted on the remarkable woman, a gypsy at heart, and one of theater’s great dancers-actors-singers. Her career is remarkable, and she is someone from whom so many can take a lesson in humility.
A tomboy growing up, needing an outlet for her energy, her mother enrolled her in Doris Jones Ballet school, the life changing experience that catapulted her into professional theater when Ms. Jones took her to New York to audition for Balanchine where she was accepted on scholarship into the School of American Ballet. She was quickly off on the road earning $250 a week in Call Me Madamas a principal dancer at the age of 17. The rest is history and, oh, what a history!
While in Can Canwith Gwen Verdon, Ms. Verdon gave her courage to find out who she really was. It wasn’t long after that, she was chosen to play Anita in West Side Storyand learned to sing right in Leonard Bernstein’s living room. Her career zoomed forward working with Jerome Robbins whom she called Big Daddy, Gower Champion (Bye, Bye Birdie) – she didn’t particularly like the script but loved Dick Van Dyck. . . and her role as Rose won her a Tony! So much for liking a script!
And those phone calls, well, one can only imagine how it must feel when you pick up the phone and it’s Cy Coleman who puts Gwen Verdon and Bob Fosse on asking her to take Sweet Charity on the road (the first national touring company); and the roles kept coming one after another – – Kander & Ebb’s Chicago where John Kander gave Chita her very own vamp on “All That Jazz.”
She’s the first to admit that theater is the greatest place in the world. . . playing a role can be a lifesaver!
She co-starred with Liza Minnelli in The Rink(winning a Tony Award) – originally thinking they would be playing girlfriends – – but no, it was a mother/daughter situation. “Oh, who plays the mother? asks Chita as the answer reverberates – you! Turned out just fine.
All was going along splendidly; Chita performing in Jerry’s Girls in 1986 when a car accident occurred where she broke her leg in 12 places, requiring 18 screws but after lengthy rehab, was back on stage. Chita knows how lucky she is as her career continued moving forward appearing in Kiss of the Spider Woman and then Nine, opposite heartthrob Antonio Banderas – extraordinary, as she describes him with a lot more enthusiasm than comes across here in the written word! Her most recent Broadway appearance was in The Visit with Roger Rees (the last Kander, Ebb, McNally musical directed by John Doyle) and was wildly wonderful.
She gives unending credit to John Kander, Fred Ebb and Terrence McNally who allowed her to get to know herself . . . and made her feel good about herself.
Her most treasured production, however, is her daughter Lisa Mordente – singer/dancer/choreographer.
The icing on the cake for Ms. Rivera was receiving the 2009 Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama; the cherry on top is her upcoming 2018 Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement. And Chita just received an Honorary Doctorate Degree from the University of Florida. . . congratulations Dr. Rivera!
Do remember this Chita-ism: “Don’t lose your sense of humor!”
Thanks to Co-Chairs Pat Addiss and Sophia Romma for producing this highlight event for LPTW and to Richard Ridge for his always insightful interviews.
Photos: Magda Katz