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    At 90, Broadway legend Chita Rivera recalls a life working with Fosse, Sondheim, Bernstein
    • June 28, 2023

    Chita Rivera originated three of the most iconic roles in Broadway history: Anita in “West Side Story,” Velma in “Chicago,” and the title role in “Kiss of the Spider Woman.”

    She’s been nominated for 10 Tony Awards, winning for “Spider Woman” and “The Rink,” while picking up a lifetime achievement Tony in 2018, too. She was the first Latina to receive a Kennedy Center Honor and she’s got a Presidential Medal of Freedom to wear, too.

    Broadway legend Chita Rivera’s new memoir “Chita” tells the story of her life and career which includes creating the original Broadway roles of Anita of “West Side Story,” Velma in “Chicago,” and the title role of “Kiss of the Spider Woman.” (Photo by Laura Marie Duncan)

    Broadway legend Chita Rivera’s new memoir “Chita” tells the story of her life and career which includes creating the original Broadway roles of Anita of “West Side Story,” Velma in “Chicago,” and the title role of “Kiss of the Spider Woman.” (Image courtesy of HarperOne)

    Chita Rivera, an original cast member as Anita in the Broadway musical production of “West Side Story” is seen here in a photo from 1957. Her 2023 memoir “Chita” tells the story of her life and career. (Photo by Associated Press)

    Chita Rivera stars in the Tony Award-winning musical “Kiss of the Spider Woman.” Her 2023 memoir “Chita” tells the story of her life and career, including winning her second Tony Award for “Spider Woman.” (Photo by Associated Press)

    Actress Chita Rivera is seen in the original production of Cole Porter’s “Can-Can,” where she was a featured dancer in1953. Her 2023 memoir “Chita” tells the story of her life and career. (Photo by Associated Press)

    Actresses Chita Rivera, right, and Liza Minnelli, who co-star in the musical “The Rink,” at the Martin Beck Theater in New York in February 1984. Rivera’s 2023 memoir “Chita” tells the story of her life and career, including winning her first Tony Award for “The Rink.” (Photo by Associated Press)

    Chita Rivera and Gwen Verdon, from left, are seen during a rehearsal of the musical production “Chicago,” in Philadelphia, Pa., on May 8, 1975. Rivera’s 2023 memoir “Chita” tells the story of her life and career. (Photo by the Associated Press)

    President Barack Obama presents the 2009 Presidential Medal of Freedom to Chita Rivera, who, as a Puerto Rican-American, broke barriers as an actress, singer and dancer to become a Broadway star in West Side Story and was the first Hispanic woman to receive a Kennedy Center Honors award, during ceremonies at the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2009. Her 2023 memoir “Chita” tells the story of her life and career. (Photo by J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press)

    Choreographer Jerome Robbins, second from left, goes through rehearsals for the upcoming Broadway musical “West Side Story,” July 22, 1957. Chita Rivera is seen beside Robbins at center. Rivera’s 2023 memoir “Chita” tells the story of her life and career. (Photo by Associated Press)

    Dick Van Dyke, left, and Chita Rivera, second from right, star in the Broadway musical “Bye Bye Birdie.” They are seen here in November 1960 with Nashville theater fans Mrs. Moore Milan (her name not available), second from left, of Nashville, and Mrs. E. Ridley Derryberry Jr., right, of Murfreesboro, Tenn., backstage at the 54th Street Theater in New York City. Rivera’s 2023 memoir tells the story of her life and career. (Photo by the Associated Press)

    Chita Rivera performs during the “Chita Rivera: A Lot of Livin’ to Do” segment of the PBS 2015 Summer TCA Tour held at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif. Her 2023 memoir “Chita” tells the story of her life and career. (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP)



    Rivera’s co-stars and collaborators have included names such as lyricist Stephen Sondheim and composer Leonard Bernstein, choreographer Bob Fosse and actor-dancer Gwen Verdon, Dick Van Dyke and Liza Minnelli, the songwriting team of John Kander and Fred Ebb.

    As a teenager, she earned a scholarship to study at the School of American Ballet after auditioning for its founder, the dance legend George Balanchine himself.

    So why, you might wonder, did Rivera wait until she was 90 this year to publish a memoir of this incredible life she’s led?

    “I was so busy living my life that I never did,” Rivera says, laughing, during a recent phone call from her home in a small town about 25 miles north of Times Square. “Besides, I’m a very private person, and I really didn’t think of anybody being interested.”

    But then the pandemic hit, and Rivera, who’s never stopped working, had time on her hands.

    “Now was the time,” she says. “Now is the time. And it sort of is a memoir to remind myself of the wonderful things that have happened to me.”

    As she talked about her life with co-author Patrick Pacheco, Rivera came to see “Chita” not just as the story of her life, but also as a story that might inspire or inform younger artists embarking on careers in song and dance and theater.

    “You want to give information to younger students if they wanted to go down this road,” Rivera says. “And the experiences I had, I tell them that they can have if they stick with it and are passionate about it.

    “It’s just a lesson in living, really.”

    Q: What was it like to revisit the earliest years of your life, when you were a girl growing up on Flagler Place in Washington D.C. in the ’30s and ’40s?

    A: It was really remembering what fun it was to be a kid. What fun it was to have brothers and sisters. What fun it was to ride around on your bicycle. Go and climb the pear tree. It’s wonderful to remember what fun you had as a kid.

    Q: You’re a kid, jumping on the furniture, and you break your mother’s table. But instead of yelling at you, she signs you up for ballet classes to teach you discipline, and you find your future in that dance school.

    A: She was a teacher herself. She was the best mother. And I think, had she not had five kids, she would have wanted to have been a dancer. I just had that feeling. I mean, she was built that way. She had a beautiful figure and gorgeous legs. But she was a mother first.

    And she decided to do something constructive with her child. There I was standing in the middle of that coffee table, never knowing that I was off to a career.

    Q: A lot of kids are signed up for dance classes and they lose interest eventually. You embraced it.

    A: Well, it was just what I needed, and just when I didn’t know what I needed. I wanted to be able to be told to straighten my life out. Well, not straighten my life out, because I was happy. I was having a good time. But I really needed and wanted that kind of authority. And I wanted to learn.

    That’s what I want the kids to get from this book. That they want to learn. And you can learn so much from all of these fabulous, gifted people that I was fortunate enough to work with.

    Q: Let’s jump ahead to 1957 and “West Side Story.” That’s where you start the book, your first one-on-one meeting with Leonard Bernstein. Take me back to what it was like to be in that show.

    A: It was about telling a story. We recognized the talent that Jerome Robbins had, and Stephen Sondheim, because he was Stephen Sondheim, and Leonard Bernstein. I had a thirst for learning, and I had the best teachers in the world. We all had, those of us lucky enough to have been chosen to dance and learn from the mouths and experience of those amazing people.

    Q: What did it feel like to perform ‘West Side Story’ for the first time for an audience?

    A: We had our first taste of how different and how stupendous this show was going to be when we had the first run-throughs of the show in front of people who are in the business. That brought us up to, ‘Oh my God, this is really something.’

    It moved this group of people and they’re responding; so we’ve got a good story – of course, it was the story of Romeo and Juliet. But to go into the theater during rehearsals, and see Jerry (Robbins) put up a news clipping, saying, “This is your life” – and it was a group of kids down the block that had just been killed.

    That was when we realized that we were doing real-life stories and we had something to say.

    Q; I laughed when you wrote about how possessive you felt about Anita’s dress in ‘West Side Story’ when you saw Rita Moreno as Anita in it in the film adaptation. Do you know where your dress is today?

    A: I think it’s in a museum. Yeah, I think a while ago it was put in. And my one earring, too.

    Q: Your first movie was the adaptation of the musical ‘Sweet Charity’ with Shirley MacLaine in 1969. How was that different from all the Broadway you’d been doing?

    A: Well, you do the end of the movie before you do the beginning. But the thing that you do have is the companionship of another dancer. That is always the same. And that’s why I say, Dancers need to study. They need the basic training and that way you can make anything work. You can make dancing work in films, you just have to know their rules.

    Q; You write that you’ve always considered yourself a dancer at heart, regardless of your singing and acting in musicals and dramas.

    A: I think you’re grateful for the first thing that you learn. And that first was being a dancer. Not saying a word, just telling the story with your body. Then, if you’re fortunate enough, which I was, you open your mouth. You get a show and you open your mouth and you find out you can sing or you can speak.

    It’s all a part of growing and learning from those people that have been there before.

    Q: Let me jump now to Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon and ‘Chicago,’ another highlight of the book and your career. You’re Velma Kelly, Gwen is Roxie Hart, and before it can open Fosse has a major heart attack that delays it all.

    A: I remember clearly being much younger and watching Gwen on television in movies, and watching Fosse in movies. And then, all of a sudden, years later, I’m standing next to her and we’re being choreographed by Bob Fosse. He’s choreographing two dancing as one. This is mind-boggling to me. It just feels meant to be.

    Q: ‘Chicago,’ thanks to Fosse’s heart attack, also gave you a second career as a cabaret performer, when Kander and Ebb helped you create your first solo act while waiting for him to recover.

    A: Fred Ebb and John Kander are really responsible for my career. The show being postponed, they said, ‘Why don’t we do a club act?’ And I said, ‘Well, I can’t talk. I can do a part that’s written for me, but I can’t, like, just be friends with an audience.’ So that’s when Freddie and John wrote this act for me. And everything I said was put in my mouth. But then I learned how to be friends and learned how to trust an audience.

    Q: It’s a much more intimate kind of performance, isn’t it?

    A: Absolutely, absolutely. I mean, you don’t have an orchestra pit in front of you. You can see the faces, and boy, am I grateful, because you find out what you’re about, also. You find out more about you and the audience. So it was a trip. It was a fabulous, fabulous experience.

    Q: Then you brought that first cabaret act to West Hollywood and people like Fred Astaire, Cyd Charisse, Dick Van Dyke and Debbie Reynolds came out to see it.

    A: That came from meeting Liza Minnelli and her husband Jack Haley (who decided to bring the show west). You just keep your mind open and want to experience all of that. So many experiences will come from that.

    Q: You write about the living history that theater is, how one generation learns from those that came before, and it flows on. Talk a little bit more about how that is reflected in your work and your life.

    A: I think I feel, because I’m not finished yet, that everything touches everything else. I can’t express it. Everything in show business touches your life. And what you learn in the theater is what you learn in life. It affects everything that you do. It’s all connected.

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