ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Chita Rivera Gets Chatty

By Seth Rudetsky
10 Sep 2013

Rivera with Gwen Verdon in Chicago.
Back to Bye Bye Birdie; I went to SheetMusic.com and downloaded one of my favorite songs that she sings: "An English Teacher." She hadn't sung the whole thing since 1960, but she hauled it out in Provincetown! It was amazing! Here's my deconstruction of the original

Chita began as a ballet dancer in Washington, DC and, when she was 14, was chosen by Balanchine for a scholarship to the School of American Ballet in New York City! Every story she told had the names of people who were at the forefront of art forms. I said it was like me casually talking about the time I took piano lessons from Beethoven. Chita thought she'd be in a dance company when she got older, but she also never fully felt comfortable in ballet because she liked to laugh so much and wanted to do what the boys did (jumping, leaping, athletic dance).

When she was 17, one of her friends who wasn't on scholarship needed money to continue studying dance, so she decided to audition for a road company of a Broadway show. Chita was a ballet snob and pitied the girl for having to resort to doing Broadway. Her friend was nervous, so she asked Chita to come along for moral support. Because Chita didn't need/want the job, she danced in the front line and was completely relaxed and had fun. Her friend really wanted the job and, because of that, gave off the wrong energy.

Not surprisingly to anyone who's seen the film "Fame," Chita, a la Leroy, wound up getting cast and not her friend. When Chita saw the kind of dancing the show had (Jerome Robbins), she decided to take the job. Chita went on the road as a 17-year-old in Call Me Madam, with Elaine Stritch in the starring role. After that, she went from show to show and finally got her big break when she was asked to audition for West Side Story. She remembers being in a bar next to the Winter Garden Theatre, celebrating with Carol Lawrence when they both were cast. Then, in came Larry Kert screaming that he got the role of Tony. I love the image of the three of them, in their 20's, toasting to their new job, not knowing how they'd be forever remembered as those iconic parts. She learned "A Boy Like That" at Bernstein's apartment and was so nervous that she had to keep telling herself that she would not throw up in front of him.

We talked about Chicago, which I was completely obsessed with when I was nine, which I told her. As soon as I mentioned how old I had been, she rolled her eyes and said, "That's like when you meet a girl at the stage door who tells you 'I've loved you ever since I was four years old.' Who gives a sh*t!!!" Brava!

Speaking of fans, Chita was such an incredible fan of Gwen Verdon that it was a dream to be playing opposite her. As a matter of fact, one of Chita's first shows was in the chorus of Can-Can, where Gwen had a featured role. Chita was auditioning to be her understudy, and Gwen called her to her dressing room. Chita said that in those days, you never went to the star's dressing room if you were in the chorus. Nonetheless, in she went, and Gwen told Chita that she was beyond understudying and should actually play roles. It was the first time someone had really encouraged Chita to break out of the chorus. And then, 25 years later, Chita got to star in a show with her! The show was, of course, Chicago, and it was Chita's first original role with Fosse, though she had worked with him before when she played the title role in the national tour of Sweet Charity and then when she did the film version as Nicky. Watch her sass it up in "Something Better Than This."