ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Chita Rivera Gets Chatty

By Seth Rudetsky
September 10, 2013

A week in the life of actor, radio and TV host, music director and writer Seth Rudetsky.



Wah! My last weekend of 2013 in Provincetown. But while I was away, Kelli O'Hara came to Unbroken Circle. Usually, when celebs come and say nice things after, we immediately turn the video camera on them for a testimonial. This time, we wound up not having a video camera at the theatre, so Kelli went home and made a video herself! Even though she's literally days away from giving birth! Brava and watch

Back to my last weekend in Provincetown... I got to spend it with Chita Rivera! This was Chita's first time in Provincetown, and she thinks the town is "magical." The people here love her as well; she got multiple standing ovations throughout her show. She started with a sassy opening number ("I Won't Dance") and then we chatted about Bye Bye Birdie. She told us that Gower Champion was a great dancer but was so pigeon-toed that, while walking, he often would trip and fall!

Before Chita accepted the part of Rosie, she had a meeting set up with Gower and the composing team of Charles Strouse and Lee Adams. One of her friends had auditioned for the show and told her it was a really dumb musical about teenagers. Chita couldn't get out the meeting, so she called her agent, Dick Seff, and they worked out a plan. She would listen to the whole score, tell everyone it was fantastic and then Dick would interrupt and tell them that they would think about it and get back to them. This way he would be the bad guy.

Well, as soon as Chita heard Act One, she leapt up and told everyone that the show was terrific and she had to do it. Dick was completely confused. Was Chita overcompensating? Was he supposed to say his line now? He took her into the other room to ask what was going on, and she told him she wasn't acting. She really loved it!

Dick recovered from Chita's reversal and has since written an amazing book about his career. Now only was he Chita's agent, but he was also Ethel Merman's agent and he introduced John Kander to Fred Ebb and convinced Rex Harrison to go on for his first performance as Henry Higgins. In the book, he writes about getting a phone call from Ebb, who asked him for a French greeting that had five syllables. He rattled one off and that's why "Wilkommen" has the lyrics, "Glücklich zu sehen, Je suis enchanté." He's the Broadway version of Zelig and Forrest Gump. Buy his book here

When Dick was first representing Chita, she was in The Shoestring Revue and the producer thought her name was too long for the marquee (back then her full name was Conchita Del Rivero). Everyone knew her as Chita, so she knew couldn't change that, but she thought she could get away with something slightly less ethnic. And by "slightly," I mean mind-bogglingly bizarre. That's right, she made the bold choice to change her name to Chita O'Hara. Her homage to Maureen O'Hara lasted one show. She said she kept getting phone calls from her friends that would begin with her picking up the phone and simply hearing "O'Hara?!"

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." 

Rivera with Brent Carver in Kiss of The Spider Woman.

I asked her how exacting Fosse was, and Chita remembered the beginning of the "Big Spender" number. Fosse told the dance hall girls that they were all looking at one guy and that they couldn't blink. She said it was so hard not to blink, but she made sure she didn't. One girl did and the next day, she was no longer in the film. Yowtch! Watch the number (without blinking). 

Chita also remembers hearing "All That Jazz" for the first time when the show was out of town. When John Kander played her the opening vamp, she screamed and told him the song was brilliant. He then explained that there was more than just the vamp. I myself was obsessed with her amazing high D (with vibrato!) at the end of the reprise. Here's my deconstruction

Chita entered for that number in an elevator and thought it was such an amazing entrance that she didn't deserve it! Even though she had starred on Broadway a few times at that point, she still didn't have the confidence to fully own how amazing that moment was. She said she that before she got in the elevator she'd have to walk around downstairs and tell herself, "I'm Gina Lollabrigida" or "I'm Sophia Loren" so she'd be able to enter with full sass. Then she added, "Now, however, I could kill that entrance!"

Speaking of starring in a show with an icon, Chita remembers getting a call from Kander and Ebb asking her to do The Rink. Of course, she agreed. Then they told her it would be opposite Liza Minnelli. Chita was thrilled, because she and Liza always wanted to do a show together playing best friends. Well, actually, they explained, the characters aren't friends. Chita was still excited. Then Chita was told the relationship was actually mother and daughter. Silence. Chita finally asked, "Who plays the mother?" Here's a great clip of Chita and Liza together in the original production!

We discussed Kiss of The Spider Woman and Chita remembers the first production which was done at Purchase (a nearby college) as an out-of-town try out. Critics weren't supposed to come, but Frank Rich did and gave it a terrible review. Someone else was playing the Spider Woman at the time and the review said, "What is needed in this role is not, perhaps, a mysterious reincarnation of Rita Hayworth (which is what Sonia Braga brought to the film version) but a dazzling musical-comedy presence of the Chita Rivera sort who has always ignited the flashiest Kander-Ebb songs."

Even with that review, Chita didn't think of herself for the role. Instead, she told "John and Freddy" that she found the perfect person to play the part, and she took them to an Off-Broadway theatre to watch this woman perform. The show was Song of Singapore and the "perfect" Spider Woman was… Donna Murphy! Chita told us "Thank God she couldn't dance!" because she got the role instead and won the Tony Award!

There was so much more, but I'll save it for another column. Suffice it say, she's a great lady in many ways. And on that note, peace out!

(Seth Rudetsky is the afternoon Broadway host on SiriusXM. He has played piano for over 15 Broadway shows, was Grammy-nominated for his concert CD of Hair and Emmy-nominated for being a comedy writer on "The Rosie O'Donnell Show." He has written two novels, "Broadway Nights" and "My Awesome/Awful Popularity Plan," which are also available at Audible.com. He recently launched SethTV.com, where you can contact him and view all of his videos and his sassy new reality show.)