'I Grew Up Obsessed': Remembering Chita Rivera | Playbill

Seth Rudetsky 'I Grew Up Obsessed': Remembering Chita Rivera

Seth shares his favorite memories of the Tony Award winner on and off stage.

Chita Rivera and Seth Rudetsky at the Smith Center in Las Vegas Seth Rudetsky

I want to dedicate this week to Chita Rivera! There is no way I can cover all the incredible aspects of her in one column, so I’m just going to give a soupçon of her remarkable life and add stories in future columns.

First, I want to say that I grew up obsessed with her singing. I was constantly playing (and lip-synching along to) the albums of Chicago, Bye Bye Birdie, and West Side Story. Amazingly, when I got older, I got to work with her, and she became an actual friend. There are no words to describe what an amazing person she was, what an incredible artist she was while on stage, and how warm, supportive, and hilarious she was off stage.

The first show I saw Chita in was the original company of Chicago. I was in elementary school, and loved the cast album so much. I begged my mom to get us tickets, and I remember flipping out because the tickets were so expensive (like $10)! Seeing that show live was everything I wanted it to be and more. Chita made her entrance riding up an elevator! It was so thrilling. When I finally got to ask her about it during one of our concerts, she told me that back then, she 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 having a star entrance like that.

Chita told me that that before she would get in the elevator, she’d have to build up her confidence by walking around downstairs and telling herself, “Tonight, I’m Gina Lollobrigida,” or “Tonight, I’m Sophia Loren,” so she’d be able to enter with full sass. She admitted that during Chicago she was insecure, but then added, “Now, however, I could kill that entrance!” Werk.

Here she is in Chicago, 30 years later, being phenomenal.

P.S. During our first concert together, I told Chita how I saw her do Velma when I was a little boy. As soon as I mentioned how young 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 4 years old.’ Who gives a shit?!” Brava on the sass!

Seth Rudetsky and Chita Rivera Seth Rudetsky

Naturally, we’d talk about Bye Bye Birdie in our shows and, amazingly, she would tell the audience that she did not want the role of Rosie! One of her friends, Tom Poston, had auditioned for the show and told her that he read the script, and it was really dumb. It was about an Elvis-type character (Chita wasn’t a fan) and teenagers (again, not a fan). By the time she heard about the “dumb script,” she already had a meeting scheduled with the creative team and her agent, Dick Seff. Well, she and Dick worked out a plan. They would listen to the whole score, she would tell everyone it was fantastic and act like she wanted to do it, and then Dick would interrupt and tell them that they would think about it and get back to them (and tell them no). This way he would be the bad guy.

So, Charles Strouse and Lee Adams began playing through the show, and as soon act one finished, Chita leapt up and told everyone that the show was terrific, and she had to do it. Dick was completely confused. Why was Chita doing her effusiveness so early? There was still an entire act to sit through. Was Dick supposed to say his line now? He took Chita into the other room to ask what was going on, and she told him she wasn’t acting. She really loved it! End of story, Chita wound up originating the role on Broadway and on the West End.

Here’s my deconstruction:

P.S. Dick, her agent, wrote an amazing book about his career. Not only was he Chita’s agent, but he was also Ethel Merman’s agent. Plus, he introduced John Kander to Fred Ebb and convinced Rex Harrison to go on for his first performance as Henry Higgins. Here’s a fun tidbit! In the book, he writes about getting a phone call from Fred Ebb asking him for a French greeting that had 5 syllables. He rattled one off, “Je suis enchanté,” which of course made it into “Wilkommen.” Dick is the Broadway version of Zelig and Forrest Gump. Buy his book here

Dick began representing Chita in the 1950s when she was in The Shoestring Revue. At the time, the producer thought her name, Conchita Del Rivero, was too long for the marquee. 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. She told me it's because she loved Maureen O’Hara. Thankfully, that name only 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?!”

Chita’s career began in Washington, D.C., where she was a ballet dancer. When she was 14, she was chosen for a scholarship to the School of American Ballet in New York City by none other than George Balanchine (co-founder and longtime Artistic Director of the New York City Ballet). Every story Chita would tell always included the names of people who were at the forefront of their art forms. I always said it was like me casually talking about the time I took piano lessons from Beethoven.

Anyhoo, Chita figured she’d be in a classical dance company when she got older, but never fully felt comfortable in ballet because she liked to laugh so much. FYI, ballet dancers usually have unwavering serine faces. Plus, Chita wanted to do what the male ballet dancers traditionally did; jumping, leaping, and athletic dance.

Seth Rudetsky and Chita Rivera at the NJPAC Seth Rudetsky

Thankfully for us, everything changed when she was 17. One of her friends who wasn’t on scholarship needed money to continue studying dance, so she told Chita she was going to audition for the road company of a Broadway show. Chita was a typical ballet snob back then and pitied the girl for having to resort to doing lowly Broadway. Her friend was nervous to audition, so she asked Chita to come along for moral support. Well, because Chita didn’t need or want the job, she went to the front of the room to learn the combination, completely relaxed and having fun dancing. Her friend really wanted the job and, because of that, hid in the back and gave off the wrong energy. Surprising no one who has seen the film Fame, Chita, à la Leroy, wound up getting cast but her friend did not.

Before the audition, Chita wasn’t planning on taking the job, but when she saw the kind of dancing the show had (it was choreographed by Jerome Robbins), she decided to accept the offer. Chita went on the road as a 17-year-old in Call Me Madam with Elaine Stritch starring in the Merman part. After that, Chita peaced out of the ballet and went from show-to-show—Guys and Dolls, Can-Can, Mr. Wonderful, and Seventh Heaven, finally getting her big break when she was asked to audition for the role of Anita in West Side Story.

Chita told me that after she and Carol Lawrence (Maria) got cast, they went to celebrate in a bar next to the Winter Garden Theatre. Then, in came Larry Kert, screaming that he got the role of Tony. I love the image of the three of them, in their 20s, toasting to their new job, not knowing how they’d be forever remembered as those iconic parts.

Speaking of West Side Story, Chita wound up doing so many fundraisers with my husband James and me. She would always lend her talents for social justice. One such fundraiser was Concert for America, which we first held on Inauguration Day 2017. The fundraiser raised money for 5 different non-profits: The Sierra Club, NAACP, National Immigration Law Center, National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, and The Southern Poverty Law Center. Here is her “America."

P.S. As I mentioned, one of Chita’s first shows was in the chorus of Can-Can, the show that made Gwen Verdon a star. At one point during the run, Gwen needed a new understudy. Chita, who was in the chorus, auditioned. Afterwards, Gwen called her to her dressing room. Chita told me that in those days, you never went to the star’s dressing rooms if you were in the chorus. There was a major separation. Nonetheless, in she went!

Gwen told Chita that she had seen Chita’s audition and felt that Chita shouldn’t be anyone’s understudy. She felt Chita should be playing principal roles. It was the first time someone had really encouraged Chita to break out of the chorus and gave her the courage to pursue leads. And then, amazingly, 25 years later, Chita got to star in a show opposite Gwen in Chicago!

Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera in Chicago.

Speaking of Gwen, the first time Chita worked with Gwen’s husband, Bob Fosse, was when she played the title role in the national tour of Sweet Charity. Fosse then cast her as Nicky in the film version. Chita told me that for 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. However, one young woman did, and the next day, that blinking woman was no longer in the film. Ouch. Watch the number. I dare you to go as long as they do without blinking!

One of my first jobs on Broadway was in 1993, playing keyboard one as a sub for Jeff Saver in the pit of Kiss of the Spider Woman. Naturally, I would speak to Chita about that show during our concerts, and she would tell the audience that the out-of-town tryout of Spider Woman was at Purchase College, which is about 45 minutes from NYC. Even though Hal Prince and Kander and Ebb had all worked with Chita, someone else was cast as the Spider Woman. Critics weren’t supposed to come, but they did nonetheless, and the show got a terrible review in The New York Times. What is most interesting is the review commented that, “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 (and Kander and Ebb) still didn’t think of herself for the role. Instead, Chita told “John and Freddy” that she found the perfect person to play the part. She took them to an Off-Broadway theatre so they could see her choice. The show was Song of Singapore and the “perfect” Spider Woman was Donna Murphy! Chita told us, “thank God she couldn’t dance” because, like many fairy tales, “John and Freddy” and Hal Prince realized that the answer was right in front of them all along. Chita got the role and wound up winning her second Tony award!

However, Chita’s choice did get to sing the title song when Chita received her Kennedy Center honor. Watch Donna nail it!

There is so much more I want to write about it, but I will pepper stories in throughout other columns. I bid you adieu for now.

Please enjoy this amazing clip I just found. Chita was always doing elaborate dances and singing up a storm on TV. This is just one of her amazing appearances. Enjoy and peace out!

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