Chita Rivera has appeared in lights on the Great White Way so many times, it’s a wonder there isn’t a theater named after her by now. Even the slightest glance at the seventy-seven year-old’s résumé reveals that she has originated several of the most enduring musical characters of all time. The legendary dancer/singer is coming to Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts for one night only this Saturday to headline La Gran Fiesta, their celebration of Hispanic and Latin culture.
Born in Washington DC to a Puerto Rican father and a Scottish and Italian mother, Rivera didn’t start out to be the world-class dancer that she became. She was a self-admitted tomboy whose mother put her into the respected Jones-Hayward School of Ballet at age eleven to tone down her rough and tumble ways. At fifteen, she was invited to New York to audition for George Balanchine’s School of American Ballet, leading to a career that has spanned over half a century.
Rivera is responsible for creating the roles of Anita in West Side Story, Rosie in Bye Bye Birdie, Velma Kelly in Chicago, Aurora in Kiss of the Spider Woman and Claire in The Visit, one of Kander and Ebb’s final shows. She is a strong supporter of gay rights, and appeared in 1994’s Stonewall 25: Voices of Pride and Protest.
I spoke to Rivera right after she returned home to New York after performing in Puerto Rico. She was gracious and excited to return to the Valley, where she has friends who she enjoys visiting.
NC: How would you describe your new show, My Broadway?
CR: I’ve really been so lucky all these years, so I’ve put together conversation and music and movement to communicate with the audience, to bring my experience, my Broadway, to Arizona.
NC: You’ve been part of so many iconic Broadway shows, including West Side Story. Any memories?
CR: When I went in to audition vocally for West Side Story, Anita Ellis (a famous New York singer who dubbed Rita Hayworth in Gilda and who was also the sister of Larry Kert, West Side Story’s original Tony) went in right before me, and I went. “Uh-oh, there it goes! I guess I won’t get it”, because she was a fabulous singer.
NC: You got the role, though, and ended up finding love in the cast as well (with fellow dancer Tony Mordente).
CR: (Laughing) That’s pretty funny, because in rehearsals, we were told we were not to even speak to “the Jets”; I mean, you wouldn’t get caught smiling at one of them, so we never had any sort of relationships at all with them, and what did I do? I went and married one of them! I didn’t just talk to him, I married him and had his baby, so (my daughter) Lisa says, “I’m half Jet and half Shark.”
NC: When you see how Chicago is running forever, inspired by your original production, how does that make you feel?
CR: It’s just wild. It just goes to show that you can never figure anything out. Tony Walton’s sets in our production were to die for, the costumes were full-blown imaginative, the guys wore stockings and high heels... it was really theater. And you just have to laugh because you can’t control the way life goes. Now this production that’s been running forever and probably will run forever — which is great, the music is brilliant — is like a postage stamp compared to our production.
NC: How has your attitude about a dancer’s life changed over your career?
CR: I say in my show, “Just keep moving.” Don’t count, whatever you do, just let your spirit do the living. Most people think when you get to a certain age, you’re old. Well, it doesn’t have to be that way; it depends on you.
NC: So many people admire you and the career you’ve achieved.
CR: That really is the best part of it all. To have some kid come up and say, “I’ve always wanted to dance,” because that’s how I felt about (mentor and famous ballerina) Maria Tallchief. It’s a wonderful feeling to know that you’re doing something right. I’ve always said, “Keep good company” and my company has been Fred Ebb and John Kander, Gower Champion and Liza Minnelli, all the greats.
NC: I was interested to read the advice that your teacher Doris Jones gave you, being an African-American business owner in the forties, “Stay in your lane,” and “Don't worry about the long bodies and blond ponytails lining up next to you for the auditions; be who you are!”
CR: Miss Jones was wonderful to me, because I hadn’t been out in the world, and didn’t know what was out there. She told me to “follow your own spirit, your own self.” So I tell the kids that.
NC: I wondered what your advice is for young people who are struggling with being different, especially given the news of bullying deaths in the news.
CR: The Arts, thank God... that’s why we really have to keep the Arts (in schools). The Arts allow us to experiment with our thoughts and our own person and to get to know ourselves and use our imagination. I think that being different is divine.
One of my favorite shows was Kiss of the Spider Woman, because it’s a show about two men who are completely different and they’re forced to be in this tiny cage only big enough for one in jail, and they get to know one another and get to appreciate their differences. Finally, eventually, they, in the truest form of the words, get to understand each other and fall in love. And it never would have happened if they hadn’t been forced together. So I tell the kids, “You are the only thing you’ve got, and you have got to get to know ‘you’ and be proud of ‘you’. And don’t let anyone ever tell you anything else.”
But you have to find out who your best friends are, who to hang out with; I was lucky because I had the business. I’m so upset about this bullying, because we’ve been living the whole thing with boy dancers and gay men (with whom I’ve worked)... that’s our life, so we’re very familiar with that kind of ignorance and stupidity. So we just have to support each other, and please God, let these kids get to understand themselves and like themselves. It’s hard when you’re young; you don’t think you’re going to accomplish anything or be an example for anyone. There are far more people out there who will love you than will reject you. Have faith that they’re out there.
NC: That’s great. That’s why you’ve been such a bright light on Broadway all these years.
CR: You know, I think that’s what we all have to be, because we all have our light... you used the right word for me. I love the light and I always go toward the light. If you live looking for the light, using your own light and not being ashamed of anything, it’s a much brighter feeling than living in the dark.
Chita Rivera: My Broadway will be performed this Saturday, November 6, at the Scottsdale Center for the Arts. Click here for more information and tickets.
Interview by Neil Cohen, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Phoenix's Echo Magazine.