The Column Online

Chita Rivera Interview
Interview with a Broadway Legend

My first exposure to Chita Rivera was when I in junior high school and I saw a videotape of the film musical Sweet Charity. I had just completed my first season of summer stock. So I was reading, listening to, and watching anything and everything that had to do with theatre, especially Broadway. When I saw Sweet Charity, I sat in complete shock; this was the first time I had ever seen a person of my ethnicity not in a stereotyped role. I was already learning what lay ahead of me if I wanted to do musical theatre, and the future looked so bleak. But then came Chita in Sweet Charity.

From that point on, I followed her career very closely. I finally saw her on stage in the national tour of Kiss of the Spiderwoman. Chita showed me that we Latinos can play roles that do not stereotype us or make us feel like lower class citizens. She made me believe in myself and not let the color of my skin stop me from auditioning for roles that were not specifically written for my "type".

I was nervous and excited to be granted an interview with her when she recently visited Dallas to appear in Casper: the Musical.

Ms. Rivera greeted us [I was sharing the interview "time" with another critic who was from the Dallas Voice] dressed in a soft pink flower print dress, with her black hair cut in the same fashion as "Aurora" from Spiderwoman, and those gorgeous gams! Rivera is short in stature, but her energy and strength fill the entire room.

John Garcia:  Once you close Casper do you go into rehearsals for The Visit? [the new Kander & Ebb musical in which she stars with John McMartin]

Chita Rivera:  Yes, I have a week off then I go to Chicago into The Visit.

JG:  How much of the score have you heard?

CR:  I've heard about three quarters of it and its breathtaking!

JG:  The subject matter is amazing and dark.

CR:  It is amazing, and the score is typical Kander & Ebb, believe or not ... and thank goodness ... 'cause we're gonna need it, what with this particular theme ... I mean, there are some fun, light areas as well, of course, you have to have that. It reminds me a bit of West Side Story in that West Side was a very serious, passionate musical.

JG:  There are a lot of cuts and edits in the film version of Sweet Charity's "There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This." Did that take a long time to film?

CR:  It really wasn't anything laborious. But you know, I was busy welcoming a new experience. I had never done a movie before, so it was interesting to me to "cut" and then have to remember exactly where you were when you had to pick it up again ... where your finger was (she holds her hand out in a Fosse pose), or which way you were looking. I mean it was a challenge and it was exciting. And the cuts were fun ... you knew the dance numbers, and you knew you were at that level of energy when you finished that section. You also knew that he [Fosse] was gonna put it together, so you had to start at that level of energy again ... those were great challenges.

JG:  Is the score [for The Visit] more in the vein of Chicago or Cabaret?

CR:  No ... I wouldn't dare put a label on it. No, I would have to say it is on its own. Now, when you hear it, you will know it is Kander & Ebb. There are dramatic ballads with lyrics that pertain to the subject matter ... it's a story about revenge, and my challenge is an interesting one, as I found in Spiderwoman an interesting challenge to try to make death attractive and alluring, ... and John McMartin and I have to make this love affair believable enough.

It's very European, as far as I'm concerned, because European people are so passionate about it! I mean, we, when we're joking around, we say to each other, "I love you so much ... ooooo ... I could just grab your face and throw you against the wall!" Now, a lot of people would go, "oh that woman is crazy!". (while describing this, her face and body are very animated and she has the whole room in laughter).

But Latin people understand what that is, we're passionate about all that! ... so this love affair is some real deal here 'cause he really loves her so much. He knows he's not going to get out of that, he just succumbs to it. But he loves her and she takes him with her at the end ... of course he's in a coffin and she's not, but they will be together forever.

JG:  The Visit opens in Chicago right?

CR:  Yes we go to Chicago.

JG:  Then go to Broadway?

CR:  (she gasps and laughs) ... you don't do a standard Kander & Ebb "anonymous" ... go to Chicago just to do a little play. Please god! hahaha!

JG:  Alot of my readers are hard core theatre people ...

CR:  Ah ha!

JG:  (laughs) and I know they would be interested to read if you had a fun tidbit or backstage story from the making of Chicago.

CR:   ... well, the most amazing story was the first day of rehearsal. We had the read-through, and then we break for lunch. We come back and there's Gwen [Verdon] practicing her knitting, she might have been chewing gum, I'm not sure (laughs). So she's there knitting and we come in, then all of a sudden the mood changed because they (the producers) came flying in and took her out and I went, "Something's wrong". And sure enough, Bobby [Fosse, Director & Choreographer of Chicago, as well as Verdon's ex-husband] had just had his heart attack.

I had just moved my daughter, my animals, everything from California and put her into Professional Children's school. So my hairdresser and I found ourselves shopping at Bloomingdale's with nothing to do for days since we could not have rehearsals because of Bobby's health.

Finally, we're called back into rehearsal, and the producers tell us that they are going to have to end this, but fortunately everybody stuck together and when he was better, we continued.

The show did go on, but came very close to not going on at all.

JG:  A couple of weeks ago, the tour of Les Miserables came into town. The role of Eponine was played by an African American actress, and she was remarkable. You have had an amazing career, but in the beginning, how difficult was it for you in getting directors to go for non-traditional casting and what is your personal opinion on colorblind casting?

CR:  I have been very lucky, I mean I have only had one bad experience. No, wait, actually I had two. Somebody told me once I wasn't Latin enough, and that made me laugh, it really made me laugh. But I didn't have the time to really discuss it, if you know what I mean, to find out how crazy this person really was and how little they did really know.

But ... I did have one ... and ... (as Rivera softly looks at me, I can see on her face the pain of this memory; she pauses, then softly says) ... but hey, it wasn't meant to be. I went on to do anything I wanted to do. I've played American, Italian, Greek, French. I've been really lucky that way.

DALLAS VOICE:  You are doing a benefit for AIDS on Sunday here in Dallas. You have done so much for AIDS related charities. Can you talk a little about your involvement, the friends you have lost, and the cause itself?

CR:  Oh my god, where do I begin? I'm very grateful right now that so many people are not sick any longer ... I'm so grateful not to be going to so many funerals, or writing so many memorial speeches, and losing my friends ... (her eyes begin to tear up) ... I generally don't really like to talk about this because it bothers me a lot. (she takes a breath) ... That's why I'm so happy to be doing this [benefit] here.

But I also paint plates (she laughs) ... I learned this craft while I was working in Las Vegas because I was so bored! But I found out at the auctions they go for a nice amount of money, and that goes directly to the cause. I go anywhere where I have to go, like the Shubert Alley, the Easter Bonnet Competition, Broadway Bares.

I'm very happy that Jamie [Torcellini, who plays "Stinky" in Casper] pulled this together, so I'll be hosting the event Sunday night. Please tell everyone to come. This place where it's going to be at sounds like a blast!

DV:  It's right on the gay strip ...

CR:  (she laughs) ... I've probably have been there!

I have seen boys who have performed as Liza and myself ... and sometimes they didn't know all the lyrics to the songs. So, I always tell these boys, "Now wait! Now if your gonna go up there in my wig, in my dress, trying to look like me ... you had better well know those songs! Don't you dare go up there not knowing those lyrics! Beauty is not everything!"

JG:  In Kiss of the Spiderwoman, your character had such a dark arc, I mean you were trying to take another soul (she laughs) and then you had all that choreography, and some of your numbers had big belting notes. How were you able to sustain that for eight performances a week, let alone go on a national tour?

CR:  Oh my ... thank you ... that's what we're trained to do. But that is what my challenge is, that is what my "food" is. When it's done right, I am very satisfied. Besides, it's communication, that's what theatre is all about. You take a plug and put it in a socket, and that's what the theatre is - it lights up right away. You communicate immediately! You speak, or I speak, and they respond immediately. It's immediate gratification, and that's what it's meant to be. It's not meant to be a form for you to wallow all over; it's meant to communicate. And communicating what? Brilliant lyrics, if you're lucky. Brilliant choreography, great music.

And listen, my bedmates are great! Kander, Ebb, Terrence McNally, Jerry Robbins. All the greats I've been lucky enough to work with. Who wouldn't want to say McNally's words? Who wouldn't want to be under the direction of Hal Prince? And sing the songs that Kander & Ebb write? Its great to be these characters that they've written!

Sadly, Ms. Rivera's personal assistant instructs us that the interview must end as she has a sound check to attend. We all said our goodbyes and I left with a memory I will never forget.

--John Garcia