Hollywood has its A-list, and television its popular celebrities. But achieving fame in those areas of the entertainment industry can often be more fleeting than enduring. Why else would there be so many stories that ask the question “Whatever happened to?”
The musical theater, in contrast, tends to nurture its stars, many of whom have established long-standing careers. Among the handful of artists who could be considered true theatrical legends, Chita Rivera is the epitome of the triple-threat talent, one who's equally adept at acting, singing and dancing. In a career that has spanned 60 years, she has performed many of the musical theater's iconic roles.
Rivera may be, in fact, the only performer to have created a featured role in every decade since the 1950s. Consider the following: Anita in “West Side Story” (1957), Rosie in “Bye Bye Birdie” (1960), Velma in “Chicago” (1975), Anna in “The Rink” (1984) and Aurora in “Kiss of the Spider Woman” (1992).
These days, Rivera tours with her one-woman show, the aptly titled “Chita Rivera: My Broadway.” Featuring musical theater songs and anecdotes about her starry career, “Chita Rivera: My Broadway” will bring Lyric Theatre's 50th season to a close. Rivera's music director, Michael Croiter, will conduct a 12-piece orchestra.
While still a teenager, Rivera auditioned for and was subsequently offered a scholarship to George Balanchine's American School of Ballet. It was a huge steppingstone for someone who aspired to establish a career in dance.
About that time, Rivera decided to accompany a friend to a musical theater audition.
On a lark, she decided to audition, as well. Her friend didn't make the cut but Rivera ended up being cast in the national touring production of “Call Me Madam.”
The production starred Ethel Merman as the Perle Mesta-inspired Sally Adams. Elaine Stritch was Merman's understudy and took over when Merman left the show. For Rivera, it proved to be an invaluable master class in learning one's craft.
“These people adored the audience and gave everything they had,” Rivera said recently by phone from New York. “During that tour, I learned about focus and professionalism but also about enjoying yourself at the same time. You can't find many people like that nowadays.”
Rivera worked almost nonstop after “Call Me Madam,” from appearing as a chorus member in “Guys and Dolls” and “Can-Can” to landing small roles in “Seventh Heaven” and “Mr. Wonderful.”
In 1957, she became part of a landmark musical that would rewrite musical theater history and would give Rivera her first breakout role. The show was “West Side Story” and the role was Anita. Jerome Robbins directed and choreographed this musical adaptation of “Romeo and Juliet.”
“Jerry led us in the right direction and gave us confidence,” Rivera said. “And if it hadn't been for Arthur Laurents' book, we would not have had a story to tell. Arthur gave me some wonderful little insights.
“I remember coming through that door after Bernardo has been killed and I was carrying his jacket. I didn't really know what to do with the jacket until Arthur told me to just smell it. I would never have thought of doing that but it made that moment land.”
After “West Side Story,” Rivera was on a fast track to stardom. “Bye Bye Birdie” followed in 1960 and earned Rivera the first of her nine Tony Award nominations. She returned to Broadway in 1964 to star as the thief Anyanka in “Bajour” and then joined the national tour of “Sweet Charity.”
The latter introduced Rivera to Bob Fosse, another choreographer who broke new ground in the American musical theater. In 1975, she reunited with Fosse in the musical “Chicago.” The production earned good reviews and ran more than two years but won none of its 11 Tony nominations. That was the year of “A Chorus Line.”
“Bobby is an entity all to himself,” Rivera said of Fosse. “He had this very dark but wonderful sense of humor. Bobby knew this subject matter (two women who killed the men in their lives) was the kind of stuff that made the front page. Look at all of the reality shows on television today. They're right out of ‘Chicago.'
“I was lucky to come along at a time when Robbins, Fosse, Peter Gennaro and Michael Kidd were all working. I wish all kids today had those kinds of opportunity. Our tapestry was filled with all these different styles.”
While Rivera's dance training and flawless execution of complex routines made her a choreographer's dream, the second half of her career was dominated by shows that featured scores by John Kander and Fred Ebb.
Rivera had appeared in the 1970 national tour of their “Zorba” but “Chicago” started a career path that would include “The Rink,” “Kiss of the Spider Woman” and “The Visit.” She won Tony awards for “The Rink” and “Spider Woman.”
At a time when many artists, particularly dancers, decide to hang up their shoes, Rivera has continued performing. And though she no longer accepts dancing roles, she's enjoyed success in two shows that focus on her life and career: “Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life” (2005) and “Chita Rivera: My Broadway” (2009).
In 2002, Rivera received a Kennedy Center Honor, the first Hispanic ever chosen for this prestigious award. In August 2009, Rivera was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama. This fall, she'll return to Broadway as Princess Puffer in the revival of “The Mystery of Edwin Drood.”
As she enters her seventh decade as a performer, Rivera has a wealth of musical material on which to draw. “Chita Rivera: My Broadway” blends musical numbers from the shows in which she's appeared with tales about working with Broadway's elite.
“There's nothing quite like the theater,” Rivera said in a voice that conveyed her passion and drive for a business she adores. “In theater we play. It's a grown-up play but it's how we stay in touch with our inner child.
“If we lose the child, we lose innocence, imagination, creativity, hope and joy. We look at each other differently when we're engaged in play. I'm a strong believer that if you leave yourself open, wonderful things come to you.”