Chita Rivera's brilliant career

  • by Richard Dodds
  • Tuesday February 18, 2014
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Chita Rivera wasn't hoping to see any fire-hazard birthday cakes �" ones with 80 candles �" as she gained octogenarian status last year. "I just wanted to slide in there without any fuss," she said, but then she got an offer she couldn't �" and didn't want to �" refuse. Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS offered to throw her a party in the form of a one-night-only fundraising production, a fully staged show that starred Rivera in a look back at her unrivaled career. "I did their very first benefit [in the 1980s], and it makes me really sad that we're still doing it. But we made over $400,000 in that one night."

Titled Chita: A Legendary Celebration, and staged with guest stars, backup dancers, and an orchestra in a Broadway theater, the production has been retooled into an intimate show with just Rivera onstage accompanied by a three-piece band. But the songs are still there, the stories are still there, and Rivera's moves are still there. Taking it on the road every few weeks, a brief swing through California will bring her to the Fairmont Hotel's Venetian Room for two performances on Feb. 23 as part of Bay Area Cabaret's season.

Chita Rivera created the role of Anita in West Side Story, and reprises her song "America" in A Legendary Celebration.

Rivera's musical career dates back to 1952, when she landed a dance role in Call Me Madam, with Elaine Stritch in the Ethel Merman role. The choreographer was Jerome Robbins, and they would work together again in five years, with Rivera creating the role of Anita in West Side Story who stopped the show with "America." Rivera is a veritable encyclopedia of dance through the "golden age" of Broadway, working with such legendary choreographers, in addition to Robbins, as Michael Kidd, Peter Gennaro, Gower Champion, and of course, Bob Fosse, who created starring roles for her in Sweet Charity and Chicago.

Rivera has no interest in writing an autobiography, but she sees A Legendary Celebration as a kind of performing autobiography as she takes us through her life as a ballet hopeful growing up in Washington, D.C., to a recipient of both the Kennedy Center Honor and the Medal of Freedom in recent years. "I touch on parts of my life," she said, "but what I mainly care about is the dance, and teaching future dancers about the different choreographers that they don't seem to know."

Chita Rivera, left, co-starred in the original production of Chicago with Gwen Verdon, to whom she pays tribute in her one-woman show. Photo: Martha Swope

Is there anyone out there who can still offer first-hand education of such breadth? "No, there's nobody, and I don't want to be reminded of that," she said, but not in a preemptory way. Rivera has mixed feelings about spotlighting the matter of age, which is a part of A Legendary Celebration's promotion, but is not something she wants audiences marveling at. It's akin to her return to the stage in 1988, following an automobile accident leaving her left leg torn and shattered, as the cartwheeling star of a tour of Can-Can .

"That's one of the hard things, people using an experience that one has had to appreciate what somebody is doing. 'Isn't it fabulous that she's doing that and she's got 16 screws in her leg?' or, 'Isn't it fabulous that she's still up there and she can walk from stage right to stage left and she's 80 years old?' Why can't you just take what you see, what the heck, and not think what someone a person of a certain age should be doing?"

(Indelicate perhaps to note here, but in the cause of journalistic accuracy, Rivera became 81 as of Jan. 23.)

If it seems otherwise at this point, Rivera was in a sunny disposition as she talked from her home near Nyack, N.Y., as she was looking at a field of snow in her backyard. "It's beautiful, and I'm looking at my daughter shoveling, and our 145-lb. bull mastiff out there just loving the snow. Lisa is trying to clear a path and picking up you-know-what from the dog. How's that for an image?"

This summer, she's headed to the Williamstown Theatre Festival to star in The Visit, a not-yet-to-Broadway musical by the late Fred Ebb and John Kander. But what Rivera really has her heart set on is a chance to perform the full-out version of Chita: A Legendary Celebration for a run on Broadway. "As a matter of fact, when I finish talking with you, I'm going to try to get this started."

A show like A Legendary Celebration does look back, and she said, "I'm still enjoying all of the memories." But basically she's a what's-next kind of person. "We should be living our life and not think about anything else except what you can do to make the world better, what is it you want to do with your life, and just do it. Live your life. Don't take pictures of it."


Chita: A Legendary Celebration will have performances at 3 & 7:30 p.m. in the Fairmont Hotel's Venetian Room. Tickets are $48. Go to