Chita Rivera's memoir shares the Broadway legend's life and career

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Tuesday May 16, 2023
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Chita Rivera
Chita Rivera

In her heyday, Chita Rivera possessed the fastest feet on Broadway. How she shared that agile talent as a dancer and musical star for 70 years is at the heart of her captivating memoir. 90-year-old Rivera comments in the introduction that unlike the Stephen Sondheim song, "I'm Still Here," she wasn't inclined to look back nostalgically at her past, that as a dancer she always focused on the next gig or challenge.

However, the pandemic gave her time to reflect on her landmark career and perhaps to bequeath the lessons she learned to future troupers.

Rivera recognizes she had the privilege of being tutored by the best mentors during the Golden Age of Broadway. "They are responsible for me being who I am," she states.

She covers her professional debut as a dancer in the national tour of "Call Me Madam" (1952) to her final Broadway appearance in "The Visit" (2015). Rivera lives for the stage. Her infectious enthusiasm and ambition prodded her to appear in one show after another, cultivating her innate gifts. Every fast-reading page is animated with her upbeat, outspoken spin on a spunky, fearless life where she blazed her own trail.

Chita Rivera in 'West Side Story'  

Born Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero to Puerto Rican parents in 1933 and raised in Washington, D.C., her musician father died when she was seven. Her single mother worked for the Defense Department to support five kids.

A tomboy with rambunctious energy who would jump on the furniture, Rivera was enrolled by her mother in ballet lessons with a lesbian African-American teacher Doris Jones. She moved to New York City to study at George Balanchine's School of American Ballet at age 16.

Recognizing she lacked the temperament and hard-core skills needed for ballet, she caught the musical theater bug, inspired by seeing her idol Carol Channing star in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes."

Go 'West'
She originated the role of Anita in "West Side Story"(1957), which ignited her career. Her next role as Rosie in "Bye Bye Birdie" with Dick Van Dyke earned her first Tony nomination.

However, she didn't get to play any characters she created on stage in film. Rita Moreno (for Anita) and Catherine Zeta-Jones (for Velma in "Chicago") even won Supporting Actress Oscars. While she isn't bitter, she feels she still owns these roles, that the other actresses can have their awards, because she's been allowed to "keep my vamp."

She married fellow "West Side Story" dancer Tony Mordente and begot a daughter Lisa with him, before their divorce in 1966. She never remarried, but had relationships with actor/singer Sammy Davis, Jr., and restaurateur Joe Allen among others, as well as her fondness for hot Italian men.

The book is co-written with gay journalist Patrick Pacheco. She cleverly adopts a fiery, dark, renegade, snarky alter ego Dolores, the unfiltered, not-always-nice, unapologetic, sassy brutally honest Chita, who doesn't take crap from anyone, or as her daughter notes, "Mom goes Puerto Rican."

In addition to being a diva and gay icon, Rivera acknowledges in the book how much of her success, aside from her own talent and hard work, is due to gay men, who enriched her world professionally and personally. The gay alliance Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim, gave Rivera her start in "West Side Story," and the songwriting team of John Kander and Fred Ebb provided her with signature parts in "Kiss of the Spider Woman," "Chicago," among others. She credits them with lending her artistry verve and sensuality. Her brother and manager Hoolie is gay. She writes, "Without Jews and gays, there would be no theater."

There are loads of dramatic anecdotes, such as telling off a nasty Paul Lynde and a cruel comment John Lennon shouted at Judy Garland; the strain of dealing with pre-rehab alcoholic drug addict co-star Liza Minnelli playing her daughter in "The Rink;" working with the brilliant but often depressed, mean director-choreographer Bob Fosse ("a flash of lightning in a dark sky"); the importance of Catholicism in her life (including meeting Pope Francis); playing Marilyn Monroe in the 1955 "Shoestring Revue;" watching her gay co-star Roger Rees in "The Visit," battle heroically against terminal brain cancer; and willingness to acknowledge and discuss the flops in her career.

Break a leg
Perhaps the most stirring chapter centers on her 1986 accident when her car collided with a taxi (yes it was her fault), resulting in breaking her leg in twelve places, which could have ended her dancing. However, with grit and perseverance, she sustained grueling physical therapy and was able to resume her stage cavorting. She won two Tony awards out of ten nominations, plus a lifetime achievement Tony. She received the Kennedy Center Honor in 2002 and was presented with a Medal of Freedom by President Obama in 2009.

Chita Rivera  

She did experience racism and ethnic taunts throughout her life, but unlike rival Rita Moreno (to Rivera's consternation, fans would often confuse the two actresses because their names were similar-sounding) who expressed anger, she fought back with her talent, not endangering her chances to be considered for a wider range of roles.

"If I was going to lose some parts because directors or agents thought my name sounded too south of the border, that was their problem," she writes.

Rivera worked her hips off to make sure everyone knew and respected her name, superseding any discrimination. She also believed there was less stereotyping in the theater than in Hollywood.

Early in her career she followed the advice given by one of her idols, Gwen Verdon: "You don't need to understudy anybody. Be more confident. Go out and create your own roles. Forge your own path."

Her memoir is proof Rivera fulfilled that mandate. She says she wrote the book for the next generation of kids, telling them to go on and live their own lives and not be afraid of what life might have in store for them.

Rivera has embodied her own wisdom and readers get to experience not only a consummate legend, but a terrific human being. Chita, take your well-deserved bow!

'Chita: A Memoir' by Chita Rivera with Patrick Pacheco. HarperOne/Collins $29.99 (in English, Spanish and audiobook)

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