An homage to Chita Rivera, the musical theater star

  • by J.A. Valentine
  • Tuesday February 6, 2024
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Chita Rivera in 2016; items from J.A. Valentine's collection of Chita Rivera memorabilia
Chita Rivera in 2016; items from J.A. Valentine's collection of Chita Rivera memorabilia

The passing of Chita Rivera on January 30 at age 91 will be deeply felt by many. Her triumphs and accolades could fill an encyclopedia; 18 Broadway shows, hundreds of regional theater productions, television and international cabaret shows, three Tony Awards, the Kennedy Center Honor for Lifetime Achievement and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Nobody danced better or longer than she did, but it was so much more than just steps well executed. She was a consummate entertainer. Song and dance was her medium, her connection with a live audience was immediate and electric.

Chita Rivera's 2023 memoir  

Rivera originated the roles that every subsequent triple-threat longs to play, in "West Side Story," "Bye Bye Birdie," "Chicago," "Kiss of the Spiderwoman," each permanently sculpted by her performance.

She had the artistry and stamina to sustain seven decades in musicals. Into her 80s, she played eight shows a week and darn near never missed a performance. Remaining staunchly in the present moment, her arsenal of signature songs were not performed by rote. She continued finding fresh interpretations of the lyrics to "America" and "All That Jazz," rendering them anew.

Rightfully, much is made of Rivera's exquisite dance technique and those million-dollar legs. A relaxed grin and sly wink accompany every contortion, as her face never belies the hard work. Notice her hands, which unfold like origami birds of paradise, yet another way to convey the music, to complete the picture. She just does more.

Known to be a loyal friend and the den mother of every show she appeared in, her dressing room had an open door. She eschewed public gossip, always lifting those around her.

More items from J.A. Valentine's collection of Chita Rivera memorabilia  

Broadway's golden age
Born in 1933 in Washington, DC to a Puerto Rican father who died young, leaving her Scottish/Italian mother with a house full of children to raise, Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero was an exuberant handful from the start. Dance classes led to a scholarship to study with Balanchine, bringing her to New York City as a teen.

An audition attended with a friend led her to leave the world of ballet for that of musical theatre and from the beginning, her dance roles were featured. Once forced to sing, she was catapulted out of the ensemble and into roles.

As the Golden Age of Broadway was dawning, she was ready, collaborating in rapid succession with a Who's Who of the greats. Director/choreographers as a species are known to be terrifying. Jerome Robbins, Jack Cole, Gower Champion, Michael Kidd, Bob Fosse; Chita met their demands and exceeded their expectations. Soon, roles were being created for her and she seemed to work ceaselessly, carrying each show and rising blameless from the occasional bomb.

Like many Broadway stars of that era, Rivera didn't repeat her stage roles on film, "Sweet Charity" being the only cinematic document of her prime. Unhindered, she thrived in front of live audiences and was the last of the ilk who toured in their hit shows.

Seemingly unstoppable, even a car crash in her middle years that shattered one leg couldn't bench her. A year later she was besting the Rockettes in a tour of "Can-Can." If the dancing shoes were eventually surrendered, her way with a song and her flirtatious chemistry with an audience endured.

For a deeper dive into the body of her work, see the recently published "Chita: A Memoir," a boon to her legacy that adds context to the showbiz stories and offers a glimpse of the personal life that she previously kept guarded, such as her romance with Sammy Davis, Jr. You'll also find a rare smattering of dish.

Chita Rivera in 'Kiss of the Spider Woman'  

Meeting a legend, locally
San Francisco was treated to many of her greatest roles, such as Velma Kelly and Aurora the Spider Woman, not to mention two infamous flops that found their final resting place here ("Zenda" and "1491"...anyone?). She graced our symphony and frequented our cabarets. Thanks to this trouping, I was able to experience a Broadway icon live in my own city many times.

We're cautioned against meeting our heroes, as they might never live up to the image we have of them. I met Chita a handful of times and she was never less than gracious, hilarious, a little salty and utterly unpretentious.

Jaw-dropping talent aside, to me she was a light to steer by, a beacon of optimism, an inspiring example of excellence and how much further talent goes with integrity and a genuine respect for the audience.

In interviews she would attempt to debunk the idea that she was nice 24x7. It's doubtful she suffered fools, but if after a career spanning that many years there's not a single colleague or fan on record with a negative word, she may have been one of the kindest people in the business.

'Legend' and 'icon' are words whose meanings have deteriorated from overuse, but in this case, they are legit. Associated Press drama critic Michael Kuchwara once wrote, "Rivera is more than a musical theater star. She's a force of nature."

Director/producer Hal Prince said, "Very simply, there is nobody who can act, sing and dance like Chita Rivera," calling her a performer "with her own aura, who in essence carried around her own spotlight."

Rivera is survived by three siblings; her daughter, Lisa Mordente; her ex-husband Tony Mordente, and a legion of fans who'll not see the likes of her again. To borrow a lyric from longtime collaborators, Kander and Ebb, "Lucky Lindy never flew so high."

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