Q&A: Chita Rivera
Chita Rivera has barely stopped working since before she originated the role of Anita in West Side Story. The Broadway legend was crucial to the success of later musicals Bye Bye Birdie and Chicago, and last year was nominated for a Tony in The Visit. Las Vegas Magazine’s Matt Kelemen spoke with Rivera about her career and upcoming “unscripted” Smith Center debut with pianist/host/theater expert Seth Rudetsky.
A lot of performers probably look at the longevity of your career and think, “That’s the way I want to do it.”
That’s pretty much your responsibility now, outside of the fact that you still want to be the vessel for the writers and the lyricists and the composers. And the arts, period. That’s why you’re there, to support the arts and women.
You set an example as someone who puts themselves out there and creates work for herself.
You really have to do that. If you still have something to say and share with people, then you’ve got to work at it. I’ve never been one to push myself. I just love what I do, so I tell the kids today, “Just be ready. More than anything else be ready and prepared, and then when something comes you can do it. It’s not impossible.”
My parents had the Broadway soundtrack to West Side Story, so I heard your voice when I was a young child. Then I saw the movie and I was like, “Wait a minute. That’s not Chita Rivera.”
(Laughs) Well, you see? You’re smarter than a lot of people that are triple your age. (Rita Moreno and I have) been friends forever, so we were used to that. She gets the same thing. … Tell me, did you like the Sharks or the Jets when you were a kid?
I liked the Jets, but I was in love with Maria.
Oh, how cute. You had very good taste.
Anita made you respect strong women. I’m just now realizing the impact that a character you created had as a role model.
Absolutely. She depicted, at her young age, a mother, a lover, a best friend, a guardian, a protector. She was all of those things, and she did it with grace and style, and class. You just discovered it yourself just now, and that’s delightful. That’s what makes this business, the arts, so wonderful because it’s all connected to your life, to humanity. And unfortunately that story is so relevant today, but people are a lot more aware of the problems because of that show. I was very lucky, and Carol (Lawrence, who originated the role of Maria) feels the same way. All of us felt that way about that show. As the years went by we just felt more and more in touch with life. I also tell the kids that it’s their responsibility when they have great pieces of art like that: to translate, they must really mean it. And don’t think they’re better than the writer. A lot of people think, “Oh, I can add a little something here, a little something there.”
I like that you tell young people be ready because it comes at you quietly.
I think of that in the context of having the opportunity of Anita quietly come up. You couldn’t have realized exactly what was happening. …
Of course not.
But slowly it dawned on you that, “Wow, this is a great role, and this is a revolutionary production.”
Absolutely. And you don’t know it until it starts to come out of your mouth, and it does what it’s supposed to do, and that is get a response. It breathes itself. You don’t realize what you’re doing and how it can relate to other people until you do it. I mean, you’re living every single moment. I also tell them, “God made your eyes to see. Really see. Don’t waste it. Your ears really hear.” I want the kids to really know how important it is to listen. Your tongue speaks clearly so you are understood. Waste is a terrible thing. I can still hear around corners, but I’m leaning in listening to television shows because people don’t speak. They do not enunciate. You almost wonder if they’re someplace else when they’re saying something. But there I go, bitching, bitching, bitching. (Laughs)
Not really, because people are becoming more inward, and your art is about expressing outwardly.
Absolutely. And sharing it. And sharing what you know, and sharing what you feel. You can’t live alone, and to share is a wonderful, wonderful thing. And the kids are … the other day, Sunday. A car drove up in my driveway and I didn’t recognize it, so my daughter answers the door and a little girl, she’s about 14 years old and her mother’s in the car, she hands me a little booklet and it says Bye Bye Birdie on it, and they were doing it around the corner in the middle school. It was for that Sunday night. Saturday night and Sunday afternoon. And they asked if I’d come, and I just thought that was so terrific, first of all to have the gall to come up somebody’s driveway. Because of that, because I had that invitation my daughter and I went, and we had the best time … sharing, just watching their little faces because they knew I was there, and they came up with more than they thought they even had. They knew who Rose Grant was even if their parents hadn’t told them, and they knew that I played the part of Rosie. It’s wonderful to excite young kids and inspire them. And you know what? You get it right back.
Well, go mom!
Go mom! Totally! Drove that car right up the driveway.
You’ve been on a good run recently. You got a Tony nomination for The Visit. You played Carnegie Hall last year for the first time, and you got established with Café Carlyle. Now you’re coming back to Vegas to play the Smith Center for the first time. When was the last time you played Vegas?
Oh, gosh. I can’t even remember.
You played Roxie Hart with Ben Vereen as Billy Flynn in Chicago at Mandalay Bay in 1999.
That’s it. Mandalay Bay. I said I would not do this version because … I used to say, “That’s not my neighborhood.” Then they came to me with that offer of opening a magnificent hotel. I went, “You want to open a hotel. That sounds great.”
You played Roxie instead of Velma. (Rivera originated the role of Velma on Broadway and starred opposite Gwen Verdon’s Roxie.)
That’s right. I thought I might as well make it a little more interesting for me, do something different. I certainly had the greatest Roxie in my head: Gwen Verdon. All I had to do was listen to my inner voice, and it was Roxie. It was Gwen.
Was it strange? I don’t know who your co-star was but you were kind of singing to yourself practically.
(Laughs) That’s funny. This version was so different from the original. Same lyrics, but the choreography was not the same. We had a huge, magnificent set that Tony Walton designed. And we had huge elevators. It was just different. This was scaled back a lot, and it works, but there was enough difference for me to find it interesting to do.
One of the interesting things I read about it was it was the first full-length, two-act show from Broadway in Las Vegas. Usually they trim it down with no intermission, so that showed respect for the actors and the production.
Absolutely, you’re right on the ball because I would have not done it if they had scaled it back that far. As far as I was concerned it was scaled back enough, so they did respect it.
For your Smith Center debut you play in the big (Reynolds) hall. A lot of Café Carlyle performers play in the Cabaret Jazz room.
This is with Seth. Do you know the formula for his shows?
I understand it’s a Broadway @ concert series that he’s done with other performers as well like Audra McDonald, Andrea Martin and Christina Ebersole. Do they have similar formats?
Oh, yeah. It’s the same format, which is really interesting because Seth gets into you … he asks questions. It’s an interview, plus stories that get you into a song. So it’s very personal and intimate. Very intimate. It’s not like I come out and do my club act. It’s not that at all. It’s an intimate evening with the performers, and Seth’s so good at that. He’s such a wonderful musician to being with, but he’s also an interesting personality and knows everything about the business.
I guess it’s only possible because of his depth of knowledge about theater history and Broadway.
But he also knows how to ask emotional questions, how you feel about certain things, how you felt when you were doing this. “How was your relationship with Dick Van Dyke?” or whatever questions he has, and believe me, he’s got them. It’s fun. It really is a lot of fun. I’ve done, I believe, two or three with him. So I think two. I think I’ve done two. So it’s not the first time.
So how do you prepare for an unscripted evening? I guess you’ve done it already, but when you did the first one did you have any preparation?
No, we don’t prepare. No. That’s what’s fun about it. You know if the audience sees a performer as themselves, not as a character in a play or anything like that but there’s no motive at all except to sit and talk to a really interesting guy, and really like your audience enough because I think there might be Q&As (with the audience). I’m not sure. I can’t see questions being asked, but who knows? I mean, maybe he does have that. So it’s very relaxed and it’s comical and you get surprises. He doesn’t tell you what he’s going to ask. But he’s very tasteful. He’s smart, smart as a whip.
Does he get into your relationships with the different choreographers and writers?
Sure he can if he wants to. Absolutely.
So he goes kind of deep into your relationships with Bob Fosse and Peter Gennaro and John Kander and Fred Ebb?
Sure, yeah. And you end up voicing your opinion about a lot of things. It’s good. It’s like you know the insides of the business, what goes on behind, which you’re not privy to when you go see a show.
You give much respect to the writers of the shows. I know the last show that you did with Kander and Ebb was particularly profound for you.
But it’s a rarity to see somebody give that much credit to the to the writers.
If a person stops and thinks, what will we be without them? I mean, tell me! And we’re all artists and to be able to be a vessel for Kander and Ebb or Cy Coleman or Leonard Bernstein … I mean, to be able to express, you find out so much about yourself by doing, by being given the opportunity to be in another character and sing the lyrics of a wonderful lyricist like Fred Ebb, or tell a wonderful story. People come to the theater to be inspired, to be moved, and that’s our job. We have to do it. And it’s great for us. I mean you find out so much about yourself by playing all these different characters. You just do, you know? I always say that Freddy and John, I don’t know where I’d be without them, or without any of them because my life has been built, ever since I was 17, around saying wonderful people’s words and being somebody else. Fred and John wrote my very first club act back when Bob Fosse had the heart attack before Chicago started, and we were in rehearsals and they came and said, “Well, since Bobby’s in the hospital for a while do you want to do a club act? And I said, “I can’t do a club act. I mean, I don’t know who I am. I can’t talk to people. I can play characters and hide inside of them.” And they said “Nope, let’s try it.” And it was extraordinary.
So this was after your car accident, right?
This was before my car accident. It was Chicago.
I was going to ask you if you thought you had one of the things that led to you developing a cabaret style show or a club show was the was the accident.
Oh, no. It was Bob Fosse’s heart attack that did it.
It was great that you were nominated for a Tony for The Visit but I thought probably one of the best things for you was performing alongside the late Roger Rees for his swan song. How was that for you? Were you more happy after he passed that you had this experience with him than you were feeling loss?
Oh my God, yeah. You think when you’re fortunate enough to have so many terrific friends after a while you go, “I don’t need more friends. I’m just fine.” But I fell in love with Roger. Roger made me so … he made me feel as though I was really good. He was an amazing example of a brilliant actor. We were all very, very sad. He was one of the kindest and nicest guys and a brilliant, brilliant actor. And I suddenly had a new friend and I was loving it. I was looking forward to a nice long relationship with my new friend, and I remember when he passed I said, “I feel as though a friend was taken away from me.” It got a little selfish on my part but it was a shock. And then you suddenly think about, you know, the theme of the show and how brave he was to be there and know that he was not well but he knew that being in the in the show was the best thing for him. And he was absolutely right, rather than going home and feeling sorry for yourself, or whatever. Unfortunately we saw it a little bit. You could see him get a little sicker.
I understand he was able to keep it from you for a while.
Oh yeah. For a long while. Absolutely. Yes. You just noticed two little things here and there, but it’s you know we’re all examples for each other as human beings. And he’s a hell of an example of courage and bravery and dedication. He’s a perfect example of that.
Let me read this quote to you as a way of closing our interview. This is from Steven Holden, the New York Times critic: “In her every move, she seems to beckon you to throw off your cares and join the procession on Planet Chitah, a place of continual movement, endless fun and pure joy.”
Wow, wow. Wow. That’s really what you want to do. You know, that’s what you want to feel and you want to spread it around. And I thank him for that quote. I’ve never heard that one, but that’s beautiful.
The Smith Center for the Performing Arts, 3 p.m. April 30, starting at $24 plus tax and fee. 702.749.2000