Chita on Broadway - The Web the Spider Woman Wove
Chita Rivera personifies all that is great about the Broadway musical. A triple threat who has appeared in a major Broadway musical for ever decade since the 1950s, she pales all others by comparison where career longevity, professionalism, and versatility are concerned. When I was in college (1993), I was writing a paper for my musical theatre history class on the musicals of Kander and Ebb. Not so coincidentally, Ms. Rivera was starring in the Kander and Ebb musical Kiss of the Spider Woman. Since my paper required that I interview someone, I thought "Who better than the amazing Ms. Rivera to weigh in on the musical world of this composing duo, having starred in Chicago, The Rink and the then-running Spider Woman. I wrote her a letter c/o the Broadhurst Theatre which included a list of questions and a gentle plea for her to answer them. It was a shot in the dark, but worth a try. Surprisingly (or maybe not so surprisingly), Ms. Rivera took the time to hand write all the answers to my questions. She affectionately recalled her experiences, recounted the importance of the process, and celebrated her co-stars as an opportunity to grow as a performer (perform with the best, you learn from the best). The fact that she took such interest in a young man's questions showed me that Chita was a class act. I have adored her ever since.
As Chita Rivera readies herself for the Broadway debut of another Kander and Ebb musical, it is only right that I celebrate this legend by exploring the highlights of her Broadway career. Each decade, the lights of Broadway glowed a little brighter for her presence and how fortunate we are, in 2015, to be extended yet another opportunity to revel in her splendorous talent.
1956 - Mr. Wonderful
Not much more than a reason to showcase the talents of singer/dancer Sammy Davis, Jr., Mr. Wonderful was really the first time that Chita Rivera noticeably stepped out of the chorus and began claiming her place as one of America's theatre legends, playing the supporting role of Rita Romano.
1957 - West Side Story
The musical that really put Ms. Rivera on the map was an inconsequential little also-ran known as West Side Story. Have you heard of it? Coming from the theatrical minds of Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Arthur Laurents, and Jerome Robbins, the role of "Anita" was the perfect place to showcase Chita's triple threat talents. Introducing the now iconic songs "America" and "A Boy Like That" and dancing up a storm in the "Dance at the Gym," Rivera put her personal stamp on this complicated character of an overprotective immigrant who is the confidant of one of the star-crossed lovers that make up this tragic love story.
1960 - Bye Bye Birdie
Chita's first bonafide lead role in a musical was Rose Alvarez in the energetic musical about rock & roll, Bye Bye Birdie. Playing the exasperated assistant to fiancée of songwriter and artist manager Albert Peterson, this role gave Rivera a lot of stage time and a chance to really exercise her acting chops. Introducing such delightful character songs as "An English Teacher," "What Did I Ever See in Him?" and "Spanish Rose" and dancing her way through "How to Kill a Man Ballet" and "The Shriner's Ballet," she won audience hearts and secured her first Tony nomination.
1964 - Bajour
Based on two short stories by Joseph Mitchell "The Gypsy Women" and "The King of the Gypsies", Bajour wasn't exactly a flop (it managed a run of 232 performances), The piece, however, never resonated with audiences and it demonstrated a short shelf-life. Rivera portrayed the gypsy con-artist Anyanka, a would-be bride who helps stage an elaborate ruse to raise the funds required for an arranged marriage.
1975 - Chicago
I think it is hard to imagine anyone being a more perfect merry murderess Velma Kelly in Chicago than Chita Rivera. Her smoky, sinewy performance of "All that Jazz' alone is legendary. An opportunity to see her play off of her contemporary Gwen Verdon must have been a dynamic experience for audiences. Receiving her second Tony nomination for her efforts, Rivera brought a raw edginess to her interpretation of such songs as "Class", "The Cell Block Tango," "Nowadays," and "I Can't Do It Alone."
1981 - Bring Back Birdie
Bye Bye Birdie was a hit and being produced by every high school and community theatre in the country. It stands to reason that people loved the characters and a sequel might be a good idea.. The original creators decided to try it, and, as is the case of so many musical sequels, Bring Back Birdie was an enormous flop. Rivera reprised her role of "Rose", now married to Albert and raising her own crazed teenagers. Despite its failure, Rivera secured her third Tony nomination.
1983 - Merlin
Much like the musical The Magic Show, Merlin was crafted around the talents of magician Doug Henning. It did not, however, enjoy the same popularity. It must have been a delicious change for Rivera, however, getting to portray an over-the-top villainess queen who sets out to thwart the altruistic title character. Though it ran a short 199 performances, the magic portions of the show were quite spectacular. As was Rivera, apparently, securing yet another Tony nomination.
1984 - The Rink
Rivera, in her letter answering my questions about musicals, spoke most affectionately about The Rink, disappointed that it didn't find its audience. With Kander and Ebb penning one of their most deeply emotional scores, and Terrence McNally shaping the story of an estranged mother and daughter coming to terms with their differences, The Rink was perhaps too intimate of a musical to play successfully in a large theatre like the Martin Beck. Rivera played the mother "Anna" to Liza Minelli's daughter "Angel" and that combination alone should have spelled success. Especially delightful in songs such as "Chief Cook and Bottle Washer", "Don't Ah Ma Me" and "The Apple Doesn't Fall", Rivera scored another Tony nomination and her first "win" as "Best Actress in a Musical."
1986 - Jerry's Girls
Another Tony nomination was secured when Chita played one of the three title characters in this musical revue of the music of Jerry Herman.
1992 - Kiss of the Spider Woman
Manuel Puig's novel about a South American gay window dresser named Molina, imprisoned for corrupting a minor, sharing a cell with the very straight revolutionary Valentin, was not exactly screaming to be a musical. However, in the careful hands of Kander and Ebb and playwright Terrence McNally, the story broke outside the confines of a tiny prison cell and into a lush, Technicolor musical with dark undertones. Chita Rivera played the imposing, exotic title character, an angel of death who loomed over the proceedings with a majesty seldom witnessed on the musical stage. Her iconic performance of the jaunty "Where You Are" was a highlight, featuring the actress decked out in a white fedora and tuxedo, coolly puffing on a cigarette as she extolled the virtues of escapism. Ms. Rivera won a Tony Award for her portrayal of this sinister character masked as a cinema goddess.
2003 - Nine
Maury Yeston's Nine was given a sublime revival by the Roundabout Theatre Company in 2003, featuring Antonio Banderas as the womanizing, manipulative film director Guido Contini. Rivera took a supporting role as Lilian LaFleur, Guido's grande dame producer who sings the show's big production number "Folies Bergeres." Even in a supporting role, Rivera proved a force to be reckoned with, receiving yet another Tony Award nomination.
2005 - Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life
A deeply personal exploration of her life showbiz, Rivera starred in this musical event that took audiences, step-by-step, through the trials and tribulations of her career. Performing many of her signature numbers from over the years, and still accompanying them with the dancer's moves for which she is fabled, Rivera received another Tony nomination.
2012 - The Mystery of Edwin Drood
The Roundabout Theatre's revival of the whodunit musical The Mystery of Edwin Drood found Rivera in the ensemble piece as the opium den proprietress Princes Puffer. Delightful as always, the was an audience favorite with her sly rendition of the morally subjective "The Wages of Sin."
2015 - The Visit
And here we are in 2015, waiting with baited breath for Chita Rivera to step into the role of Claire Zachanassian in the Kander and Ebb musicalization of Friederich Durrenmatt's The Visit. Playing a scorned lover and millionaire who takes revenge on her ex-lover by offering to save the financially downtrodden town he lives in exchange for one of its residents murdering him, the opportunity for sinking her teeth into some juicy moments are plentiful. Is Tony Award #3 on the horizon? Certainly a nomination is guaranteed when one considers how long Ms. Rivera has stuck by this project.