Liza, Chita and The Rink
In 1983, a musical prepared to open on Broadway that would star two of Broadway’s most-beloved and enduring talents: one a Tony-nominated (several times over) triple-threat known particularly for her electric dancing prowess, the other the daughter of Hollywood royalty (Judy Garland) who had carved her own exciting niche in entertainment outside of her mother’s shadow, having won an Academy Award and two Tony Awards. They were, of course, Chita Rivera and Liza Minnelli, respectively. Together they would appear in the next Broadway musical by composers Kander and Ebb who had created scores for gritty musicals such as Cabaret and Chicago. Writing the original story was playwright Albert Innaurato, best-known for the comedic family-drama Gemini. Direction was to be by Arthur Laurents who had directed, among many other things, a successful revival of his hit musical Gypsy. The musical that was shaping up to be the exciting event of the season was The Rink.
The Rink had its challenges right from the beginning. The premise of the show was about an Italian-American proprietress of a roller rink and what happens when her estranged daughter shows up at her doorstep as she is just about to sell the establishment and enjoy retirement. The intention had been to create an intimate musical, a close-up exploration of the mother-daughter relationship with themes of forgiveness and how the things we most-hate in others are prevalent in ourselves. Humor-meets-conflict-meets-generation gap seemed like the ideal territory for book writer Innaurato whose play Gemini had been a compelling hybrid of many of those ingredients. Unfortunately, Innaurato struggled with writing the book and eventually departed the production. Also leaving was Laurents who found work elsewhere directing La Cage aux Folles (for which he would win a Tony Award for “Best Director” in the same season as The Rink). To replace Innaurato, playwright Terrence McNally (The Ritz) was brought in and Laurents was succeeded by A.J. Antoon. Choreography was provided by Graciela Daniele.
It is unclear when The Rink exactly moved away from being an intimate musical experience in staging, but it cannot have helped that the show was booked in the Martin Beck Theatre (now the Al Hirschfeld), a good-sized venue that usually houses large-scale musicals. A show must change when it needs to fill a house that size, so it is easy to understand how The Rink may have had to evolve in that direction. The Rink was ultimately better-suited to a smaller house like The Music Box or The Helen Hayes, or even more-appropriately, the show would have been better-served by playing Off-Broadway where a two-character musical with a small ensemble can thrive. Opening on Broadway on February 9, 1984, The Rink lasted for only 204 performances on Broadway, no thanks predominantly to lukewarm reviews that brought attention to how the production was too big for the material and quibbles over how the story never properly resolved itself.
The score, however, is one of Kander and Ebb’s wittiest, and most character-driven. From the opening number, the pensive “Colored Lights”, through the sarcastic “Chief Cook and Bottle Washer”, the sassy duet “The Apple Doesn’t Fall” and the longing “All the Children in a Row”, it is an emotional roller coaster. The show was not in the razzmatazz, showbiz style of their better-known scores, but was more reminiscent to their work for The Happy Time. It was introverted. The real event, of course, was the opportunity to see Chita Rivera and Liza Minnelli perform together onstage as mother and daughter. Minnelli had already won two Tony Awards in Kander and Ebb musicals: Flora, the Red Menace (1965) and The Act (1977), so she was the favorite to play Angel, the prodigal daughter. Minnelli, as always gave a performance of palpable vulnerability and an earnest hopefulness. She would receive a Tony nomination for Best Actress in a Musical. Chita Rivera had a long legacy in musical theatre, and originated the role of the boozy murderess Velma Kelly in Kander & Ebb’s Chicago. She was the perfect choice to play the weary Anna, a heartsick mother who covers her pain and vulnerability with a thick layer of sarcasm. Rivera had been nominated for several Tony Awards over the years, but she finally struck gold for The Rink, winning Best Actress in a Musical (she’d win a second time playing the title character in Kander & Ebb’s Kiss of the Spider Woman in 1993). These two ladies poured their souls into The Rink and the chemistry between the two was special, crackling like two intertwined firecrackers.
This combination of talent, star power, and wonderful music will always keep The Rink in our hearts. What we remember of it (or what we imagine it was) will always make us hope for a revival that solves the challenges of the piece.