Since making her Broadway debut in the 1953 musical Can-Can, Rivera has been going strong on Broadway for more than 60 years. The characters she created on Broadway include some of the most iconic roles within the musical theatre canon: the fiery Anita in West Side Story, Rosie in Bye Bye Birdie, the sharp-tongued murderess Velma Kelly in Chicago, an exasperated mother on the verge of freedom in The Rink and a screen goddess moonlighting as death incarnate in Kiss of the Spider Woman. She returns to Broadway this season in The Visit, in what some insiders are calling her most powerful role yet.
When you think of recent Broadway leading ladies tasked with carrying a major, multimillion dollar musical on their shoulders, that list might include Idina Menzel, Kristin Chenoweth, Jessie Mueller, Kelli O'Hara, Sutton Foster and Audra McDonald – all actresses under 50.
Then there's Rivera, who at 82, is doing just that, signing on for a role that leaves her with little off-stage time and no break for intermission. In addition, there has been virtually no mention of the musical in the press that doesn't include her name in the headline and, akin to Spider Woman, the marketing materials and show logo bear her image. There is no question that this show is Rivera's. She's also dedicated nearly 15 years of her life to The Visit, which has been seen in various incarnations since its 2001 premiere at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.
The production marks the third collaboration for Kander, Ebb, Rivera and playwright Terrence McNally. The artists previously worked together on The Rink (1984) and Spider Woman (1993), both of which led Rivera to Tony Award wins for her performances.
"I first saw Chita in West Side Story," recalled McNally. "Chita is so much about discipline. She sets a level and a standard for a company, and she's incapable of giving 98 percent of herself. She can only give 100 percent. Even if she's not feeling well, she rehearses and plays every night at an emotional, vocal, kinetic and physical level that is 102 percent, if anything."
The Rink, which co-starred Rivera and Liza Minnelli, marked McNally's first foray into writing Broadway musicals. While the production was short-lived, McNally described it as an experience that shaped the rest of his career.
"I learned a lot, just about the kind of writer I wanted to be, when I worked on The Rink all those years ago," he said. "I learned about how I wanted to work in the theatre. I learned a lot about musicals, and I had good mentors in Kander and Ebb and also in Chita and Liza. I learned something from each woman: Liza, about giving of yourself emotionally, and Chita, hit the bull's eye every performance. It's not about saying, 'I hit it Tuesday and Thursday and Saturday matinee...' You gotta hit it all eight shows."
Rivera's director this time around is John Doyle, who stepped in and boiled the two-act musical down to its 95-minute essence for Broadway. "Chita is ready for any action that day," he said. "If you want to come in and change the whole thing that day, she's there for you. I've never worked with anybody with such remarkable energy and focus and desire to get the heart of it."
For Rivera, that passion is fueled by the desire to be back in the room with old friends doing what they do best – creating a new American musical. "You watch them run around and you're going, 'Wow. We're home!,'" she beamed. "I'm home with them. It's inspiring. It's simply inspiring, and just you take it and you run with it. These are gifts! And you don't throw gifts away, not when they're that valuable."
"I never doubted it would be done," McNally said of The Visit's long-awaited Broadway arrival. "And Chita was the same way. You know, I always said, 'Chita, you can never be too old for this part.' And she said, 'Well, we're getting to that point!'"
Those same iconic legs that flashed across the stage of the Winter Garden Theatre during West Side Story's show-stopping "America" and seemed to stretch impossibly above her head in Kiss of the Spider Woman's "Where You Are," now carry the 82-year-old legend up three narrow flights of winding metal stairs to her dressing room backstage at the Lyceum Theatre on a nightly basis.
That climb isn't a hassle, it's showbiz. "When you're with people that are really giving you stuff that feeds you and makes you do things, it's energizing!" Rivera said, lifting an eyebrow only the way she can. "You know that... When someone makes you laugh. When someone makes you cry. They touch you so... and you like them. You don't wanna die then, you just wanna get that person and stay there. It's living. That's what life is all about."
See the full gallery of Rivera getting into character.