A Rivera Runs Through It

A Rivera Runs Through It In Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life, the incomparable star dazzles audiences with what book writer Terrence McNally calls a master class of American musical theatre.

From Left: Chita Rivera and Graciela Daniele.
From Left: Chita Rivera and Graciela Daniele. Photo by Paul Kolnik

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Musical theatre history is a richer thing because of the razzle, dazzle and just plain showing-up of Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero. The world knows her now as, simply, Chita. She's the classic example of the right person walking through the right door at the right time. An ordinary person might have missed it because it wasn't marked back in 1950 when — out of the goodness of her heart (her prime mover in life, it turns out) — she accompanied a nervous friend to a Broadway audition and, on a whim, auditioned herself. At the time she was a 17-year-old Puerto Rican wannabe, en route from her hometown of Washington, D.C., to New York to study with George Balanchine to become A Serious Ballerina, and Jerome Robbins threw a monkey wrench into everything by hiring her for the chorus of the national company of Call Me Madam.

The rest, as they say, is history. More specifically than that, it's Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life, which starts officially passing in review Dec. 11 at the Schoenfeld Theatre. The show is a loving look back at the lady's career and art during that golden era of American musicals where she grew, literally by leaps and bounds, from "raw kid in the chorus" to major player to iconic star.

As one might expect from Terrence McNally, Tony-winning author of Master Class and the man who wrote Rivera's two Tony-winning roles (The Rink and Kiss of the Spider Woman) and concocted the musical book for The Dancer's Life out of her selective recall, something sorta scholarly has been built into Rivera's life steps. "You could say it's a kind of master class of American musical theatre. I mean, Chita's career goes from West Side Story forward. She has worked with everybody — Jerome Robbins, Bob Fosse, Gower Champion, Hal Prince, all the greats. She's a walking history. This has to be passed on to the next generation. My favorite moment in the show is when she talks about being in a room with Bernstein, Sondheim, Robbins, Prince and Arthur Laurents when they're doing scenes from West Side Story, when they're creating Those Moments. The difference between seeing Chita do 'All That Jazz' and seeing somebody else do it is phenomenal. These dances were set on her body, not on anybody else's. You are seeing The Original."

Still razzling and dazzling at 72, The Original is allowed to return to parade rest every once in a while and leave the heavy-lifting choreography to her "boys." A band of ten is turned loose on some of the big production numbers from her glittery past. They also come in handy as visual aides when she needs to demonstrate the various choreographic styles she was asked to wear in her career. "I learned a lot from watching the show," says McNally, "seeing what makes a Fosse movement different from a Robbins movement. I would hope that anybody who wants excellence in the theatre could learn something here about commitment to craft. Granted, her craft is a little more entertaining than a lawyer's or dentist's, but it's all about discipline and doing the best job you can." The notion of bringing Rivera 101 to Broadway was the brainchild of producer Marty Bell, who took his cue from the Kennedy Center Honors three years ago, when Rivera became the first Hispanic so honored. It was also his idea to hook her up with McNally and choreographer-director Graciela Daniele. The Rink was their connecting link. That was one of the first shows Daniele choreographed when she gave up dancing after the 1975 Chicago (she was the doomed Hungarian to Rivera's Velma Kelly in the "Cell Block Tango" number). Mark Hummel, the musical director, completed the creative quill. All four were barricaded in a rehearsal hall, and a show got hammered out.

"I didn't have to do much research," admits McNally. "We'd talk, and I'd go out in the hall and write. The only thing I didn't know about was her affair with Sammy Davis Jr. when they were doing Mr. Wonderful. That was before West Side Story. She was chorus before that. West Side Story is the show that brought her to everyone's attention."

It certainly brought her to his attention. He was in college then, but he remembers the day. "West Side Story blew me away. I knew something important was happening. Even then, there was a humanity about Chita's work — a spontaneity, a generosity of spirit. She has set a level of excellence. She works 150 percent. She has the chops. Her incredible technique is the reason that she's still dancing and performing at her age. Maybe she doesn't kick as high as she did 40 years ago — who does? — but she brings out her soul when she dances."

Graciela Daniele was similarly dumbstruck at first sight of Rivera — a sensational turn in 1964's underappreciated Bajour. "If you asked me what that show was about, I can't tell you," she admits. "My eyes were glued to Chita. I fell in love instantly with that power — that energy. I called her a force of nature, and she still is."

Viva Rivera! Long may we rave!