“You're used to a life of limitations, but they don't become limitations if you get the results you want,” says Chita Rivera. The star’s commitment to her own success may be the reason that the firecracker performer still lights up stages in her 80s as she brings her solo show to New York’s famed Café Carlyle April 19-30.
The theatre legend has lived a life onstage. With 18 Broadway credits (plus ten Tony nominations and two wins), she has worked consistently since the age of 19—when she earned a spot on the national tour of Call Me Madam.
It’s the work and care she put into herself in those early days that keeps Rivera in top form today. “The kids should know: There is a huge, long future in their lives if they want it, and you have to give up certain things, but they’re replaced by other things that are certainly worthwhile,” says Rivera. Ever the workhorse, Rivera got her sleep, ate properly and didn’t “run wild.” It sounds simple, and it is, but those small choices day in and day out granted Rivera a longevity that seems almost impossible in such a grueling business.
Plus, she took class. “My ballet training, that is the most important training there is,” says Rivera. She should know; she trained with George Balanchine at the American School of Ballet from age 16, setting the foundation for her life in dance. “You’ll find football players that will go for a ballet class. … It’s just smart to have that kind of [ballet-based] strength.”
It’s not just her training that kept her onstage. Rivera embodies the old adage “work begets work,” and not only because she constantly remained in the eye of casting directors. “Each thing stimulates the next,” she says. Rivera feeds off of the work she does and the people she works with. “I’ve also been so lucky to work with the best people in the business, and they just stimulate the heck outta ya. I don’t care how you feel; you walk into Fred Ebb—when Freddie was alive—or you walk into John Kander—any of these great, great people—or Liza or any of them that I’ve worked with, and you’re stimulated right away. The right company is vital.”
The company she keeps motivated her appearance at Café Carlyle. “It really is in honor of Bobby,” she says, referring to the late cabaret performer who was a fixture at the Carlyle. “[The Carlyle] was the home, I think it always will be the home of a great friend of mine, Bobby Short, and I think it still rings from his reign of so many years there.”
Rivera has a palpable respect for her craft, fueled by her passion. Like she says, if you want it you can have it. “I saw this amazing [documentary]—The Wrecking Crew I think it’s called—and it’s about a group of musicians during the ’60s and ’70s that played all of the recordings for groups that were getting all the credit … this group of musicians got no credit, and they didn’t want it because they said they loved to work,” she explains.
For Rivera, her upcoming show is about gratitude and memories. “If you have the opportunity to do what you love and what you feel you can do in order to communicate with the rest of the world, you do it and you’re grateful for it.”
Ruthie Fierberg is the Features Editor at Playbill.com. She has also written for Backstage, Parents and American Baby, including dozens of interviews with celeb moms and dads for parents.com. Follow her on Twitter at @RuthiesATrain or read more at RuthieFierberg.com.