I'll never forget the "Aha" moment I had watching the 1998 Kennedy Center Honors, where in tribute to honorees John Kander and Fred Ebb, there was an intergenerational cavalcade of stars in a sort of reverse passing of the torch. Alan Cumming, at the time starring on Broadway as the Emcee in Cabaret, performed "Willkommen," giving way to original Emcee Joey Grey for the second verse, followed by Bebe Neuwirth singing "All That Jazz" from Chicago, just as I had recently seen her do on Broadway, and on the Rosie O'Donnell Show, and, as I recall, scores of other television appearances promoting that revival.
Then, Chita Rivera took the stage singing the second verse of "All That Jazz." No, that's an understatement. Chita seemed to spring forth from the stage as if she and it were one and the same, like a wave to the ocean — a tsunami if you'll indulge me further in the metaphor. It's not just that Chita's almost baroque incorporation of fluid flourishes, backphrasing, cooing, growling and embellishing looked decadent next to Neuwirth's spare, dry take on the number, and it's not just that Chita's the rare star who seems deeply connected to the ensemble, like she integrates all their energy and focus into her own powerful presence — and it's not just that the Bills (Cosby and Clinton) practically leapt out of their gilded box in excitement when she appeared. All those things and more are what have made Chita Rivera Broadway's most enduring treasure.
Of course, Chita is renowned for being a triple threat and has had many of her biggest successes in musicals with a lot of dancing. As I've admitted in this column, I'm a heathen, a heretic, a fool — I don't like choreography. Nine times out of ten, as soon as the dancing starts, my eyes glaze over. It goes without saying that if Chita Rivera is the one dancing, it's gonna be that one time out of ten I'm into it, but still I always think of Seth Rudetsky's wonderful solo play, Rhapsody in Seth, where he said that although Chita was known as a dancer, he loved her as a belter. The following are my favorite Chita Rivera belting moments.
10. "There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This"
Chita Rivera starred as the title role in the original national tour of Sweet Charity and then played the second banana, Nicky, in Bob Fosse's 1969 film starring Shirley MacLaine. Lucky for us, Nicky gets to sing a good chunk of one of the best songs and so we have this delicious clip of Chita for the ages. Part of what has always made her great is how conversational her singing voice is — she sings the way she speaks. This means her acting always extends into the song, making the lyrics interesting and believable, and, as in this case, a lot of fun!
9. "I Love Paris"
Can-Can is another show in which Chita toured, this one in the 80s and co-starring the Rockettes. It's fitting that I would choose not one of the big dance numbers with the Rockettes, but this classic ballad. "I Love Paris" is a standard and has been sung and recorded by countless other performers (memorably including my own beloved Patti LuPone), but Chita's rendition hold its own in that company. With big, belt notes like that, she doesn't even need to dance!
8. "Spread A Little Sunshine"
Did somebody say sexy? Chita may have been several decades into her Broadway stardom when she played Fastrada in Bob Fosse's televised production of Pippin, but she was hotter than ever in sleeveless silver sequins with legs for days. She sang the hell out of Stephen Schwartz's "Spread A Little Sunshine" and found just the right balance of seductive, conniving and comedic.
7. "Follies Bergere"
David Leveaux's 2003 production of Nine, starring Antonio Banderas, was also blessed to feature Chita Rivera in a supporting role. Chita played Liliane LaFleur. Her big number, "Follies Bergere," was, of course, reconceived to make use of Chita's legendary legs, but it is the memory of her hearty, throaty rendition of the tune I will cherish most, along with the extended ovation — people literally hollering, "Brava, diva!" amidst the hoots and whistles.
6. "How Lucky Can You Get?"
Having triumphed on Broadway in the Kander and Ebb musicals Chicago, The Rink and Kiss of the Spider Woman, (not to mention out-of-town performances in Zorba and The Visit), it's no surprise that Chita would be a natural for other songs from the Kander and Ebb catalogue. One of my favorites, "How Lucky Can You Get?," which they wrote for Barbra Streisand in "Funny Lady" (and is one of the highlights of their songbook revue, And the World Goes Round), is perhaps more vocally rangy and difficult to sing than some of the material people would associate with Chita Rivera, let alone the average Broadway dancer. Well, Chita is not the average anything, and she delivers a thrilling version of this song, easily on par with renditions by Streisand and the other ladies known primarily as singers and not dancers.
5. The Rink
There's so much to love about Chita Rivera in the The Rink. No, I never saw it, but I have memorized the original cast album and spent more than a few afternoons entranced by the clips on YouTube. I'm not alone — Chita won her first Tony Award for The Rink. She comes out swinging with the toe-tapper, "Chief Cook and Bottle Washer," another song that perfectly demonstrates how accessible her personality is in her singing voice. You hear her and you feel you know her. As a matter of fact, writing about Rivera, I find myself referring to her just as "Chita," as if we were friends. We're not friends, although Chita seems like someone I'd want to be friends with the way she sasses Liza Minnelli (and belts her face off) in the unforgettable duets, "Don't Ah Ma Me" and "The Apple Doesn't Fall Very Far From The Tree." Chita's also warm and funny in "Wallflower" and proves her aptitude with a ballad on the plaintive, inspiring "We Can Make It."
4. Kiss of the Spider Woman
Kiss of the Spider Woman is the second Kander and Ebb show for which Chita won a Tony Award, but in this case, I was lucky enough to see her in the show several times. I actually saw her in the show three times, but several sounds better because with Chita, more is more. Her performance in Kiss of the Spider Woman was a master class in commanding the stage and in acting through song and dance. (She had no dialogue scenes.) Of course, her big number "Where You Are" stopped the show cold and she was scintillating singing up a storm in the title song and moving in "I Do Miracles." I think my favorite moments, though, were her campy, belt-tastic "Russian Movie Star" exclaiming, "Viva la Guerra! Viva la Revolucion!" and her solo in the thrillingly climactic trio "Anything For Him," where she warned, "Soon, I feel it. Soon, somehow, I will have him any minute now," with the orchestra crashing around her. I get goose bumps just thinking about it.
Yet another example of how conversational Chita Rivera's song performances are is Bye Bye Birdie, where Chita's own relatable American accent contradicts Mrs. Peterson's view of her as the fiery Spanish Rose and helps ensure that we as the audience (and indeed as the home listener!) are on Rosie's side. This starts right up top with a Chita solo so strong no less than Gower Champion felt confident opening the show with it: "An English Teacher." Thanks to Seth Rudetsky for this terrific deconstruction.
Despite two Tony Awards (so far!) and decade after decade of countless Broadway credits and television and film appearances and nightclubs and concerts, Chita will perhaps forever be best known as the original Anita in the landmark West Side Story. Her full-throttle "America" is in and of itself Broadway legend, and she's equally exciting solo and counterpoint in both the "Tonight" quintet and the stunning "A Boy Like That/I Have A Love."
They say that Bob Fosse's original 1975 production of Chicago failed to make a big impact on mainstream culture because it was overshadowed by the same year's watershed A Chorus Line or because culturally we weren't as tuned into that kind of celebrity criminal idea until decades later. Now, in light of phenomenal success of Chicago's (still running) 1996 revival and the Academy Award-winning 2002 film, it's hard to believe the production with Chita Rivera (and, not to mention, Gwen Verdon) was less successful. Certainly, and without a doubt, no one has ever belted "All That Jazz" with more passion and style than Chita Rivera.
(Ben Rimalower is the author and original star star of the critically acclaimed Patti Issues. Read Playbill.com's coverage of the solo show here. Visit him at benrimalower.com and follow @benrimalower on Twitter.)