Back in the 1950s—when Chita Rivera auditioned for the role of Anita in West Side Story—“dancers at that time hadn’t thought about songs to sing,” the two-time Tony winner explains. Still, she stood before director-choreographer Jerome Robbins, composer Leonard Bernstein, and lyricist Stephen Sondheim to try out for the show that opened on Broadway 60 years ago.
“I [was] excited and nervous, and I thought, ‘What in the world should I sing?,’ so I decided on ‘My Man’s Gone Now’ from Porgy and Bess, which really is just absurd,” she says, laughing. “It’s just ridiculous and funny. It’s [for a] soprano, and here I am: a dancer, and I’m a baritone! I start to sing it, and I see this little smile on Lenny’s face, and I didn’t know what it meant, but I just kept on going, and he thought it was so amusing that he made me do it again. To this day, I never asked, ‘Was he smiling at me?’ I think he just thought that the situation was fun. And, I got the job, so who cares!”
But now, Rivera—who returns to New York City’s Café Carlyle beginning May 9—thinks carefully about the songs she’ll show off in the spotlight. “I believe that music is language,” she says, “and to not have music in one’s life is one of the saddest things. You have to have music.
“Every time I do [my concert act]—and I’ve been doing it for a long time, switching stories, rearranging it, and adding a song here and there—most of the guys in my orchestra have said the same thing: every time we get to it, whether it be Sweet Charity or Jacques Brel, [they know] I am happy to do it. That’s how much I love the music that I do.”
Aside from Bernstein and Sondheim, Rivera’s favorite songwriters include Jacques Brel, whose musical revue Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris Rivera toured with in 1970; Cy Coleman, who wrote the tunes of Sweet Charity (Rivera played Nickie in the 1969 film adaptation); Jule Styne, whose musical revue Wonderworld starred Rivera; Charles Strouse and Lee Adams, the writers of Bye Bye Birdie; and—certainly, she says—John Kander and Fred Ebb, the duo behind her leading roles in Chicago, The Rink, Kiss of the Spider Woman, and her last Broadway outing, The Visit.
Though the songs of The Visit were recorded and released in July 2015, Rivera still hasn’t listened. “I haven’t heard the recording yet because it usually takes me about a year before I’ll [go back and listen],” she explains. “I’m a person who lives in the moment, and so I never want to hear anything until it’s later on because then I’m ready for it.”
Refraining from listening doesn’t stop Rivera from singing. “Music is life,” she says, and—at age 84 with a career spanning six decades—music is impossible for her to give up.