Chita Rivera currently stars in Cole Porter's Anything Goes at the Paper Mill Playhouse, where the two-time Tony winner plays Reno Sweeney. Rivera has appeared in numerous landmark musicals over her four decade-plus career, having starred in West Side StoryBye Bye Birdie, Chicago, The Rink and Kiss of the Spider Woman. She earned Tony awards for her roles in the last two. After her run at Paper Mill, Rivera will stay busy, performing in Jorge Accame's comedy, Venecia, which is being adapted and directed by Arthur Laurents at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick. Rivera will then return to her own show, a broad sampling of musical theatre entitled "Chita and All That Jazz," which she hopes to open in London next year.
Playbill On-Line: You've been running a few weeks now with Anything Goes at the Paper Mill Playhouse. Is the production as much fun to do as it is to watch?
Chita Rivera: I'll tell you, it really is everything I hoped it would be. I'm just getting so much pleasure from it and the cast is so talented. Everyone has been working together as expected and it's an example of unity. And another thing—I'll never say anything bad about New Jersey again.
PBOL: At a run through, one of your cast mates, Patrick Quinn, described working with you by way of a story: He said he had missed some steps in rehearsal and when they stopped the number he started to raise his hand to 'fess up, but you raised yours instead and said, "That was my fault. Sorry."
CR: [Laughs] Oh, all of the guys are so talented and I have a blast with them—and Patrick is certainly one of them. I've never seen a group that was so generous and it just blows me away.
PBOL: Your director in Anything Goes, Lee Roy Reams recently compared you to Gwen Verdon. How would you describe him?
CR: Leroy is like a fan to theatre. He just loves the theatre and he loves actors. I think the thing is that he loves what the theatre does—like when he directs a scene, and it's supposed to be funny, he laughs with you. When you have that, you have everything. And in this show we also have Michael Lichtefeld, who is a great choreographer.
PBOL: Aren't you also doing Venecia with Arthur Laurents this season?
CR: Arthur called me about this play he was doing and he said he'd like me to do it with him. It sounds like a lot of fun. Arthur and I certainly have a lot of history together. PBOL: It's been reported that you're definitely doing the project. Is it a done deal?
CR: I loved it when I read it, and I think we're going be doing it. I haven't spoken to him since I've been out here in New Jersey doing Anything Goes. I'm one of those people who does one thing and then the next. I don't do five things at one time. I think it's on for January.
PBOL: How far back do you and Arthur Laurents actually go?
CR: Well, we first met on West Side Story, which was our first thing and the beginning of our lives. Arthur was great and wonderful to me. West Side Story was a huge learning experience for me and fortunately I was in the hands of brilliant people.
PBOL: Do you think that experience helped shape the way you work with people yourself?
CR: Oh, absolutely. I mean, none of us had acted before. We learned everything in that show, even though we had no idea what it was really offering us. It was just a part of being one of the insiders of West Side Story. In fact, it wasn't until we had a run-through that we realized this was something really powerful. The response was powerful. As an actor, you don't step outside yourself, but at one point we were in rehearsal for our show and the tragedy that inspired Cape Man happened down the block in a playground for kids. And Jerry [director Jerome Robbins] showed us a front page story with a picture of a man with a knife and said, "This is your life." And we realized this was serious stuff that we were doing.
PBOL: It must have been amazing to have been a part of all that.
CR: A lot of wonderful things happened to all of us on West Side Story. Of course, we did not win the Tony— Music Man won the Tony. That, in itself, was a great lesson. You have to really believe in what you do and you can't think otherwise, and if something disappoints you, you can't let that ruin you. At the time, we said "What? How can Music Man win over West Side Story?" We just said it was a good example of "letting go" —of believing in what you're doing because, when it comes to other people, those in power can be wrong. I love The Music Man and I don't compare it to West Side Story, but I thought [the latter] was a wonderful show and deserved much more than what it got.
PBOL: Is there any show or project you've done, maybe something early on, that you dropped off your resume as soon as you had other credits?
CR: I'm extremely honest about my life. I haven't hidden anything at all. I didn't hide 1491. I did that in California with John Cullum. It was pretty funny—not good—but I guess one had to really attempt to believe in it to really do it.
PBOL: Is there anyone you'd like to work with but haven't had the chance to do so?
CR: I've been around for so long, I think I've worked with just about everybody, so I'd have to really think about it.
PBOL: What are your future plans?
CR: I'll be doing My Favorite Broadway: The Love Songs . I think it's coming up right after Paper Mill. We'll be working with Julie Andrews. I wanted to do the first one (My Favorite Broadway: The Leading ladies) but I was unable to.
PBOL: You're also planning to present your own show soon, aren't you?
CR: Well, I'm making an exception to my own rule here, about not talking about a new project until it is absolutely locked up, but I am hoping to do my show in London. It's called Chita and All That Jazz and it will be done in London, Australia and New York City. The one thing I really want to do is my show. It's kind of a 90-minute biography of all the shows I have been fortunate to do since I first did Call Me Madam in the fifties with Elaine Stritch. I want to do it sooner rather than later and I generally don't talk about something that isn't absolute, but maybe if I get it out the positive energy will come back. We did a version of it last year, but now we've really fine tuned it. The main thing is, I want to do it while I still can.
PBOL: What inspired the show?
CR: The inspiration came when I was on the tail end of Kiss and I thought I would like to give thanks to all those people that have been responsible for my wonderful career and life. It has numbers from the shows I've been in and they're all wonderful, with wonderful memories and fun stories.
— By Murdoch McBride