The Alchemy of Theatre: Leading Lady Chita Rivera

Special Features   The Alchemy of Theatre: Leading Lady Chita Rivera
 
Tony Award winner Chita Rivera shares her take on the art of collaboration in this excerpt from Playbill Books' new release "The Alchemy of Theatre."
Tony Award winner Chita Rivera
Tony Award winner Chita Rivera

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While it's true that the essence of drama is conflict, the essence of creating drama turns out to be…cooperation. And in the world of theatre, that kind of cooperation among people of enormous talent placed under enormous stress is called collaboration.

Playbill Books invited some of the best collaborators from all walks of the theatre world to share their wisdom on this "divine art" in a series of 27 remarkable essays published as the book "The Alchemy of Theatre."

Included are essays by directors Hal Prince, Susan Stroman and George C. Wolfe; playwrights Edward Albee and Wendy Wasserstein; librettist Terrence McNally, songwriters Cy Coleman, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty; producer Rocco Landesman; actor Brian Stokes Mitchell; set designer Robin Wagner; costume designer William Ivey Long; music director Paul Gemignani, plus a stage manager, a theatre owner, a casting director, a press agent, an orchestrator, other designers, et al.

Two of the essays, "Generosity" by the late playwright Wendy Wasserstein and "Fighting Honestly" by the late composer Cy Coleman, are among the last projects they worked on before they were taken from us. "The Alchemy of Theatre" offers a broad sampling of all the people whose collaboration is needed to create Broadway shows. Their wisdom has significance beyond the world of theatre as well.

In "Playing," her essay on how to collaborate as a Leading Lady, Chita Rivera writes about how to work with demanding directors and choreographers while keeping the rest of the cast happy and cooperative. The essay follows.

"PLAYING"
Chita Rivera/Leading Lady

In order to collaborate you have to learn about yourself.

The chorus line is an excellent place to do that, because it's the place you also learn about others. A chorus line must be a unit — but within that unit you must learn how also to be the person next to you, and how work with the person at the end of the line. You all have to do things that are at times are identical, at times different, but linked and interwoven. To make that happen, you not only have to know your job, you also have to understand how others are doing their jobs.

People see the Rockettes and they go, "Oh my God, how fabulous." It's because the Rockettes are completely aware of each other. There's power in numbers, but there's even more power in being aware of each other. I wish the entire world did that in everything, not just in theatre.

In the original cast of Can-Can, I was one of eight girls in the chorus who had to do cartwheels, one between the other. If you didn't know exactly where the person was next to you, respect their space and be in control of your own giving and taking, there would have been collisions all over the place. Working in the chorus teaches you that you can't just walk around in your little fishbowl and expect to get anything back at all —or even do what you yourself have to do — unless you are very much aware of the next person. That serves you well, whether you're working in the chorus, or working downstage in the spotlight as the star. Paradoxically, it's almost selfish, because you get so much from everybody else.

Some people think they are too good for a chorus. That's so wrong. That's the best training you can have to begin to learn how to collaborate.

Breathing

Actually, I don't think the word "collaborate" accurately describes what we do. I think of it as creating and living and even breathing together. When you see a Jerome Robbins collaborating with a Leonard Bernstein on West Side Story, or Fred Ebb and John Kander collaborating with each other on Chicago or Kiss of the Spider Woman, what you really see is a merging of creative spirits. If you want to create theatre, you cannot be an island unto yourself.

Maybe, instead of "collaborating" we should call it "learning." I think what moved me from chorus part to leading lady is the fact that I never stopped learning from others. I kept listening and observing and figuring out how what I do can fit better with what everybody else is doing. It's a gradual progression and a natural one. And, if you do it right, you find that you are learning and teaching at exactly the same time.

The more I think about it, the less I think the word "collaboration" is the right one. It’s such a funny word. It means "laboring together," but "labor" is such a harsh word. And what happens is deeper than that. It should be a warmer word than that. It's really living something together. Collaboration is living and sharing.

When I worked with Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon on the original Chicago, we had so many times where, creatively, one plus one would somehow equal three. There was a number near the end of the show, titled "Hot Honey Rag," which Gwen and I called "Two Dancing as One," because that is what Bob asked us to do. Gwen and I had to be identical. To do that, we had to be inside each other's heads every time. And when we did it right, the audience got so much more than the effect of either of us dancing alone. It was something beyond that. What is the right word?

Training

I was trained as a ballerina. In Washington, DC, I worked with a fabulous teacher called Doris Jones. George Balanchine sent some scouts, and Louis Johnson and I were selected to come to the School of American Ballet on scholarships. That's where I learned the principles of collaboration. That training is with me still, and has kept my head above water all my life.

Dancers are very obedient. We do as we are told. But if the creators are the kind of people that I have been fortunate enough to work with, they will be very critical of their own work. They have an "eye" for what’s not just right. And they will listen to you.

You go into a rehearsal hall. You've got your script and you've got your music from the collaborating team. Then the director gives you something to do. No matter what it is, no matter how challenging or offbeat, you try it. You do what you're given. I'm a firm believer in doing what the creative team asks of you first.

If I do exactly what I've been asked to do and it still looks odd on my body or it doesn't look right to the creator's eye, then the creator will change it. If it feels uncomfortable, I'll ask if we can do it another way, or sometimes I will suggest another way. Most truly great choreographers will be able to create many different variations on a theme. So they'll have you try it this way and that way in order to get to a way that works for everybody—and works for the show.

Some people think things have to be one way only. There's nothing that's just one way. Your idea is not the only idea that's out there. It's only one of millions and millions of ideas.

If everyone is lucky, it may turn out that the idea you use is a step beyond what the directors or choreographers had originally conceived. That's what those rehearsal halls are all about. It's throwing into a huge pot everyone's ingredients and coming up with a great stew that everybody loves and understands. Creativity is a gift that God gives you. You use it to work things out in a way that, hopefully, satisfies the audience. Instead of "collaboration," let's call it creating together.

Becoming a Leading Lady

Bye Bye Birdie was the first show on which I had top billing, though just a tiny bit more than Dick Van Dyke's. I had gone from bottom of the chorus to the top of the marquee in just seven years. That show was all about collaboration. Our captain was Gower Champion, who had made his name in movies as a dance partner with his wife, Marge. He would later stage Hello, Dolly! and 42nd Street, but this was his first major Broadway show as both director and choreographer. There were a lot of firsts on that show. It was the first score for Charles Strouse and Lee Adams. Even Paul Lynde hadn't done a lot of shows at that point, so we were all sort of in the same pot.

I can't say there was a certain moment where I learned how to be a leading lady. I've been "Chita" my whole life. As you get older you learn lessons. You get more mature. You know how to hold a stage better. These are things that happen automatically. I didn't wear sneakers and jeans and then suddenly change into leading lady clothes. I just did my job and tried to keep the company together by being a good example. It's as simple as that. I always just try to appreciate who I am working with, appreciate the piece that I am in, and appreciate the audience that I am trying to please. I try to do my very best and give back every single time I do a show.

If you want to see a living example of how to do it all right, there's Brian Stokes Mitchell. We worked together on Kiss of the Spider Woman. He's the crème de la crème. He's an example of how to keep a company happy and keep it constantly creative. He has the ability of give and take. He is a constant vessel of love and creativity. He allows his own creativity to come out. He is very open to everybody and therefore he allows everyone else to be creative. That comes from love, really, and respect: respect for his business, respect for his co-workers and respect for the piece he is doing. You know that old expression "what goes around comes around"? Stokes lives that.

Part of collaborating is understanding what your collaborator's limits are. In the taunting scene of West Side Story I played Anita and I was trying to deliver a message to Tony. The other boys in the gang start insulting me and throwing me around and making racial remarks to me. My father was born in Puerto Rico, so it was very difficult. Jerome Robbins never made me rehearse the taunting scene more than once a day because he saw that it was taking so much out of all of us. That, too, was collaborating.

Not everyone has that kind of sensitivity. A lot of times, ego gets in the way. When people refuse to collaborate, what they're really doing is refusing to think of the piece as a whole. Sometimes that can be very hard. In the original production of Chicago, Bob Fosse had to let go an actor who was absolutely brilliant. He played my agent and had an amazing Kander and Ebb number called "Ten Percent." But Fosse's "eye" told him that the part—not the actor—was pushing the play off-balance. So he made the decision, and it broke his heart, and all of our hearts, to see the actor go. Now, Kander and Ebb could have said, "We like that song, and we're going to keep it." And there could have been a big fight. But they trusted Fosse, and they let it go. Sometimes collaboration means that, too. They did it for the sake of the play as a whole.

Watching Kander & Ebb

I worked with Kander and Ebb on three shows: Chicago, The Rink and Kiss of the Spider Woman, so I've had a chance to observe them closely. They are amazing collaborators—not just with each other, but with everyone. They know exactly what Liza is about, they know exactly what I'm about.

I once spent the night at Freddy Ebb's house. I’ll never forget sitting there, listening to these two amazing men in the next room, creating wonderful things for me to sing and to say and to dance. I couldn't believe how it was pouring out of the two of them. They'd go back over and over something and they'd say, "No, that’s doesn't seem right." Then Freddy would yell out lyrics that were just amazing. And John would say, "What about this music?" And they'd change it and they fix it. They have a gift for it, a gift from God.

Playing With My Daughter

Something horrible happens as you get older: you develop a fear of trying things, and a fear of looking foolish.

When my daughter, Lisa Mordente, was little we used to sit in the middle of the bed play for hours. She was brought up on Danny Kaye movies and Jerry Lewis movies and Chaplin's and all the great clowns because I believe that humor is a vital thing, especially these days. She would say, "Mommy, do Jerry Lewis!" And I would act the fool for her, and she would roll all over the bed laughing. And then I'd say, "Now it's your turn!" And we would play that way. I suppose we were collaborating. We were collaborating on how to laugh and be free and enjoy each other. And I could see her getting better and better at imitating these people.

Perhaps that's a better word than "collaborating." In the theatre, we lay. That's why we call them "plays" right? We're playing together. That's a sweet and gentle way of saying it. Except its very real. It's grown-up play. And it's how we stay in touch with the child within us.

Working with Dick Van Dyke on Bye Bye Birdie was play. He was absolutely hilarious. We would laugh so hard that we couldn’t stop. Gower would say to Dick and myself, "All right, you two…!" But we improvised a lot of funny stage business that way.

When I was working with Gower on "The Shriner's Ballet" he would encourage me to do things that were absolutely silly and fun, and he would say, "Keep it!" And I would say, "Are you kidding?" And he would say, "Yeah, that's really funny."

Liza Minnelli loves to play like that, too. She subbed for Gwen in Chicago, and played my daughter in The Rink. First of all, we like each other. It's not hard to be free with someone that you like and you truly respect. It's like a reflection, almost. It means you understand. And if you understand, then it means there is something in you that is comparable to what is in the other person. That was a wonderful time for us creatively. We had a mother-daughter fight in a song called "Don't 'Aw Ma' Me," and we got off on laughing with each other. I would get such pleasure out of seeing her do that, and vice versa. A lot of that wound up in the staging, too. And we kept pushing each other every night.

If you're planning a career in the theatre, you have to keep certain principles in front of you always: You must watch. You must listen. You must share. You must breathe together with others. You must respect your work. You must respect the creativity in the air around you. And you must re-learn how to play.

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Here is a complete list of the essayists in "The Alchemy of Theatre" and the titles of their essays.

PREFACE – Collaborating with the Collaborators – Robert Viagas

PART I – PEN TO PAPER

Generosity – Wendy Wasserstein / Playwright
Creation and Interpretation – Edward Albee / Playwright
Fighting Honestly – Cy Coleman / Composer
A Blueprint for the House – Terrence McNally / Librettist
A Place You Couldn't Find On Your Own – Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty / Lyricist and Composer

PART II – CAPTAINS

The Theatres Remain – Gerald Schoenfeld / Theatre Owner
The Potential for Greatness – Rocco Landesman / Producer
The Perfect CollaborationHarold Prince / Director and Producer
Having the Last Word – Susan Stroman / Director and Choreographer
The Solution Can Be in Anybody – George C. Wolfe / Director and Executive
Discreet Maitre D’— or Pushy Waiter? – Jay Binder / Casting Director
Unison and Harmony – Paul Gemignani / Musical Director and Conductor
Everyone Tells the Story – Peter Lawrence / Stage Manager

PART III – THEIR HOUR UPON THE STAGE

Playing – Chita Rivera / Leading Lady
An Actor Watches – Brian Stokes Mitchell / Leading Man
Playing Both PartsKathleen Chalfant / Actress
The Art of the Second BananaDick Latessa / Actor
The Other Person's Head – Cynthia Onrubia / Dancer

PART IV – COMPLETION

Many Gifts Put Together – Robin Wagner / Set Designer
Doorknobs and Pocketbooks – William Ivey Long / Costume Designer
Looking Out the WindowJules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer / Lighting Designer
Searching for Pianissimo – Tony Meola / Sound Designer
The Three Commandments – William David Brohn / Orchestrator
You Are So Close – Angelina Avallone / Makeup Designer
Speaking to the Public – Nancy Coyne / Advertising
Liquid News – Adrian Bryan-Brown / Public Relations

(The complete "The Alchemy of Theatre" can be ordered at a discount by clicking here.)

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