No one makes an entrance like Chita Rivera. Whether it’s the athletic power with which she launches into a turn, taking the audience with her so that we too are caught in mid-air, or the way she commands attention even in stillness. The lift of a finger, the curl of an eyebrow, or the way she scans an audience like a hawk—mirroring back the same breathless anticipation we feel in our seats—Chita is in charge.
The 85-year-old living legend, who was just honored with a Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement, has spent a lifetime onstage—almost constantly in motion—and she has no plans of stopping.
“Keep moving,” she says. “I never say, ‘I used to.’”
She’s hesitant to talk about herself in terms of her singular talent. But what makes Rivera both a star—and in turn, a Broadway legend—are her instincts.
“It's very satisfying, very gratifying to know that what those teachers taught you really works,” she says. “It allows you all the power that you've got, the energy that you've got. It allows that to come out and be stable because you've got that technique underneath you. That’s all power.”
When asked about the remarkable power and intent that carries across the stage in any of the dances from The Rink, or “Where You Are” from Kiss of the Spider Woman, Rivera reveals a life-long secret for why we can’t take our eyes off her.
“To start something is to get the attention. You've got to start it and get that energy funneled right down to where you want it. And then you can do anything you want in between,” she pauses, before adding with her signature purr, “Then finish it on a dime.”
“Just be clean, clean,” she insists. “When people look at something or hear something, they want to hear the truth. They want to see what it really is. If it's mashed potatoes, which are delicious, but you can sink in mashed potatoes. But if you hit something hard, you know it's hard and you know, you've been hit. It's clear and it's true.
“Somebody did a caricature of me years and years ago and it was my face, but there were arrows coming from all around my head and my hands,” she laughs recalling. “And it's exactly the way I feel my energy goes out into the air because I believe that we are an extension of the atmosphere. We can reach out there and reach that wall, you know? And if you do it with power—it’s good.”
Paired with her skill is her spotless professionalism. There are no “diva” stories attached to Rivera’s name. No backstage drama precedes her.
“Certainly this does not apply to a creator, to a choreographer or director, or anything like that. I keep my mindset very obedient, you know, and very, very respectful,” she confesses. “But you’re in companies with different personalities and some piss you off, you know? So you say it: ‘You know, that wasn’t right?’ You just let them know. And one way or the other, you feel clearer, you both feel clearer. Just clear the air. ‘I’m coming through to you. I cannot move forward with you in my way, and I feel stupid.’ There's nothing wrong with saying that. ‘I really feel stupid right now, how do we clear this?’ Talk about it and get it out. It's a good way to clear it. You can't play these stupid games that people play. Life is nowhere near as complicated as we make it. Nowhere near.”
There are moments from her career Rivera recalls with absolute clarity. Including her West Side Story audition, as well as rehearsals for the groundbreaking work.
“I remember singing ‘My Man’s Gone Now’ for Leonard Bernstein and him laughing,” she laughs. “He was the sweetest and most kind. But I've made myself live with it in a humorous way because I really feel that I made him laugh with my baritone voice singing that song. He asked me to sing it again. I felt like he was saying, ‘I can’t believe she did that!’”
Rivera also recounts the creation of “The Dance at the Gym,” which owes as much to Jerome Robbins as it does to Peter Gennaro, who choreographed all of the Sharks’ material. “Jerry picked a heck of an assistant with Peter Gennaro. Peter was an extraordinary dancer himself, born in Louisiana—had rhythm from top of his head to the tip of his toes and further—he was taught to dance in the kitchens by the black cooks and stuff like that, so he had rhythm in his soul. But he did all of the choreography for the Sharks and Jerry did all of the choreography for the Jets.
“We had one group in one room and one in the other room. We knew that the whole idea was going to be one group challenging the other, but we didn't know what they were going to do, so it really was a surprise when we walk into that room. I remember clearly during rehearsals when they caught us with a siren. All of a sudden we’re busy dancing and we hear that and here they come! I think we had a lift that distracted them. It was all about distraction and who took over, and it was very real.”
Those same iconic legs that flashed across the stage of the Winter Garden Theatre during West Side Story's show-stopping “America” continue to carry Rivera onto stages across the country. And Rivera is, quite literally, still kicking.
“What I try not to do, and it's hard not to do it, is to use the words ‘I used to.’ I make the joke about it now in my club act because I have a last section of West Side Story and it’s eight bars and I do a double kick and finish. And then I tell the truth, I confess to the audience, ‘You know that double kick I did? It used to be up here.’ And so it kind of smoothly gets me away from, ‘Oh, I wish I could kick up there again.’ You just have to accept and, and you put it someplace else, you know?”
As the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Tony, Rivera says part of her drive is hunger. “I was watching TV the other night and I went, ‘I want to live their lives! What am I doing? Sitting here watching TV!?' I go a little extreme sometimes, but hungry is the word. It keeps me alive.”
What also fuels her work ethic is the desire to connect with her fans. “You always make time for your fans. It’s food. We are food for each other. And we're foolish not to take time to eat. You look into the face of a person that feels you and understands you. It’s invigorating. It can make you forget any problems you might have just for a minute. That gives you strength, you know, that's why it's important to stop, because you never know what somebody's going through.”
As much as it has been a place for Rivera to grow, the stage has also been a place for her to heal. “When my mother passed, I was in Merlin, and I went in and I did a show, and I felt so much better being with those people. They just made me feel better. It sounds very selfish, but the theatre has been a place for me to heal, totally.
“To sing Fred Ebb’s lyrics and John Kander’s music, and to be directed by John Doyle and Graciela Daniele… They make you feel as though you're better than you are. You almost don't know who you are.”
So, who is Chita Rivera? “You're all of these other people,” she reveals. “I kind of see myself as all different colors, you know?”
Rivera will share songs and stories from her history-making performances in West Side Story, Bye Bye Birdie, Kiss of the Spider Woman, and more June 25 at the 92nd Street Y. Rivera is scheduled for two performances: 2 PM and 7:30 PM. For tickets, starting at $40, visit 92Y.org.
Celebrate Broadway Legend Chita Rivera
Rivera has been a special guest performer on Playbill’s Broadway on the High Seas cruises. Cabins are now on sale for Playbill’s Broadway on the Rhône River 2 cruise April 7–14, 2019, featuring Melissa Errico, Rebecca Luker, Marc Kudisch, and Seth Rudetsky. Call Playbill Travel for tickets at 866-455-6789 or visit PlaybillTravel.com.