DIVA TALK: Catching Up With Tony Winner and The Mystery of Edwin Drood Star Chita Rivera

By Andrew Gans
November 16, 2012

News, views and reviews about the women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.



Chita Rivera
The indomitable Chita Rivera, the two-time Tony-winning actress who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama, is thankfully back on Broadway. The Kennedy Center Honoree, whose theatrical career has spanned more than five decades, is part of the knockout cast of The Roundabout Theatre Company's critically acclaimed revival of Rupert Holmes' The Mystery of Edwin Drood at Studio 54. Singer-actress-dancer Rivera plays the mysterious Princess Puffer, owner of an opium den, in a company that also boasts Stephanie J. Block, Will Chase, Gregg Edelman, Jim Norton, Andy Karl, Jessie Mueller and Betsy Wolfe, among others. Last week I had the great pleasure of chatting with Rivera, who like millions of others on the East Coast, lost power following the devastating Hurricane Sandy. The exceptionally gifted artist spoke about her latest Broadway outing, her advice for aspiring performers and her thoughts about the recent presidential election; that brief chat follows.

Question: Is your power back on?
Chita Rivera: Oh, thank God! Finally. I had a scare last night. My daughter's at the house with the dogs, and for a flash of a second, they flickered, but they stayed on. I haven't spoken to her this morning. When I'm finished talking to you, I'll have to call, but she would've called me had they gone out again. But thank God, they're fine. One of the company members — his went out again. It's just so sad. I've got the news on now, and it's just astronomically horrific.

Question: At least we had good news with the election.
Rivera: Oh! My God! I was really nervous — I mean, I went to mass. Not that I wouldn't go to mass anyhow, but after I voted, at the church, I said, "God, please don't let this other thing happen." So we're okay with that.

Rivera in The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: Getting to Edwin Drood, how did this role come about?
Rivera: I was asked to lunch by the creators, and Scott Ellis and I worked together — we've known each other for years — in The Rink. And, Rupert, I had never met before, but certainly knew him through Fred and John — Fred Ebb and John Kander. And, Paul Gemignani I worked with in Zorba. We had lunch, and I was actually really romanced into it because I'd never really seen it. All I knew about it was that it was a wonderful musical, and it won lots of Tonys, and one of my best friends, Graciela Daniele, had directed it. So that was enough for me. And, so I said yes. Actually, when I left, I went, "My goodness, Chita, that was very fast. You don't even know what this is about!"

Question: Doing eight shows a week is demanding. I wonder what goes into your decision whether you want to commit to that schedule.
Rivera: Oh, God — eight shows? [Laughs.] I can do eight shows faster than somebody who is 25 years old. That wasn't even an issue. Oh my God, no — and besides, it's much less than I've ever done. I also wanted to keep active. I wanted to stay home between now — or then, when my decision was made — and my next thing that I'm going to do. I just didn't want to sit, you know. I just didn't want to sit, so I thought this was a good idea. So that's how that happened.

Question: How would you describe Princess Puffer?
Rivera: Well, she runs an opium den, and she was more or less forced into it because she fell in love with a man years ago, and he kind of turned her into that. She appears to be a bit tough, but she's really a loveable, reliable, kind of fun person, who more or less understands those people who are pushed into the seedier side of life. She kind of offers the wrong kind of comfort, but that's what she offers.

Question: Do you have a favorite moment in the show for her? Is there something you look forward to every night?
Rivera: There's a wonderful song in the second act that she sings — her relationship with Rosa Bud, whom she was the nanny of. And, at that point of the show, we never knew that she was her nanny at a certain time. And, it's her song — it's kind of raucous and robust and fun.

Rivera and Gregg Edelman in Drood.
Photo by Joan Marcus

Question: What was the rehearsal process like having to prepare for the different endings? A killer, lovers and a detective are all selected by the audience.
Rivera: You just learn it, and then when you're called on to do it, you just do it. The hard part is, because you don't do it every night, you have to run it over in your mind. It's kind of a scary kind of thing. It's a lot of fun for the audience. It's a bit of a shock for the actor, but there are some actors that love it. I'm not crazy about sometimes being thrown into something. I love being one of the lovers — that's a lot of fun. It's fun once you've given yourself to the show, and you're in it, and you get to the end, and some funny things happen, so it's very much alive… It's an excellent company with superb voices. It's a wonderful company.

Question: What is it like backstage with such a great cast? I would imagine there is a lot of energy from not quite knowing what the ending will be each night.
Rivera: Oh, no — nobody thinks about it until you do the show… You don't talk about it. You don't think about it. These are very professional people. Everybody gets along beautifully. And, besides, we're not in the same room. We're on all different floors, so we see each other when we get on stage.

Question: Have you been involved in anything similar to British Music Hall?
Rivera: No. This is a first.

Question: Tell me a bit about working with Scott Ellis and also with Warren Carlyle.
Rivera: I've never known Warren before, and he is a very warm and very nice guy — very, very nice guy — and he does a very fine job with the show. Scott's excellent. He's had a lot of experience since we worked together [in The Rink, when] he was in the show — he was an actor, singer and a roller skater. He's very open, very free. He allows you to share your opinions. He's excellent. He's had a lot of experience since he's been working for the Roundabout. And, he does a lot of television. He's a very nice guy — very fair — and he's very interesting.

Question: I don't know if you know how many people admire and respect you in the business. I wonder what that means to you as a person and a performer to know how respected you are.
Rivera: Well, that means everything to me. It means absolutely everything to me because you can't get any work done unless you work with people, and you can't enjoy it unless you share it, and you can't learn unless you listen. And, you learn so much from your fellow actors and the creative staff. I've been a very lucky woman with the Kander and Ebbs and the Cy Colemans and the Jerome Robbinses and the Leonard Bernsteins, so that's quite a wonderful thing that's happened to my career and my life. My door is always open, and I enjoy what I do because I keep my mind open. You can't do anything by yourself anyhow.

Rivera and John Cullum at the November 2011 benefit performance of The Visit.
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Question: What advice do you have for people starting out in the business because I'm sure you must get asked that a lot?
Rivera: I know. [Laughs.] And, you always wonder, "Have I said anything that really helped?" [Laughs.] I always say, "Be ready. Be willing. Listen. And, totally try to enjoy it, and don't give up. Just stay with it. And, don't give up your values." The business is changing, so there are a lot of things that I don't understand and don't like the looks of, but the old-fashioned way really is the best way, and that is to not think that you know it all because you don't. You have to listen to your directors and choreographers and study and work hard. It's not easy. It's just not easy… But, dancers, I always tell, "Go to ballet school. Study hard, and just love what you do."

Question: Is there anything that you haven't gotten to do as an artist that you would still like to try?
Rivera: Actually, if I said I wanted anything else, I'd be really selfish and foolish… No. I honestly can't. I just want to make sure that I [exit] gracefully if I decide that I don't want to communicate anymore — because communicating is what we do in the theatre, telling stories and all of that. When I decide I just want to stop doing it, I want to make sure [of] that… Everything that has happened to me has been so wonderful, I don't want to mess it up. I want it to be as glorious as it has been for me, and I'll always be grateful for all those people that have made me whatever and whoever I am. [Laughs.] Because you never really know who you are! You pass that mirror, and you keep changing, don't you? [Laughs.]

Question: One last question: Anything happening with The Visit at this point?
Rivera: Oh, you just said the word — two words! We're hoping. We're still, still hoping… Mario Cantone came in the other night, and he loved the show, but then he went on to talk about the thing that's my heart, and The Visit is my heart. So, if you will just say a couple of prayers also! [Laughs.] It worked with Obama, maybe it'll work with The Visit! [Laughs.]

[Tickets are available by calling Roundabout Ticket Services at (212) 719-1300, going online at roundabouttheatre.org or at the Studio 54 box office (254 West 54th Street). Ticket prices range from $42-$137. ]

Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.