DIVA TALK: Catching Up With Two-Time Tony Winner Chita Rivera Plus Betty Buckley's Signature Songs

By Andrew Gans
October 4, 2013

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



Chita Rivera
On Oct. 7 Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS will present an evening at the August Wilson Theatre honoring the legendary Chita Rivera, whose Broadway career spans, remarkably, nearly six decades. The 8 PM performance, which celebrates Rivera's recent 80th birthday, is aptly titled Chita: A Legendary Celebration. Directed by Graciela Daniele and written by Terrence McNally, with musical direction by Michael Croiter, the two-time Tony winner will be joined onstage by fellow Tony winners Tommy Tune and Ben Vereen. Also taking part in the evening are several dancers from Kiss of the Spider Woman and The Dancer's Life, including Richard Amaro, Brad Bradley, Lloyd Culbreath, Raymond Del Barrio, Robert Montano and Alex Sanchez, as well as Kyle Taylor Parker and Nathan Peck from Broadway's Tony Award-winning Kinky Boots. I recently had the pleasure of chatting with the Broadway gypsy, who has worked with such musical theatre giants as Leonard Bernstein, Lynn Ahrens, Gower Champion, Cy Coleman, Jerry Bock, Fred Ebb, Dorothy Fields, Stephen Flaherty, Bob Fosse, Sheldon Harnick, Jerry Herman, John Kander, Rob Marshall, Terrence McNally, Hal Prince, Jerome Robbins, Stephen Sondheim, Charles Strouse and more. The gifted artist, who is the quintessential triple-threat, spoke about her upcoming benefit performance; that interview follows.

Question How did the idea for the Legendary Celebration come about?
Chita Rivera: Well, it certainly wasn’t me because I certainly didn’t want to bring any attention to it [laughs], but Broadway Cares spoke to me, and I was, of course, absolutely thrilled because I was there for the very first [Broadway Cares benefit] with Barry Brown and Fritz Holtz. Unhappily, I say, we’re still having to do [benefits], but that’s one of the organizations I want to back. So I just said, "Okay, I’ll just swallow the age, and put it out there." It’s out there anyhow, and I’ll have some friends, and hopefully there will be some nice memories, and it’ll be a good evening.

Question: Two of your guest stars are Tommy Tune and Ben Vereen. I was wondering if you could speak about your history with them.
Rivera: Tommy’s been my friend forever — I've been around so long that most of my friends are forever, but Tommy is somebody that I absolutely — I don’t use the word idolize very much, but he’s pretty close to it. He’s one of the most gifted people I know and has given so much to the theatre, but the most important thing about Tommy is that he’s one of the kindest, sweetest souls you’d ever meet. We’ve been friends for a long, long time, and I just hope he comes back to Broadway because I just think the theatre misses Tommy. I’m sure it’s up to him, but just to see him on a Broadway stage again… It’d just be great to see him… The same thing with Ben. I’ve known Ben since Sweet Charity; we’ve been friends ever since then. We’ve even played together in clubs and stuff. He had that horrible accident, then he came back. He just proves he’s an authentic. He and Tommy are the real deal. I think we need to see some real deals, long lasting and one-of-a-kind.

Question: I’m sure you don’t want to give away too many surprises about the evening, but what can people expect?
Rivera: Well, you know, it’s no surprises. [Laughs.] [The evening will feature] Tommy and Ben and six of my guys that I dance with in most of my shows, that I absolutely adore, and I’ve got two little gems from Kinky Boots! That should be a lot of fun. It certainly will be for me, so I figure if I’m having fun, hopefully the audience will be, too.

Rivera in Drood.
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: You were most recently on Broadway in the revival of Drood, which I loved. What was that experience like for you?
Rivera: First of all, Rupert Holmes is just an angel, and it was great to work with [director] Scott [Ellis] again, because Scott and I [first] worked [together] when he was one of the characters in The Rink. It was an extraordinarily gifted company; the company just blew me away. And I just think it’s a darn shame that that show isn’t still running because every single one of those kids was brilliant.

Question: You were picked as the lover at the end of the show more than anyone else.
Rivera: [Laughs.] And, the thing I loved the most was when they gave me the kid. I kept saying, over on the other side, "C’mon give me the kid," because he’s delicious and wonderful, and it just gave us a lot of fun. But I’ll tell you, all those guys were terrific. But I was picked as the lover [the most]. I loved it. I didn’t like being the killer!

Question: Would you be interesting in doing another show? How do you feel about the eight-show-a-week schedule these days?
Rivera: Oh gosh, yeah. But not any show. The show [I'd like to do we've] done twice. We’ve done it in Virginia and in Chicago, and I think we’re going to be doing it next season in Williamstown, The Visit. To me, it's very exciting, very unique, dark, passionate. It’s one of the last scores Freddie and John wrote together. John is still writing like crazy, thank God. We really believe in it, and this will be the fourth time because we also did a benefit for Broadway Cares — we did one show, but that was without costumes, and mostly the new people were on book. But we’re really looking forward to it and going to give it another stab, with Terrence [McNally], of course, and John. Fred, of course, is not here anymore. So we’re hoping to do that next season.

Question: Maybe they will bring it in afterwards.
Rivera: That's the plan. We'll see. I think we need some good American original musicals, I really do.

Question: Other than your Tony Awards, what awards or honors have meant the most to you?
Rivera: Oh my gosh, the Kennedy Center Honors, of course – I’ll never forget that evening and then the Medal of Freedom. The President giving me the Medal of Freedom – those are the sort of things you wish your entire family could be there for, especially your mom and dad. My father passed away when I was very young, and my mother has been gone since The Rink. So those are the two most amazing awards I’ve gotten. It’s very kind and very nice to give me these awards. However long I stay, I want to keep communicating with these fabulous audiences, and I want to still do it and enjoy it.

Gwen Verdon and Rivera in Chicago.

Question: Since the upcoming night is a celebration of your career, could you talk about two of your musical co-stars from years past, the late Gwen Verdon and Dick Van Dyke? 
Rivera: Two excellent ones. Well, Dick is really perfect, not that Gwen isn’t, because she damn sure is… Dick is … so unique. Everybody that I’ve worked with is one of a kind. And, he’s still going, and his comedy was so brilliant, and he was a fabulous, handsome leading man! He swears he can’t dance, but he was just as smooth as Fred Astaire, and he sings like a million bucks. And, now he’s got all this white hair, he’s even better looking than he was. I mean, we had more fun doing Bye Bye Birdie. And, Gwen – well, she was one of my dreams. I did Can Can with her, and when I finally was standing behind her in Chicago and danced with her and shared the stage with her – I’m also not a dreamer, but if I dreamt, that would’ve been a dream of mine, and I got it. You’ll never see another Gwen Verdon. Did you ever see her?

Question: I did once at a benefit concert of Sweet Charity.
Rivera: That was fun. But, unfortunately, she didn’t do her thing. We were up there doing her part, but none of us did it as well as she did. [Laughs.] Believe me, she was the real deal. Everything she touched…it was an honor to share that space with that redhead.

Question: Do you have a performance that you’re proudest of?
Rivera: I don’t know about the "proudest." I think when you do it right and you do what the creators really intended to have done, I think that’s when I’m proud. When I’ve pleased them, when I’ve done their work, because they’re the creators, then I please myself. Because without them, there is no play. I must say whenever we pleased Jerome Robbins, that was brilliant. [Laughs.]

Question: There is a coffee-table book and a documentary coming out…
Rivera: I can’t say a lot about it because they’re putting it all together. This was not my intention either. I’m really somebody that does what she does… If it weren’t for other people documenting things, I probably wouldn’t do it all, so I’m pretty lucky to be taken care of that way. But the coffee-table book – I sent all my letters and my pictures and memorabilia, and I’m hoping it’ll be something somebody is interested in. I’m mainly interested in the young kids knowing if they want to do it, they can.

Question: What was the experience like going through your memorabilia?
Rivera Oh my God. To be reminded of such fabulous moments and great times and great people I’ve met in my life. I’m a very lucky woman. And, I’m still getting them. … I just want to be a good example for the young ones coming up, that’s all.

Question: There’s a rumor you might play 54 Below at the end of the year…
Rivera: That was kind of finalized [recently]. So we’re going to do that!

Question: How does working in a nightclub compare to doing a Broadway show?
Rivera: It’s just different. You hear your own voice, you’re telling your own story, as opposed to the story of the playwright. It's a much more personal situation. In another way you feel closer to the audience, you’re exposing yourself. The first time I did it I thought I was going to die. [Laughs.] And the first time I was asked to do it, I said no because I need a character to play. But the interesting thing is you get to know yourself even better by doing something like that. You hear your own voice and you become introduced to yourself a bit more. So every level of the entertainment field is one where you can get to know yourself in different ways. I can thank Ron Field and Fred Ebb and John Kander for that exposure. It was when Fosse had his heart attack, and we had to quit Chicago for a while. And it was then that they said let’s do a nightclub act. And I said, “Ooh, no!,” but I’m really glad I did.

[For tickets to the Oct. 7 celebration, visit broadwaycares.org/chita. A limited number of $40 rush tickets will be released for sale at 6:30 PM; they will be sold in the lobby of the August Wilson Theatre (245 West 52nd Street). They will not be available at the box office. Tickets will be sold on a first-come, first-served basis and are limited to two tickets per person. Cash or credit cards will be accepted.]

Betty Buckley

Betty Buckley: Signature Songs
If Betty Buckley was looking for a new concert act to tour the country, she need look no further. Betty Buckley: Signature Songs, which the Tony-winning actress presented Sept. 30 to a sold-out crowd at Off-Broadway's Signature Theatre, was a perfect evening of song and story. The Texas native needn't change a thing: not one word, sung or spoken.

Buckley confessed early on that the title of her concert had more to do with the Off-Broadway venue — currently the home of the much-extended Horton Foote drama The Old Friends, which features a captivating performance by the Olivier Award nominee — than her own award-winning career. That said, there were several tunes associated with the versatile performer, including a thrilling "As If We Never Said Goodbye," which reminded the enthusiastic crowd why Buckley was heralded for her work as Sunset Boulevard's ill-fated Norma Desmond on both sides of the Atlantic, and a compelling medley of "Kiss Her Now" and "And I Was Beautiful," which Buckley performed in the recent London debut of Jerry Herman's Dear World and left this concertgoer wanting to hear Buckley's take on the entire score.

The evening, which kicked off with a belty, upbeat "I Can See It" and a charming "I Won't Dance," featured highlights from Buckley's most recent concert acts, the acclaimed Ah Men! The Boys of Broadway and The Other Woman: The Vixens of Broadway. From the former were a touching reading of "Venice" from William Finn's Elegies that once again confirmed Buckley's superior skills as a singing actress and one of the great storytellers of her time; a moving "Hey There," which featured a terrific arrangement by music director and pianist Christian Jacob; a suite of songs from Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd  — "Not While I'm Around," "Johanna" and "My Friends" — that Buckley built to a ferocious intensity; and a humorous, extended medley that allowed the Broadway favorite a chance to take on the leading male roles from Fiddler on the Roof, Les Miserables, Carousel, The Music Man and more, all performed masterfully.

Vixens offerings included a humorous "I Know Things Now" from Into the Woods and a beautifully touching version of "Another Suitcase in Another Hall" from Evita. Other highlights of Signature Songs, simply and effectively staged by Michael Wilson with lighting by Howell Binkley and sound by Terry Gabis, included a roof-raising "Over You" and a spirit-raising "Corner of the Sky."

Buckley returned for one encore, her Signature Song, Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Memory," which remains as haunting as ever. Her initial cat pose drew a good-natured chuckle from the audience, but by the time she implored in full, exciting voice, "Touch me, it's so easy to leave me," there couldn't have been anyone in the theatre whose soul hadn't been stirred.

A few weeks ago, after catching Buckley's performance in Foote's Old Friends, I left hoping the multi-talented actress would get to sink her teeth into a bevy of other equally complex Southern women. After Monday's concert, I have to admit I'm hoping a Broadway musical will be her next endeavor. Either way, let's keep this gifted artist in New York. Sorry, Texas, you've had her long enough.

[The concert supported The Legacy Program in honor of Horton Foote; visit signaturetheatre.org.]

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

PHOTO ARCHIVE: Betty Buckley's Stage Highlights

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Betty Buckley in Sunset Boulevard
Photo by Joan Marcus