I'll never forget the "Aha" moment I had watching the 1998 Kennedy Center Honors, where in tribute to honorees John Kander and Fred Ebb, there was an intergenerational cavalcade of stars in a sort of reverse passing of the torch. Alan Cumming, at the time starring on Broadway as the Emcee in Cabaret, performed "Willkommen," giving way to original Emcee Joey Grey for the second verse, followed by Bebe Neuwirth singing "All That Jazz" from Chicago, just as I had recently seen her do on Broadway, and on the Rosie O'Donnell Show, and, as I recall, scores of other television appearances promoting that revival.
Then, Chita Rivera took the stage singing the second verse of "All That Jazz." No, that's an understatement. Chita seemed to spring forth from the stage as if she and it were one and the same, like a wave to the ocean — a tsunami if you'll indulge me further in the metaphor. It's not just that Chita's almost baroque incorporation of fluid flourishes, backphrasing, cooing, growling and embellishing looked decadent next to Neuwirth's spare, dry take on the number, and it's not just that Chita's the rare star who seems deeply connected to the ensemble, like she integrates all their energy and focus into her own powerful presence — and it's not just that the Bills (Cosby and Clinton) practically leapt out of their gilded box in excitement when she appeared. All those things and more are what have made Chita Rivera Broadway's most enduring treasure.
Of course, Chita is renowned for being a triple threat and has had many of her biggest successes in musicals with a lot of dancing. As I've admitted in this column, I'm a heathen, a heretic, a fool — I don't like choreography. Nine times out of ten, as soon as the dancing starts, my eyes glaze over. It goes without saying that if Chita Rivera is the one dancing, it's gonna be that one time out of ten I'm into it, but still I always think of Seth Rudetsky's wonderful solo play, Rhapsody in Seth, where he said that although Chita was known as a dancer, he loved her as a belter. The following are my favorite Chita Rivera belting moments.
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