ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Chita Rivera Gets Chatty

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10 Sep 2013

Seth with Chita
Seth with Chita

A week in the life of actor, radio and TV host, music director and writer Seth Rudetsky.

Wah! My last weekend of 2013 in Provincetown. But while I was away, Kelli O'Hara came to Unbroken Circle. Usually, when celebs come and say nice things after, we immediately turn the video camera on them for a testimonial. This time, we wound up not having a video camera at the theatre, so Kelli went home and made a video herself! Even though she's literally days away from giving birth! Brava and watch

Back to my last weekend in Provincetown... I got to spend it with Chita Rivera! This was Chita's first time in Provincetown, and she thinks the town is "magical." The people here love her as well; she got multiple standing ovations throughout her show. She started with a sassy opening number ("I Won't Dance") and then we chatted about Bye Bye Birdie. She told us that Gower Champion was a great dancer but was so pigeon-toed that, while walking, he often would trip and fall!

Before Chita accepted the part of Rosie, she had a meeting set up with Gower and the composing team of Charles Strouse and Lee Adams. One of her friends had auditioned for the show and told her it was a really dumb musical about teenagers. Chita couldn't get out the meeting, so she called her agent, Dick Seff, and they worked out a plan. She would listen to the whole score, tell everyone it was fantastic and then Dick would interrupt and tell them that they would think about it and get back to them. This way he would be the bad guy.

Well, as soon as Chita heard Act One, she leapt up and told everyone that the show was terrific and she had to do it. Dick was completely confused. Was Chita overcompensating? Was he supposed to say his line now? He took her into the other room to ask what was going on, and she told him she wasn't acting. She really loved it!

Dick recovered from Chita's reversal and has since written an amazing book about his career. Now only was he Chita's agent, but he was also Ethel Merman's agent and he introduced John Kander to Fred Ebb and convinced Rex Harrison to go on for his first performance as Henry Higgins. In the book, he writes about getting a phone call from Ebb, who asked him for a French greeting that had five syllables. He rattled one off and that's why "Wilkommen" has the lyrics, "Glücklich zu sehen, Je suis enchanté." He's the Broadway version of Zelig and Forrest Gump. Buy his book here

When Dick was first representing Chita, she was in The Shoestring Revue and the producer thought her name was too long for the marquee (back then her full name was Conchita Del Rivero). Everyone knew her as Chita, so she knew couldn't change that, but she thought she could get away with something slightly less ethnic. And by "slightly," I mean mind-bogglingly bizarre. That's right, she made the bold choice to change her name to Chita O'Hara. Her homage to Maureen O'Hara lasted one show. She said she kept getting phone calls from her friends that would begin with her picking up the phone and simply hearing "O'Hara?!"


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