Lifetime Achievement Tony Recipient Chita Rivera Isn’t Slowing Down

Seth Rudetsky   Lifetime Achievement Tony Recipient Chita Rivera Isn’t Slowing Down
This week in the life of Seth Rudetsky, Seth shares stories from his concerts with Rivera, plus backstage goodies from Tony-winning director Michael Mayer on his latest project.
Seth Rudetsky and Chita Rivera Jenny Anderson/Getty Images

Hello from LAX to JFK. I just did two shows last night with Chita Rivera at The Wallis in Beverly Hills, California. There was a 7:30PM followed by 9:30PM and we had flown in from NYC the day before so, because we hadn’t adjusted to the time change, it was as if the second show began after midnight. She did a ton of songs with sassy dance moves throughout, so naturally by the second show there was total exhaustion…from me! Chita literally never wavered. She ended the second show with an encore of “Nowadays” from Chicago with choreography, while I could barely keep my eyes open. Brava!

During the show, we were talking about her audition for West Side Story and she un-fondly remembered that right before she sang, she heard the young lady before her: Anita Ellis. If you don’t know, they would often dub musicals back then and Anita was the singing voice for stars like Vera-Ellen and Rita Hayworth.
Here she is!

Chita was completely intimidated hearing that amazing voice…but went in nonetheless. Chita was very thankful that Anita couldn’t dance like she could. Interestingly, Chita wound up doing West Side Story with Anita’s brother, Larry Kert!

Speaking of Anita, there was another former Anita in our audience…Debbie Allen! Here we are after the show! And, here is Debbie doing “America” back when she starred in the 1981 revival.

Michael Mayer
Michael Mayer Joseph Marzullo/WENN

I had director Michael Mayer on Seth Speaks, my SiriusXM talk show, this week and we had such a great time. He was on my show to promote the film version of The Seagull (adapted by Stephen Karam who wrote The Humans) starring Annette Bening, Elisabeth Moss, and Saoirse Ronan. Watch an exclusive clip from the film here.

Michael is good friends with Tom Hulce. (He produced Michael’s first film A Home At The End Of The World and his musicals American Idiot and Spring Awakening. I also happened to have done the first workshop of Hello, Again with him.) One day Tom said he was interested in making The Seagull into a film. Michael immediately told him he loved the idea and Annette Bening would be great for the role of Irina. The next thing he knew, they were pitching the idea while having take-out Chinese food at Annette Bening and Warren Beatty’s house, which he said is “flawless.”

Michael mentioned The Seagull, Annette told him that she had worked on the role of Irina when she was a student at ACT and that she would love to do the film. He actually thinks she said yes because she believed there was no possible way the film would get made. Cut to: Once her name was attached they were able to raise the money and the film got made!

I first met Michael when I was the assistant music director for the very first reading of Thoroughly Modern Millie, which had a VERY different cast than who ended up on Broadway: Amanda Naughton was Millie, Muzzie was played by Christine Ebersole, Alec Mapa was one of the men who worked for Mrs. Meers and Mrs. Meers was a Mister! Yes, the role was played by Edward Hibbert!

A few years later I was slated to work on Michael’s Broadway musical called Triumph Of Love. The conductor was leaving at the end of December 1997 and I was hired to take over at the start new year. It was an amazing cast, including one of my idols Betty Buckley, and two of my now close friends Kevin Chamberlin and Roger Bart. Speaking of Kevin, he just joined the cast of Wicked and wrote the most amazing Facebook status update that I find so inspiring:

I saw my first Broadway show - Sweeney Todd at the Gershwin Theatre (then called The Uris Theatre), almost 40 years ago, during a high school field trip. (On the same day, I also saw a matinee of Peter Pan with Sandy Duncan) I sat in the house right mezzanine - and as the lights came up, an intense, overwhelming feeling of focus and determination came over me that night. I made up my mind - then and there - that nothing could stop me from pursuing my goal of becoming a Broadway actor.

And as I celebrate my 10th Broadway show, I’m finally performing on that very stage - and in a role that so many wonderful character actors have performed so brilliantly before me. I’m a huge fan of this musical, and I look forward to bringing The Wizard to life, especially for that next generation of young high school actors. And every night, I'll glance up at that seat I sat in almost 40 years ago - and thank the theater Gods for helping me get here.

It’s Tony Award season and I did one of my first Obsessed! videos with Kevin during this time years ago. Watch!

But I’ve gotten away from myself... Thoroughly Modern Millie came to Broadway in 2002 and won the Tony Award for Best Musical. Dick Scanlan adapted the movie script (and initially secured the rights) to that musical and, turns out, he and Michael go way back. In the late ’70s, they were both teenagers in a production of West Side Story! They weren’t necessarily dancers, yet Dick was A-rab and Michael was Action. It was performed in the basement of a mall (‘natch) and, not surprisingly, they did not do the original choreography.

Michael said their choreographer was a modern dancer and she choreographed to the entire counts of a song instead of dividing them in eights. What does that mean? Well, Michael remembers dancing “Cool” and halfway through having to count “208, 209, 210…”. I asked if he and Dick were oblivious teenage theatrelovers who thought their production was amazing and he was proud to say that even at their young age they knew it was “suspect.” I am sorry I missed it. If you want to see the original choreography with the Broadway cast from the ’50s, here it is! Imagine how hard is must have been to count this, modern dance-style, without a protractor and an abacus.

Michael and I also reminisced about working together on the big Broadway fundraiser for Hillary Clinton: He directed and I was the music director and he reminded of something so hilarious I had forgotten about.

On the day of the show, we had probably 15 minutes left of tech—the end of the day—and it was time for Kelli O’Hara and Anne Hathaway to run the Barbra Streisand/Judy Garland duet “Happy Days Are Here Again/Get Happy.” I played the intro on the piano and then I heard “Forget your troubles, c’mon get happy…” from both singers! Yes, each thought they were singing the Judy part and no one learned the Barbra part. I remind you we now had less than 15 minutes to tech and the show was going to start in one hour. Anne Hathaway said it was way too high for her to sing, but Kelli said she didn’t know it at all. Anne told her it was really simple and she demonstrated how easy it was… by singing it. I immediately deemed it not too high for her at all and convinced her to sing it. It was terrifying/hilarious and completely reminded me of the 30 Rock episode where Jane Krakowski is auditioning for a TV show with a scene for a mother and daughter. She’s at the audition with a young actress and when the director tells them to start, they both say, “Mother!” in unison. She cannot fathom that she is up for the role of a mother. Here’s a hilarious moment where she brilliantly lies about her age.

My favorite thing I worked on with Michael was the commercial for The View when Rosie O’Donnell was joining. Barbara Walters was not skilled timing-wise and so I made a whole video recounting it. Watch!

Next week, I begin rehearsals for the June run of Disaster! at the Connecticut Repertory Theatre and Jack is going to direct it. Get tickets here!

I was going through old YouTube videos and found this one where Jack and I performed the song from the act were going to do in Vegas…until we go fired on the morning of the show. #StillGotPaid Here it is! Watch and peace out!

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