The last time Chita Rivera had no job in theater and no prospect of getting one, Harry Truman was deciding whether to drop an atomic bomb on Korea.
Sixty-four years later, our government still seeks an effective way to deal with that nation – and Rivera is headed to Broadway.
She’ll start previews of “The Visit,” a musical about a murderous millionaire, next month before an April opening. The score comes from John Kander and Fred Ebb, who wrote both musicals in which she won Tony Awards (“The Rink,” “Kiss of the Spider Woman”).
You’ll hear about that Sunday, if you attend “Chita: A Legendary Celebration” at McGlohon Theater. She may even let you in on a secret: None of her career, from “West Side Story” to “Bye Bye Birdie” to “Chicago,” was intended to happen the way it did.
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Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero was supposed to be Patricia McBride before there was a Patricia McBride. She earned a scholarship to the School of American Ballet, launching pad to George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet. Then a friend asked the 18-year-old Rivera to accompany her to a 1951 audition for the national tour of “Call Me Madam.”
The friend didn’t get the job. Rivera did.
“I clearly remember Mr. Balanchine giving me that scholarship, and I remember being frightened to death auditioning for ‘Call Me Madam.’ Jerome Robbins (who later did “West Side Story”) had choreographed it, and they offered me $250 a week as one of four principal dancers. It happened purely by chance – though of course, nothing happens by chance.
“I was frightened to tell people at SAB, and they were not happy at all. It was just ‘You don’t do that!’ I was a bit of a snob myself; I knew nothing about theater. But that door opened, and I went through.”
Carving a unique career
Rivera put together what may be the most geographically diverse resumé in theater history: a gypsy in “Bajour,” a Puerto Rican immigrant in “West Side Story,” a Greek in “Zorba,” a Frenchwoman in “Can-Can” and “Nine,” a Japanese-American in “Flower Drum Song,” a Spaniard in “The House of Bernarda Alba,” a queen in Arthurian England in “Merlin,” women of no special ethnicity in “Birdie” and “Chicago” and “Sweet Charity.”
Was she trying to shatter casting barriers?
“I’m not that smart!” she says. “I was just thrilled when each part came along. I wish kids (now) could go through what I was fortunate to go through. Talented kids don’t know who they are or what they have until they live their lives.”
She has done non-musical plays but has always defined herself first as a dancer: “You don’t know who you are until you’re connecting with an audience, interpreting a song.
“I didn’t stop (dancing in ‘West Side Story’) for my pregnancy until the doctor said, ‘You’d better get outta there.’ Lisa was about a month old when my husband (Tony Mordente, who played A-rab) and I went off to London to do the show.”
Starting one show on the heels of another kept her from caring what she might have missed in Hollywood or elsewhere onstage. She mildly regrets not playing Mama Rose in “Gypsy,” which she says author Arthur Laurents asked her to do: “I wanted to make her a hard but understandable woman, one you liked.”
Nor would she do an autobiography. “I don’t need to write a book,” she says. “I’m just living my life.”
Tackling a new project
The next stage of it begins March 26, when “The Visit” lands at the Lyceum Theatre. She’ll play a wealthy woman who goes back to her impoverished European home town and offers to solve its financial problems – if someone kills the guy who jilted her decades ago.
Roger Rees plays the potential victim; Terrence McNally adapted Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s original drama; John Doyle, famous for a “Sweeney Todd” in which the actors doubled as the orchestra, will direct. (“At our first lunch,” she says, “I told him, ‘I am not playing an instrument.’”)
Rivera has been working on the show for almost 15 years in various incarnations: Versions have run in Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Va., then last summer at Williamstown Theater Festival. Lyricist Ebb died in 2004, but Kander (who’ll turn 88 the week before previews start) continued to refine the score.
“It’s very dark and has a lot to do with where (the world) is today,” she says. “The music just makes the play bigger and the love story more rich.”
What kept a show with such a pedigree from reaching New York for so long?
“Life experiences,” she replies, thinking of revivals of “Nine” and “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” and her retrospective “Chita Rivera: A Dancer’s Life.”
“Theater pieces always decide when the right time is. I’m a firm believer that what’s supposed to happen is going to happen when it’s the right time.”
‘Chita: A Legendary Celebration’
Chita Rivera looks back on 64 years of theater and ahead to her next Broadway show in an evening of song and anecdotes with orchestral accompaniment.
WHEN: 7 p.m. Sunday.
WHERE: McGlohon Theater, Spirit Square, 345 N. College St.