From “West Side Story” to “Chicago” to “Bye Bye Birdie,” Chita Rivera has played a key role in some of the greatest musicals of all time, winning two Tony Awards out of a record-setting 10 nominations in the process.
It’s a life in theater marked by collaborations with the likes of Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon (“Sweet Charity,” “Chicago”), Kander and Ebb (“Chicago,” “The Visit,” “Kiss of the Spider Woman”), and Jerome Robbins and Leonard Bernstein (“West Side Story”). And it’s a career that was still going strong, at least until COVID-19 closed down theaters, forcing the 87-year old Rivera to stop performing her hit concert series until it’s safe to go back onstage again.
What does the term “legend” mean to you?
To me, a legend is someone who is dead. It sounds like someone that’s finished. I hope I’m not.
You were touring when coronavirus hit. Is it hard to stop performing?
It’s hard not to be able to express yourself.
Do you ever get stage fright?
All the time. You want to do it right. You want to remember everything. You want to please the choreographer. You want to please the writer. You want to please the director. You want to please the audience. That’s the fear. I think it’s stage fear as opposed to fright. I’m not afraid of that area. I love that area — the stage. That space is a great, great space.
Was “West Side Story” your breakthrough?
It was the one that brought me to the public’s attention. It was wild. It featured rhythms that we’d only heard on the street or at home. That was all Leonard Bernstein. It was dialogue that the common man could understand. It was today. Well, by today I mean back in 1957.
The recent Broadway revival of “West Side Story” did away with Jerome Robbins’ choreography and cut the song “I Feel Pretty.” Did you see it?
No I didn’t, and I didn’t for that reason. There is something called brilliance and perfection. There’s some things that I think you shouldn’t touch. Why would you want to change Jerry Robbins’ choreography? Why would you want to take songs out that enhance the play?
Did you get offered the film of “West Side Story”?
I went to New York City to audition. I was in Philadelphia with “Bye Bye Birdie” doing tryouts.
I asked if the movie could be delayed a bit and they couldn’t, but things turned out the way they were supposed to be. I went back to Philadelphia, and thank God “Birdie” was a hit.
Did you have any regrets about passing on the film? Rita Moreno won an Oscar for your role.
Oh that’s a statue. The experience was the important thing.
What did you think of the movie?
It was not as good as the play, but I thought it was a good representation.
Unfortunately, I just watched the movie “Bye Bye Birdie” again. I was curious, but it was not good. I didn’t think it was cast properly. I thought Janet Leigh, who played my part, was beautiful, but I didn’t find her exciting by any means. I thought Kay Medford should have done the mother. Maureen Stapleton is a brilliant actress, but she’s not funny and Kay was funny. Somebody else should have played the Elvis Presley part. That’s my opinion, but who the hell am I?
You worked with Bob Fosse on “Sweet Charity” and “Chicago.” What was your initial impression of him?
He was cute.
Really? Wasn’t he demanding?
He was a nice guy. He had a great sense of humor. People were scared of Jerry Robbins, they weren’t scared of Bob Fosse. The dancing in “Sweet Charity” was extraordinary. Later on, when he did “Chicago,” he became far more stylized. Bob Fosse was a fabulous dancer. He could hoof. He could fly. When we did “Chicago” the movement was small and minimal and frighteningly interesting. I thought “Chicago” was before its time.
“Chicago” was divisive when it debuted, no?
Americans need to have other people tell them that their work is brilliant. We had to go to London in order for “Spider Woman” to be a hit. We had to go to London in order for “Chicago” to be a hit. Somebody else had to say it was fabulous. We do fabulous stuff, we just need to be told it’s fabulous.
You said people were scared of Jerome Robbins. Was he dictatorial?
Not really. They like to paint Jerry as a monster, but he was not that at all. Without him pushing you to do what you didn’t think you could do, you’d never do it. It hurts to do those dances. Choreographers are tough. Jack Cole was really tough. He scared even me. Jack was a funny man, but you had to search for it.
What was it like to star alongside Gwen Verdon in “Chicago”?
I was always big fan of hers. When the day came and I was dancing next to her, it was an extraordinary experience and I’ll never forget it. I loved coming out on stage next to her, wearing a white top hat and cane in Chicago. All you can do in that moment is try to dance as well as Gwen.
What made Gwen Verdon such a great dancer?
Her technique and her ability to express herself. She could do the sexiest movements, but she was never vulgar. Ever. When she was funny, she was funny like a redhead. There was an innocence about her that everybody could accept. There was a strength about her that was as strong as any guy.
Did you watch “Fosse/ Verdon”?
I thought the actors were great, but I saw maybe two episodes. I did not want to see my friends portrayed in a way that I may not have agreed with. I decided I didn’t want to watch any more episodes.
You won a Tony for “The Rink,” but the reviews weren’t great. Was that difficult?
Thank you for reminding me! I don’t read reviews. I don’t need anybody telling me how I did. I’m not interested in what the critics think. I’ve got the job already.
You won your second Tony for “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” which you said was your biggest acting challenge. Why?
I wasn’t sure exactly how to do that role. The part was so many fragments — in some scenes I was a glamorous movie star, in others I was death, the Spider Woman. I realized in rehearsals that I existed entirely in someone else’s imagination. I also came to realize that the Spider-Woman was an alluring death, a sexy death, not a frightening figure.
You had a long professional association with John Kander and Fred Ebb, who wrote the music and lyrics for “Spider Woman,” “The Rink” and “Chicago,” as well Terrence McNally, who wrote the book for “The Rink” and “Spider Woman.” What was the secret?
Our respect for each other. Terrence wrote such great words, and so did Freddy. Why wouldn’t I want to sing Fred Ebb’s lyrics? Kander and Ebb made me whoever and whatever I am. And Terrence was brilliant too. The shows we did were great shows, and I came along for the ride.
Terrence McNally died of COVID-19 this year. How are you coping?
It’s been so hard. My TV was on and they went down the list of people who we had lost this year to coronavirus. All of a sudden I heard Terrence’s name. I knew he was gone, of course. But it still caught me off balance and choked me up. He was also a great, great friend. He knew how to love. He knew how to care about people’s feelings. He was an artist.
What’s the biggest mistake you made in your career?
I’m not sure there were any big mistakes. There’s always something positive about mistakes even though they can be painful because you learn from them.
Who should play you if they make a movie of your life?
I don’t know. It would be hard. She’d have to have several people within her. She’d have to be passionate and have a great sense of humor. She’d have to be a clown. In my career, people always wanted to put me in a red sparkly dress with a slit up the front when I was more comfortable in pirouette dancewear.