‘Chita Rivera and Richard Ridge in Conversation’
Chita Rivera is a Broadway legend and one of the most gracious and prodigious theatrical talents one would want to meet. Richard Ridge is the lead correspondent for Broadway World the go-to place online to find everything you want to know about Broadway, its stars, its happenings. For those who were there on Monday evening, 7 May they received a great treat. The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center in collaboration with the League of Professional Theatre Women presented Chita Rivera in conversation with Richard Ridge. After the interview, members discussed with Co-Chairs Pat Addiss and Sophia Romma who produced the event how they appreciated Chita Rivera’s authenticity and great good will, and Richard Ridge’s superbly guided questions.
Much of the evening which was too good to miss is captured here with some edits. I chose to sum up the beginning and conclude on a positive affirmation that strikes me as suffusing all that Chita Rivera has accomplished in her amazing life with her last comment in this piece. It is why she is who she is, after all is said and done!
The interview began with Richard Ridge asking Chita Rivera the “sixty-four thousand dollar question,” how she became a dancer. Chita Rivera’s answer is one for the ages. She said that she was a tomboy. And one day jumping from the chair to the coffee table, she missed her mark. Exasperated her mother said, “That’s it. You’re out of here. You’re going to Doris Jones.” From a time perspective and having raised children, Chita Rivera surmises, “I had no idea my mother was so smart. She wanted to save the house.”
Apparently, her mom who had exquisite legs and the most beautiful turnout, wanted to be a dancer, but chose to raise five children. However, she championed her daughter Chita to do that which she thought might work out to keep her daughter entertained and “the house saved.” What follows is Richard Ridge’s wonderfully knowledgeable and finely researched informal interview with the inimitable Chita Rivera.
So it was Doris Jones who took you to New York for your audition for George Balanchine? What was that like?
Well, we were very obedient in those days to adults and when you have someone wonderful like Miss Jones, it’s easy. Louis Johnson was really the first male, black dancer in the New York City ballet. He was my partner in Ms. Jones’ school. So the two of us won a scholarship to audition that day. I got out of the elevator and saw this gorgeous girl with legs up to my shoulders and so skinny and so beautiful and so calm. I looked at Ms. Jones and said, I’m scared. And Ms. Jones said, “Just stay in your lane.” And I’ve been staying in my lane ever since. You find out who you are by being who you are.
So you accompany a friend to the touring audition to Call Me Madam. What happened when you got there.
Well, Helen (I can’t remember her last name)…approached me in class and said, “Chita, I’m not on scholarship. I have no money. Will you go with me? I’m scared to death.” I said, “Absolutely.” I wasn’t frightened because it didn’t mean anything to me except it was an experience. I got the job but Helen didn’t! I haven’t heard from her since. So if anyone hears from her, let me know. (laughter) So I went home and told my mother, “They’ve offered me $250 dollars a week to go on the road with a woman by the name of Elaine Stritch!” I don’t think at the time I had even seen a Broadway show. But I loved it. It was an exciting time to be doing the choreography. The choreographer’s name was Jerome Robbins. And I got one of the four principal dancers. So I just continued to do what I was told and it was an amazing experience. It was the beginning of everything.
Doris Jones had performances when we were in her school. So I had the opportunity to dance during concerts and on point. But I never got the chance to dance with the New York City Ballet. I’ve thought about that. And I’m just fine about it. (laughter) And Ms. Jones, God love her, she had gorgeous schools. I invited her to see my shows and she never came. And one day, when I was doing Kiss of the Spider Woman, I was in a restaurant and there was Ms. Jones. I said why haven’t you come to see me? Are you ashamed of me? She said, “I’m busy making little Chita Riveras (laughter). I just let you out into the world.” So I give Ms. Jones all the credit. (applause)
You did Guys and Dolls and then Can Can when you started your life-long friendship with Gwen Verdon. What did you learn from her. And that day you were called into her dressing room what did she say to you?
I’ve always said that if I am reincarnated, I’d like to come back as the carriage instead of the horse. I think most dancers would like to be the carriage because the horse pulls and pulls and does the hard work…the carriage gets to carry the amazing people…what was the question? (laughter)
The dressing room when Gwen Verdon called you.
Michael Kidd choreographed the show. She was extraordinary. I lived in the wings of every show I ever did and learned so much that way. She called me into her room. At that time you didn’t cross a star’s threshold, not unless someone asked you to. You didn’t just presume. And so I went in. I remember her clearly saying to me, “Chita, you should be brave enough to go out and look for parts you can create for yourself.” I realized she was giving me courage and making me go out and find out who I am. And shortly after that, I did get a part. The fabulous Gwen Verdon! And the next time I saw her we were behind the amazing Tony Walton set and there we were in top hat and canes and I looked at the back of her head and thought, “Oh my God.” I’m standing next to Gwen Verdon. It was amazing. You don’t realize it until you’re in it and then you go, “Yeah!” And you don’t want to be anywhere else. You want to be there. She was a phenomenal artist and great friend.
Well the role that catapulted you to stardom was Anita in the groundbreaking musical West Side Story. (applause) We just celebrated Jerome Robbins’ 100th Anniversary.
Right and this is the 61st Anniversary of West Side Story. I always say, I’ve been running around living the life of a 35 year-old all these years and I never realized how old I was. So for age? Don’t count it, unless it’s 5, 6, 7, 8 (laughter/applause). We worked hard at the auditions and we didn’t realize we were working hard. We just were because that’s what you do. There were several auditions. It was Kenny Leroy as Bernardo. We had to be matched up with our guys. We didn’t realize we didn’t know how to sing. We were taught on the spot. And of course dancing is acting. And suddenly we had words. It was extraordinary. It was tough but it was good because we learned.
At what point during that process did you realize that the show was a such a phenomenon.
I don’t know if I realized it. I was so busy living it. You don’t have much time to realize it unless you’re looking at a fellow actor and you get those responses. We got to Washington, DC and “America” stopped the show dead. We didn’t know what to do with that. We said to Jerry, “What do we do?” Jerry said go downstairs, change your clothes and get ready for the next scene. That was the first time we got any kind of feeling about the response. But all along it was being built, the value of the words, the excitement. “Cool” was better than “America” but “Cool” came after “America.” “Cool was an extraordinarily choreographed piece. I watched from the wings when I wasn’t onstage.
You went to Leonard Bernstein’s apartment and learned a song at his piano?
I sure did. It’s kind of fun to say, “Lenny” and think that I knew him and that this amazing genius is a kind, giving soul. Well, I rang the buzzer. He escorted me to his music room, and I sat next to him on the piano and was nervous. And I carry little angels with me on my shoulders. One tells me what to do, the other tells me, “Don’t do that.” I remember one of them said to me, “You know you’re sitting next to Leonard Bernstein.” And the other one said, “Do exactly what he says.” So I listened to him and it was then I heard my own voice. He pulled it out. He just had a way of making you find yourself. And making you feel comfortable in your own shoes. He had the excitement for himself and the show. He was directing the quintet and we were all on the set. He was in the pit standing on a chair and he got so enthusiastic that he went straight through the chair. But dancers love to laugh anyhow, so we had a good laugh.
Could you sum up the best part of working with Jerome Robbins, what it was for you?
I don’t know because there are so many things. I used to call him “Big Daddy.” He had all the answers as far as I was concerned. I remember one time I was standing downstage. He was giving us a five minute break which I rarely took. Mickey Calin was gorgeous and several girls were hovering. I saw Jerry looking at Mickey and I got very nervous and I walked past him and said, “Don’t do it.” He was about to kill him, slaughter him. And we had a laugh and he said, “You’re a witch. You’re just a witch.” We had that kind of relationship because we all had respect for each other. And we were working so hard. And there’s nothing better than working hard and finding out that you can do it. What a creator he was. He introduced us to words and music and worlds we never knew. And feelings we never knew we had. That’s how you build your canvas, your life.
You created the role of Rose in the Broadway smash, Bye, Bye Birdie. (applause) You almost turned that show down, didn’t you?
Well, I read the script. Really! Who’s going to sit up there as a parent and let all these kids talk on the telephone? I wouldn’t let my daughter talk on the phone that long. I also learned that we don’t know what we’re talking about. Shut up and do your job. (laughter) Let them do theirs, you do yours. Gower Champion! He brought technicolor, he brought humor, he brought class, he brought Hollywood. And of course, then there was that funny person Dick Van Dyke. I just watched him. I am a great thief and I will steal. I have been around extraordinary people, so I just watched and learned a lot from them. And Dick is one of the funniest, kindest, most giving people in the theater. He’s 92 and he still going strong. He’s still funny. Don’t lose your sense of humor.
You’ve received many great phone calls during your career. Tell us about the phone call you received from Cy Coleman, Gwen Verdon and Bob Fosse.
It was from Cy. It is amazing that I know these people. It is wonderful to know them. They asked if I would take the original of Sweet Charity on the road. There was Ben Vereen, Thelma Oliver and the greatest chorus of dancers. So we did it. That was a great phone call.
Then you got to do the film version.
The cherry on the top was that it was a wonderful experience to do the entire show for almost a year and another cherry to be with my buddy Shirley MacLaine. She always had a great sense of humor and we always made fun of her right to her face. Once when we were filming, we were supposed to head up to the rooftops, turn on a dime, run down a ramp. The lineup was Shirley was in the front, less to travel, then I was next, then Paula Kelly who was extraordinary. She had the furthest to travel. I loved to dance with the boys. They had the power, but I couldn’t travel like that. But Paula could. She was amazing. We were pulled aside and told, do exactly what they said for the shoot. So we hit it the first couple of times and on the third time, that was the final take. I said, “Damn.” I knew I wanted to travel further. It would fulfill my faith in myself. (laughter) I knew Paula was flying. I saw her out of the corner of my eye. That’s what the chorus does to you. You can see 360 degrees. Shirley said, “What’s wrong, kid?” I said it just didn’t feel right. She asked the director, “Can we do another take?” So we did it again. That was just great!
You received your second Tony nomination the original for Velma Kelly in Chicago, John Kander and Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse. (applause) What happened the first time you heard the vamp to your number?
Well, I knew John Kander wrote great vamps. No one writes great vamps like John Kander. When you hear Liza’s vamp in Cabaret, it’s John Kander’s. When you hear Joel Grey’s vamp, you know John Kander wrote it. I said in my head, “Oh, I want a vamp.” John comes in and says, “Come on I want to play your opening number for you.” We go down to the theater and he started with Dum, dum…and I was so excited. And he said, “Wait Chita, that’s just the vamp. Wait for the song.” (laughter) It was just an amazing song. And when the curtain opens up on Tony Walton’s fabulous set? The theater is just greatest place in the world. (applause) You can go to so many different worlds, see so many different things, tell so many wonderful stories. I remember when my mother passed away. I was in Merlin. It got terrible reviews, but it was a magical show. When she passed, I don’t know what I would have done. But I went to the theater and I was placed in another world and it saved me. It saved me. So I’m very, very grateful.
You were in another world when you played Anna at a roller skating rink in John Kander and Fred Ebb’s The Rink.
They called and said, “We have another show, Chita, and want to know if you’d like to be a part of it?” I said, Well, let me think about it…Yes. They said, “You’ll have a co-star. How would you feel about Liza Minelli?” I said, well, I really have to think about that…(laughter) Of course! We’ve always wanted to play girlfriends. There was silence. They said, “Well, gee. It’s not girlfriends.” I asked what? They said, “It’s mother and daughter.” I asked who plays the mother? (laughter) Keep your sense of humor! But it was great. Every once in a while I found myself standing in front of Liza who was a joy to work with. I had met her mother. Make sure you’re there! Don’t miss the knowledge of those moments.
Your leg was broken during a car accident. It was broken in twelve places which required 18 screws. You were told you’d never dance again. You know many stars have life-threatening things happen to them. What got you through that experience?
I think my mom and my family. And I think of the example of Ms Jones, the way she taught us. I clearly remember going into the Emergency Room in shock. The X ray technician said, “Oh how nice to meet you.” (laughter) She takes the picture and comes out and says, “Oh, you did a good job on yourself.” I clearly remember shifting gears. I remember saying, “Oh shit.” And the climate of my mind totally changed. Then I thought, “What’s next.” Then Gary Chris who is a friend of mine and beautiful dancer talked to me. I realized it’s one of life’s lessons. Every single day, things change. You accept things for what they are and you just keep going. And I don’t think I could have kept going without learning from my teachers. It’s incredible to be recuperating in bed and feeling the healing happening gradually.
You accepted another Tony Award for Aurora in Kander and Ebb’s Kiss of the Spider Woman. (applause) Aurora was difficult to find because she is made up of fragments.
Yes. Fragments. When I finally realized not to become too desperate to find out who she was, to just be patient, one day, I realized that I was in his mind, his imagination. Then I found the character. It was his imagination because he envisioned her. I had the support of the amazing actors and Rob Marshall’s choreography and Hal Prince’s direction. It was so beautiful. The story was extraordinary. It was a story I wanted to make sure was heard. It was beautiful to look at. I wondered how was I going to be in the web? They said, you’ll see. It was a projection and I was standing in the center of the stage and I looked as though I was hanging on this web. I did do a lot of climbing. But my name is Chita. (applause) I’m lucky, really lucky to be around at the time these great shows were created and to work with such amazing people.
You played opposite Antonio Banderas in the stunning revival Nine. Everyone in the audience wants to know what was it like sharing the stage with Antonio Banderas.
I had several people say, you did that tango with Antonio and you did that high kick split. How did you do that? I said, you would be able to do that too if you were with Antonio Banderas. (laughter) Antonio Banderas was so extraordinary in that show and so was Raul Julia in the original. Extraordinary. I loved what Tommy Tune created. Raul? I could have done that split with Raoul. Antonio is the lover we have seen on screen. He was so perfect, so beautiful. So for my audiences, I tell them everything you’ve dreamed about Antonio is true. He was great to work with, sang, never missed a show. You know he’s a wonderful actor.
You received your ninth nomination on Broadway for Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life (book by Terrance McNally) What gave you the great pleasure of performing the show across the country for people who couldn’t get to New York.
First of all there are so many sensational theaters across the country. Those people are theater hungry. So it’s a joy to bring a show that you’re proud of to them. And they really appreciated it. So when someone asked about doing it? I thought, initially, what do I have to offer? You’re so busy, you don’t step back and look at your body of work and yourself because it’s you and you live it. The story is the adventure of my life. It’s God’s way of letting me realize what I have. Four brothers and sisters, music everywhere, my father’s a musician in a white suit, I’m telling it and hearing it at the same time. I think damn! This is interesting. It’s a lot of music when music means so much. We had a great time. Dancing on the kitchen table with a lot of hungry kids and Graciella Danielle’s imagination? Wonderful.
You recived your 10th Tony nomination for your emotionally moving and mesmerizing performance in John Kander, Fred Ebb and Terence McNally’s The Visit.
You know I say, I don’t need any more friends. I have enough friends. It’s a responsibility to return those calls. But Roger Rees who left us is a friend I got to know only a little bit, but I did have some time with him. He was a wonderful man and a wonderful actor. The piece was so dark that people thought the show was about revenge. No. It was about love. Yes, some people died, but it doesn’t mean it wasn’t about love. And the truth comes out that they have made mistakes themselves in the “Yellow Shoe” song. My character buys the town up. But she arrives with the casket empty and leaves with him in the casket. But she makes the entire town realize that he did love her. I just loved it. I thought John Doyle did an extraordinary job. And the score that John Kander wrote was wild and wonderful. The production and the characters are really what theater is all about.
What do those three men, John Kander, Fred Ebb and Terrance McNally mean to you?
Well, they knew things about myself that I didn’t know. They allowed me to get to know me. They put words in my mouth I might not have said, but I certainly grew to understand. Freddy knew my sense of humor. John writes the most beautiful music you could ever hope to sing. Terrance, I don’t remember meeting him 60 years ago. I learned so much from him. They made me feel good about myself. They cared and they became like partners in life. Fred is not with us anymore. But in a way he still is.
In 2009 Barack Obama awarded you with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. (applause) What was it like to be in the room?
Oh please! Barack and Michelle Obama? I remember watching him when he and Michelle were dancing…he had a little bop. A tiny bop. I said to Michelle, is that a bop? I know that bop! I think it’s just great. And Michelle said, “Yeah. That’s his bop. It’s the only step he’s got.” (laughter) But to be in the same room? I think after a while, you just have to say, “Thank you God!”