Broadway legend Chita Rivera makes a rare appearance in North Texas
It’s remarkable to think about, but Chita Rivera has been hoofing it on the Broadway stage for more than half a century. She lucked out with her first show on the Great White Way, appearing as a chorine in Cole Porter’s “Can-Can” (when she went by her given name, Conchita Del Rivero).
Things have only improved since then. A featured role in Bock and Harnick’s “Mr. Wonderful” was soon followed by “West Side Story,” where she originated the role of Anita and introduced the world to songs like “America” and “Tonight.”
The hits kept coming: “Bye Bye Birdie,” “Chicago,” “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” for which she won her second Tony. The recipient of nine competitive Tony Award nominations the most ever for a musical-comedy performer is now 73 and shows no sign of slowing down.
Rivera just returned from performing in Australia, and gets right back to work this weekend in Big D, as the featured entertainer at the Disciples of Trinity’s annual benefit gala.
“There are no secret potions,” she says of her longevity. “If you like your work, you do it the best you can. It’s as simple as that. It’s not some amazing thing most people just give up.”
While many productions she has appeared in became successful Hollywood adaptations, Rivera rarely came along with them. Janet Leigh took over “Birdie,” while Rita Moreno and Catherine Zeta-Jones each won Oscars playing Rivera’s roles in the film versions of “West Side Story” and “Chicago.” (Rivera had a cameo in “Chicago,” her only other silver screen appearance was in 1969′s “Sweet Charity.”)
What accounts for her devotion to the stage?
“It’s everything all of the circumstances,” she says. “You don’t wake up someday and say, “‘I want to be a movie star’ or “‘I only want to appear in the theater.’ A call comes in for a movie, you’re doing a play, you make your choices.”
She regrets nothing. Rivera even refuses to choose favorites not collaborators, not shows, not roles.
“I don’t have any favorites, but my mind goes to “‘West Side,’ “‘Spider Woman,’ “‘Chicago.’ It’s like asking, “‘Is your favorite food Chinese?’ Not when you want Italian,” she says.
Indeed, Rivera has virtually nothing bad to say about anything or anyone from her phenomenal career. She says that most of her co-stars and colleagues from Angela Lansbury to Dick Van Dyke to Brent Carver have remained intimates.
“I never even worked with Angela, but we’re friends from years. Theater is very small it’s a big ol’ family, because you have these long runs. With films, you just do it and you leave. But theater is very close-knit society,” she explains.
Even geography doesn’t diminish her relationships with her fellow thespians. She numbers Texas Ballet Theater artistic director Ben Stevenson and actor-director Michael Serrecchia both of whom live in North Texas as two of her dearest friends.
“Michael was fabulous when we were working together for many years. And he’s remained a close, close friend,” she says of Serrecchia, who most recently directed “The Full Monty” at Theatre Three.
Perhaps it is that generous nature that has led Rivera to work with some of the top talents in musical theater.
“Kander and Ebb, Cy Coleman, Bob Fosse, Jerry Robbins it’s been terrific. I’ve been lucky in that I have worked with people who happen to be geniuses and who have written things for me,” she says.
Terrence McNally, whom she met when he wrote “The Rink” for her in 1984, has since written parts for her in “Spider Woman” as well as penning her recent one-woman show, “Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life.” She plans to do a national tour of the show before returning to Broadway again with McNally for “The Visit.”
If “The Visit” clicks, Rivera could be up for a tenth Tony, tying the most overall nominations for an actor achieved by Julie Harris. So do awards like that mean anything to her?
“Now what would you write if I said they meant nothing to me?” she asks. “You would say, “‘That bitch!’” She laughs. “Of course they mean something to me. I love them all.”
The Disciples of Trinity Benefit Gala also includes live and silent auctions, a raffle, dancing and performances by Linda and Larry Petty as well as Chita Rivera. Adam’s Mark Hotel, 400 N. Olive St. Sept. 9 at 7 p.m. $150. 214-826-4099.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, September 8, 2006.