Broadway royalty Chita Rivera and Tommy Tune unite for the first time onstage in the revue Chita & Tune — Two for the Road
ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Executive Editor
It’s a cliché to say “Been there, done that” as a way of indicating an experience you’ve already had and become bored with. The only differences when Chita Rivera says it are: 1. She means it. 2. She’s not casual about it in any way.
This is the woman who starred as Anita in the original production of West Side Story, helping introduce a young lyricist named Stephen Sondheim to the Broadway canon. She originated the roles of Rosie in Bye Bye Birdie, Charity Hope Valentine in Sweet Charity and Velma Kelly in Chicago. She even spun her web on audiences as the title character in Kiss of the Spider Woman, winning two Tonys along the way. Any one of these achievements would be enough to secure a star in the musical firmament, but she can claim all of them, plus many others. Yes, she’s done it all. And she doesn’t need a T-shirt to prove it.
In fact, when it comes to Broadway legend status, Rivera is practically without a living rival… unless you include Tommy Tune, the 10-time Tony Award winner responsible for Nine, The Will Rogers Follies, Grand Hotel, My One and Only and many more. Remarkably, the two superstars of theater have been longtime friends, but never worked together.
Until now. They are about to unite for the national concert tour Chita & Tune — Two for the Road, a revue of showtunes and stories that have brought them joy. And one of its first stops will be in Richardson’s Eisemann Center for Performing Arts on Sept. 22.
We chatted with each separately before rehearsals began — about their careers, their lives and each other. Here’s what they each said.
Rivera is loaded with anecdotes from her storied career. Like any performer with a huge catalogue of roles, picking a favorite is something that differs from moment to moment. But we asked her to anyway.
“I have so many favorite moments — West Side, Chicago, Spider Woman, The Visit — all of these shows are great. But the minute I hear a downbeat of West Side Story, I get teary-eyed. That is the one that brought the attention to all of us…. Chicago conjures up all kinds of wonderful feelings. Mr. Wonderful! That was a fun show.”
Here are some more memories and reminiscences:
On how it could be 2017 before she and Tommy Tune worked together: “Our lives just never crossed — it was as simple as that. He was directing while I was starring in some shows, then he was on contract to a movie studio for seven years so was in California.”
On how their parallel but separate histories informed their reminiscences and the show itself: “First of all, we like each other — that’s important. We’ve been around long enough that we know the Golden Age [of the American Musical] — that was a great time. Every theater had a great hit, and we were all a part of it. To have met the Bob Fosses and the Michael Kidds and Jerome Robbinses… All of that keeps you very much alive when you’re doing great shows. The librettos were all interesting.”
On the rehearsal process: “We know a lot [about what the show will be like], but we’re still forming. We’ve done music rehearsals, and next week we start putting it all together. It takes every minute you’re in that rehearsal hall. It’s a time of discovery. Nine times out of 10, that’s when you really kick it really hard.”
On The Visit, her most recent Broadway show: “I was a little heartbroken [when that show closed after an all-too-brief run]. Hopefully we will get that up again and take it to London. It was a challenging subject matter for the American public [a tale of love and revenge], which I think should be challenged. That was a piece where everyone in the show was superb,” including actor Roger Rees, her co-star who died less than a month after the show closed. That was a huge loss for her.
“When you’ve been around a long time, you say you don’t need anymore friends … and then all a sudden, a Roger Rees comes into your life and you think, ‘I do have room for more friends.’ I really do feel I was cheated [by losing him too soon]. Roger was very, very, very special.”
On Dick Van Dyke, her co-star in Bye Bye Birdie: “I’ve adored him from the moment I set eyes on him for Bye Bye Birdie. He’s still funny and still dances and still the best friend. One of my [great career pleasures] was to be with Dick Van Dyke every night.
On the ground-breaking Kiss of the Spider Woman, which won her a second Tony Award: “I was so proud of that show for all the reasons it was written and couldn’t wait to take it all over the world just to spread that story of man’s inhumanity and how two people can be so totally different and at opposite end and then be the best of friends and even lovers … they love each other because they understand each other. It has such a great message great score and libretto. Brent Carver and Tony Crivello were just extraordinary. … You know, Rob Marshall [whose big break was choreographing Spider Woman] was in the chorus of The Rink and broke my finger. I told him, ‘When you become famous, I’m gonna tell everybody you broke my finger.’ And so I do. He’s doing so beautifully now. He means something now.”
On the show that started it all — West Side Story: “I hear music from West Side Story and I am reminded [of that time in the rehearsal hall 60 years ago] and get goose-pimply. I definitely have an active memory of hearing those rhythms and [being excited] — it’s all very fresh. Because of the anniversary, I have been reminded of a lot of stuff, seeing my old buddies from the show.
Indeed, she met her ex-husband Tony Mordente during rehearsals. “Tony was a Jet and I was a Shark, and one of Jerome Robbins’ rules was, ‘I don’t want the Jets and the Sharks hanging out.’ What did I do? I married a Jet!” I point out that that is basically the plot of the musical. “It sure was,” she says.
On Will & Grace, on which she had a memorable guest shot (opposite fellow Broadway baby Michele Lee) — a rare TV appearance: “I could have been very happily a permanent part of that show if they had asked me … I’m really excited about seeing [the new show] and how they are. But they don’t need me — they need nothing else.”
On her legendary longevity: “For some reason I am deliberately hanging on — perhaps for spite,” she jokes. “Laugh and scare people — those are my favorite pastimes. I’ve been really lucky that way — with genes and training, but also the heart. I love what I do and care about being a performer. My mother [instilled that in me]. I think all of that keeps you involved — when you have a passion for what you do. You constantly meet people who put extensions on your own life.”
How the meaning of various numbers have changed for you over the years: “You can’t do a song without its lyrics — you’re putting yourself in that, all the experience, all the teachings you had and what you learned. I remember seeing Mabel Mercer many years ago when she was like in her 90s, and she was practically speaking the songs, and I remember thinking, ‘Let me be that in depth — that mature and elegant — when I get to be that age. I hope I can make people feel the way I’m feeling.’ I’m fortunately still singing and still go for the notes. … I think a lot had to do with [the audience] ear and eye and how it affects you. What goes around comes around — it’s how we interpret it and see how they have gotten older and their interpretation.”
Doing a one-man show is nothing new to Tommy Tune — he’s done, by his count, five of them. The alchemy of doing a revue with such a tiny cast and creative team is that he can play everything close to the vest; he doesn’t need to release any information about it until he’s ready.
So when he found out that Dallas “jumped the gun” and announced his two-hander with Chita Rivera many months early, he was concerned. There went the element of surprise.
“I don’t like to announce [my projects] too soon,” the lanky Texas native says. “I like to sit on it. It’s like … imagine your show is a brown paper bag and you fill it with sand — that’s your show. So someone comes up to you and asks, ‘What’s in the show?’ and you push a hole in the bag and the sand comes out and people look at the sand and say, ‘Oh, that’s the order and the speed and the way it falls and the amount of sand’… and within an hour, that bag is empty. You have blown it. I like the surprise elements of it. I wanna surprise you!”
It’s little wonder, then, that just a few weeks before the show opens, he’s still not talkin’ about what’s in it. “I don’t want to tell you what songs we’re doing!” Tune laughs. “It’s a process, putting together a show. I call it Broadway boot camp.”
Frankly, I don’t wanna know what will be in it. Just knowing at the wealth of
material he and Rivera have to draw on means you can’t imagine a clunker in the bunch. In fact, what Tune will say is that they are “currently in the process of what to leave out.
“We have such good material,” he says. “Our combined experience spans 115 years! We have such a memory bank to pull from — [Chita] worked with the greats. I got in right at the end of the Golden Age, right before it changed. That was when hit songs for American [radio] came from Broadway and showed up on The Hit Parade. That isn’t the case anymore. I defy you to sing a song from Dear Evan Hansen. I mean, it’s a thing, [but it doesn’t have catchy songs].”
Tune is not just a maker of musicals, but a consumer of them… and not just Evan Hansen. He lavishly praises the Bette Midler version of Hello Dolly!, a show he has his own history with. He performed in Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker (the play on which the musical was based) while at the University of Texas, and appeared in director Gene Kelly’s 1968 film adaptation alongside Barbra Streisand, though he calls that period of his career, when he was under a movie studio contract, as “the lowest time of my life — I don’t like making movies. It’s boring. I’m of the school that you do not sit in your costume like we do in the theater, because you don’t want to wrinkle it. And that was a lot of standing [on a movie set].” (He does acknowledge, though, that Kelly gave him “the best direction I have ever received. He came up to me and said, ‘Tommy, dance better.’”)
He’s much happier to finally share the marquee with Rivera. “I don’t know [how I haven’t worked with her before] — I have worked with everybody!” He did perform one number from Bye Bye Birdie for Rivera’s 80th birthday celebration when Dick van Dyke was unavailable. That planted the seed of the current show.
He shares one special connection to Rivera as well. Tune got his Actors Equity card by appearing in the Dallas Summer Musicals production of West Side Story more than 50 years ago. “DSM got the rights to do West Side Story while it was still playing on Broadway, and I was in the first [non-New York] company; I played a Shark named Anxious,” he recalls.
So, finally members of the Sharks — Anxious and Anita — will be reunited. That’s a thrill not just for them, but for audiences.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 15, 2017.