BYE BYE BIRDIE Flashback Interview: Chita Rivera
The incomparable Chita Rivera released a new solo studio album entitled And Now I Swing on October 13, 2009 from the newly-launched Yellow Sound Label. From classic theater songs to jazz standards, all tracks featured on this new album have received new arrangements recorded by New York's finest musicians, reimagining some of Chita's favorite tunes. BroadwayWorld.com checked in with the legendary star.
An accomplished and versatile actress/singer/dancer, Chita Rivera has won two Tony Awards® as Best Leading Actress in a Musical and received seven additional Tony® nominations. She recently starred in the Broadway and touring productions of The Dancer's Life, a dazzling new musical celebrating her spectacular career, written by Terence McNally and directed by Graciela Daniele. Chita was awarded The Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama on August 12, 2009. She received the coveted Kennedy Center Honor in Washington, DC in December 2002, and was the first Hispanic ever chosen to receive this award. It was her electric performance as Anita in the Broadway premiere of West Side Story (1957) which brought her stardom. She starred in the original Broadway productions of such landmark musicals as Chicago, The Rink, Kiss of the Spider Woman and Bye Bye Birdie, among many others.
Bye Bye Birdie stars John Stamos (Albert Peterson), Gina Gershon (Rose Alvarez) & Bill Irwin (Mr. Harry MacAfee) with Jayne Houdyshell (Mrs. Mae Peterson), Dee Hoty (Mrs. MacAfee) & Nolan Gerard Funk as "Conrad Birdie." The cast also features Matt Doyle (Hugo Peabody), Neil McCaffrey (Randolph MacAfee) and Allie Trimm (Kim MacAfee).
BYE BYE BIRDIE is directed and choreographed by Robert Longbottom with a book by Michael Stewart, music by Charles Strouse and lyrics by Lee Adams. On Broadway at the Henry Miller's Theatre (124 West 43rd Street). Limited engagement through: Sunday, April 25th, 2010.
Tell us about the first moments of BYE BYE BIRDIE first coming together while working on the original production.
It was pure entertainment. If someone was unhappy, all they had to do was go in there and hear Paul Lynde. All they had to do was see the brilliance of Gower Champion's choreography- I mean, that "Shriner's Ballet" was brilliant without... me. I mean, the front kick dance was absolutely brilliantly conceived; I mean you can just see this in the movie, she's dancing with a suitcase- it's a solo- she's dancing with this briefcase, and it's him in her mind, and she goes through her, all the emotional turmoil she feels, and then she goes through this love feeling for this briefcase, who is really Albert, and then all of a sudden she gets pissed at this suitcase, you know, who is really Albert, and she finally at the end of the number throws it into the wings, and out steps Albert.
It says three pages of book, you know what I mean? It was just that brilliantly conceived. And a number called "A Hundred Ways to Kill a Man", it was hilarious- it was just fantastic, absolutely. And then there was the score, which made you just the happiest person in the world, (she scats the score), I mean, you just want to get up and dance!
It's so true, it's so true. The music, you hear just a little bit of it, just one or two chords and suddenly you know what it is, and you're, like, lit up.
Even now, in my one-woman show, I do "A Lot of Livin'", and I do about three of the songs, because these songs today, even with a different beat, with a jazz beat, are very hip, are very very hip, and very melodic. It reminds you of a time of innocence, an absolute time of innocence, and that's what's so beautiful about, at least the Birdie that I know.
Yeah, I haven't see the new one...
Of course, you're talking about Dick Van Dyke... You're talking about the one and only Dick Van Dyke, you're talking about the one and only Paul Lynde, and Kay Medford, who is not Jewish at all, who played the Jewish mother- and it could have been an insulting kind of thing because, at the beginning she was calling me all kinds of names, as Rose, and I had to realize that this is really funny. If you felt really horrible during the day, go see the Bye Bye Birdie of 19- whatever year it was, and you were uplifted.
How was that first audience, after that first performance? What was the energy like?
You know what I said? I will never forget it; I will never forget hearing, from my dressing room, the laughter. I had never had the experience of hearing laughter like that. Paul Lynde's part, the father's part, was originally something like, and Charles will correct me, it was really small, it was like eleven lines, twelve, fifteen lines; and that we got into rehearsal and he would look at that kid that was his son and say some remark, and we would scream and Michael would write it down. It became that size because Paul was that fast and that brilliant.
I know all the shows you've worked on, what was it like to just feel all that magic about everything coming together back then?
Well, you know why: because there was unity in the theatre. Everybody worked together, nobody tried to out-do or whatever; there are always egos, we're always loaded with it, but the ego works toward working together, because The Show is the thing. It's not one individual who can make it happen, the show is the thing, and our show was one big, one big family, all the kids were our kids. and we just laughed a lot; Michael Stewart was one of the funniest guys you ever met in person, and it was a real relaxed- I mean, it was fun going to work. And Dick? Please, you can't get better than that.
I was honored to be there the night- BroadwayWorld was there the night of your last Broadway show, one of the nights he was there, and it was such an amazing moment- we're still talking about it, it's still inspiring us.
Well, when he stepped around that set, and you saw that beautiful smile, it- everything is about intention in it. We're not looking for anything but to please the audience. If you can do that, when you're successful, then you succeed. When you're successful in pleasing the audience and doing your very best for the play- for the play, and then you succeed. The play succeeds, you succeed. It's a wonderful bit of collaboration, I mean in those days dancers were always extremely obedient anyhow, so we did- Gower had, like Jerome Robbins, he had six versions of one thing, that's how creative he was. And if you just did what you were asked, or told, to do, then if it didn't look right- that's why casting is so important- if it didn't look right or didn't sound right, they knew it and they would fix it. A lot of people think they can bring- they know what they're doing- we don't know if a show is going to be a hit, we get in there and it's created as you go along. Everybody has to be wide open and do as they're told.
You really have to trust what's happening early on in the process in order to make a show work, don't you?
You've gotta try it to see if it works. You have to pray to God that [...], you're not in it to make any money, you're in it to entertain. And, if you get in that wonderful space, which is a rehearsal hall, and you hear all different versions of one thing, and finally you come down to that one version- I remember when "Maria" was brought into West Side, I can see the studio, I remember the day when I heard Larry Kert sing it for the first time. I remember "Spanish Rose" when I was in Philadelphia; that was put in in Philadelphia, I wasn't sure about it, but I didn't really get the humor until I rehearsed it and realized wow, this is really funny to laugh at yourself. It's really okay to laugh at yourself, because you're out there by yourself, and you've gotta believe it in order for them to believe it.
Boy, it's so true. And, I love seeing photos of you in rehearsals and in rehearsal studios; it's such a sacred place and I think people, in some way, have forgotten the work that goes on there- some people just want to run out and get a sandwich; and gee, I never want to leave rehearsal studios.
It's so true, and they also say, "Can I have Friday off because I have to fly to California", for a film or something. I don't get it, I mean I just don't get it. That space and that time is precious. And it's a lot of fun. Also, you're happy for the team, the whole team, when you see somebody's number and it really works.
Plus, the fact that you're happy you got the job; you're in the rehearsal studio and you're part of a- this is a great next gig and a next job, you should be overjoyed it's part of the gift.
Yes, absolutely it is a gift. You know, they have awards now for choruses, best chorus of show and like that, and they asked me to write something for it, and all I could say was that the chorus is just the most precious place to be. Because It teaches you [...], respect for your fellow partner, it gives you insight into what other people are feeling and it's the very very best place to start your training. It will always be precious to me, that chorus line. Because it's unselfish- to make eight people one? That's pretty fantastic. I'm surprised the Rockettes are still alive.
And the alchemy of doing that has to be done right. There is a right and wrong...
And, it's unselfish.
I think that's why people love your performances; you know, I'm an actor too, and I've been working with BroadwayWorld for the last few years, doing these features, and one of the things I've always seen in your photos and your work is that smile, that love of it, the unselfishness, you can see it in performance photos.
Being a performer yourself, you really understand that what you give, you get. What goes around comes around. And all those other silly expressions, they're not silly. You get so much, from the audience, from your fellow performers, it's two-and-a-half hours of your life, it can't be wasted, you have to enjoy it. So even if you're in a show which just doesn't quite do it, you can still find something because you've got a cast around you that's doing the same thing you are. You're not alone, you definitely are not alone.
So true, you're not alone; and even when you are alone, when you do your one-woman shows, your concerts, you're not alone, because you bring all these characters with you. I'm segueing into that for your CD, which we are all very excited about, here at Broadwayworld. We've run several stories about it, everyone's going crazy- we ran one story with the track listing, and it's such an amazing list of songs.
You know, that's the life I've had, having this career and working with such amazing people, and I've taken advantage of it. I really am so thrilled, that's what made me who I am. My conductor, Michael Croiter, the producer of the album, when he said, "Let's do this", because we've played so many places and people would say "Where's the CD?", and while I don't think of stuff like that, you know, I just do my work and that's it- So Michael said "Let's do it, and let's like change- and let's have a title..." because my last album in London years ago was "And Now I Sing", and he said well why not "And Now I Swing", and I went "Damn, that's good". That's sexy, it's fun, it's another step. And so that's what we did. We've changed, we've added musicians, and changed rhythms to certain songs; it was fun, I don't know what happens- I live in the moment, day by day, so you never know what's going to happen.
It's so great that it's going to be out there and the fact people will be able to rediscover some of these songs that they might not know in a new way. And in January, you head out on tour.
Right, that's going to be really exciting; because there will be some symphony orchestras, there will also be some big bands playing, I mean to hear them play things from Spider Woman, it just makes the hair stand up on your head. Cy Coleman and Kander and Ebb and Bernstein, all of this great music, and then we're adding some new stuff too, so we're looking forward to it- you know, life is steps and you just take your steps and hope your foundation keeps you nice and strong.
When you walk around town at the moment with WEST SIDE STORY, 'BIRDIE', it's like you went into a time machine, I bet, just seeing the marquees...
It's weird. It's very weird. It's really weird to see your life coming around again. I mean there's Chicago, there's West Side Story, there's Birdie, what else is coming?
Is there anything that continues to inspire you? Because I know you inspire too many people to even mention, but is there anything that still inspires you when you see a song or an artist or something?
Well, yeah- it's the person itself, it's the song itself. But it's also the desire to do it. Just to be out there, to want to. Our business is such a beautiful business of communication, that to talk- to sing a song and see someone sit there with tears in their eyes, or to have a dance movement where somebody jumps up and says, "Let me do that!", I mean connection- it's a wonderful thing to still be involved in life. Some people say, "Oh, I can't wait to get my roots, I want to really settle", no, I don't want to settle down, I want to fly, I don't want to go in the ground- I always say, "I'd hate to die in a plié", it's not even pretty, you know? But just to constantly want to express yourself is a nice feeling.
Well, I guess that sums it up, and that's a perfect way to say goodbye, and thank you again, and as they sing in the song, you've "A Lot of Livin' to Do"...