FLASH FRIDAY SPECIAL INTERVIEW: Chita Rivera
Today, we are presenting a special interview edition of FLASH FRIDAY with a two-time Tony-winning legend famous for her star-making turn in the original cast of WEST SIDE STORY under the direction of Jerome Robbins through to her heralded performances in the original casts of a trio of thrilling Kander & Ebb musicals - CHICAGO, THE RINK and KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN. Most recently, she stormed Broadway with her bio-musical THE DANCER'S LIFE. She is Chita Rivera and over the course of our career-spanning conversation her unmistakable vivacity and earthy elegance belied her more than fifty years experience in show business. Her optimism is positively infectious and her charm alarmingly disarming. You can catch her live onstage beginning a week from today for four special performances at Birdland. Tickets are available at the link below. Don't miss Chita on BroadwayWorld and at Birdland... and all her jazz!
All Her Jazz
PC: What amazing performances you have given us all - even if you just played Velma and gave the world "All That Jazz".
CR: (Laughs.) It's a pretty sensational song. I came along at a good time. I was lucky, that's for sure.
PC: Is it ok if I just throw some names at you and we'll go through your career through the lenses of these people?
CR: Of course! Shoot!
PC: I'll start with someone I just spoke to for this column myself a few weeks ago: John Kander.
CR: Awww. (Laughs.) My God! Well, without John Kander... he's just... I just wouldn't be where I am without Freddy and John, that's for sure. They are really responsible for me doing such amazing shows and being given the opportunity to do something really fabulous. He's also one of the kindest, sweetest, most intelligent, most wonderful human beings that I know. He's not only a great composer, but a great friend. He's still going strong!
PC: Indeed. He's writing like a young energetic man! So sharp.
CR: Oh, yeah! That's very, very, very true. He keeps getting better. He's like great wine - he just keeps getting better and better and better. (Pause.) You know, it's funny that Fred went first and John writes magnificent lyrics now, also.
PC: Did you ever have an inkling that he had the propensity for that craft?
CR: No. I don't even know if he knew. Not at all.
PC: What a pleasant surprise!
CR: You know, when I saw a show of his right after Freddy died and he sang this song that he wrote about friendship and stuff, I almost thought I would have to leave the theater! I mean... (Crying Sound.)
PC: Cutting lyrics!
CR: His heart is just so good that just everything that comes out of him is, too.
PC: An unbelievably kind man.
CR: And, there's nobody that writes vamps like him! If you hear a good vamp, I can promise you it's John's!
PC: You have that right. You were in all three of his masterpieces, though many seem to prefer CABARET above all others. THE RINK is my favorite Kander & Ebb score, though.
CR: (Big Laugh.) Oh! Well, we all have our favorites!
PC: So, what do I know? (Laughs.)
CR: (Laughs.) I loved it, too. But... it's hard, because they are all so good. I actually think ZORBA is phenomenal.
PC: What about the Weissler's revival coming up next year with you and Antonio Banderas?
CR: Right! Well, I did the reading with him. It was really, really exciting!
PC: Tell me everything!
CR: He came in there as Zorba, there is no doubt about it! He had grown his beard and it was as beautiful as the rest of him is. He was all prepared - but, all that doesn't surprise me.
PC: What did surprise you?
CR: He's a young man! I now know that Zorba was written to be in his late-forties, early fifties - not this much older man.
PC: Anthony Quinn was much older.
CR: Antonio is just perfect. You know, we always think that because he is so wise and so earthy that he is an older man and has learned all this, but, actually, Antonio is perfect.
PC: Are you going to definitely be in the Broadway production?
CR: We'll see! Whenever they do it! We'll see.
PC: Do you know the status of the revival since Joseph Stein, the book writer, just passed away?
CR: Oh, I know! I know. It's so sad. (Pause.) I haven't talked to John [Kander, the composer] since SCOTTSBORO opened so I really have no idea right now.
PC: I hope it happens! It could be amazing.
CR: I hope so!
PC: I loved you with Antonio in NINE on stage.
CR: Oh, thank you! Wasn't that show something?
CR: Couldn't you have just died when you saw the movie? Ugh. Robbie [Marshall] is a friend of mine, but... it didn't work.
PC: What a score the stage show has, though!
CR: Maury wrote such a gorgeous score.
PC: The stage version is so good - especially, the revival.
CR: Antonio was that man. He was absolutely that man. The girls were just so perfect. I thought David's [Leveaux] direction was beautiful. And, you really cared. You really got the story.
PC: So simple and so effective.
CR: To me, if you don't have the story the way it should be, it ain't right.
CR: David hit that story on the nose.
PC: He really captured the Fellini surrealism while keeping it grounded.
PC: It never went over the top, like the original tended to.
PC: Did you find working with David Leveaux was a rewarding experience?
CR: Oh, it was wonderful. It was... he just allows you to be yourself and then he gives you exactly what you need in order to expand and make it the way it should be. He enjoyed it all himself.
PC: Is that important to you - to be in the room with that kind of energy?
CR: When you have a director in front of you and you see that he's enjoying it - not overdoing it - but, you get that feedback right away and you don't feel like you are being judged, you feel like you are being directed.
PC: Could you tell me about working with one of the other big directors of the theatre, Hal Prince?
CR: SPIDERWOMAN was wonderful. I think that show is a very important piece of theatre.
PC: Without a doubt.
CR: Talk about a story! A universal story. (Pause.) An important story.
PC: Unlike any that had been told on Broadway before.
CR: You know, when we got into rehearsals the Spider Woman was just this... this... thing. She was this thing who was on the outside looking over. She was always in and out - sort of like the Phantom [in THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA] - and, one day, I looked at Brent Carver and I went, "That's my secret! That's what I have to look at! I have to look at him because he is loving her so I can see myself through his eyes!"
PC: What an insight! A breakthrough.
CR: It took me awhile to get there.
PC: But, the point is, you got there!
CR: Well, rehearsals are rehearsals! But, I usually know it from the beginning, where I'm going.
PC: You're a pro.
CR: I just wasn't sure. She was described in the script as... not sporadic, really, but... she just wasn't in whole scenes. She appeared. She disappeared. She became somebody else. So, I had to grow every day with these different people that she was.
PC: She was really a triptych character.
CR: Right. She was a movie star one minute, then she was a Russian. But, then, when she became Death, that was a fascinating revelation.
PC: What a metaphor, too!
CR: Yeah! It was really challenging, but you love those challenges. Hal was right there every step along the way.
CR: Right. Right.
PC: SPIDER WOMAN is still a concept musical in that tradition - so, you need the concept! You're it!
CR: Right! (Laughs.) Absolutely! (Pause.) It was such a joy to do that show.
PC: What about working with Terrance McNally on SPIDER WOMAN, as well as THE RINK?
CR: When you're lucky enough to have a Terrance... Terrance and I really respect each other. He really knows me. You know, all these guys - Freddy and John and Hal and Jerry - they know me better than I know myself. I am safe when I am with them. They push me to do things that maybe I would think I wasn't able to do.
PC: Can you give me an example?
CR: If I were to say to Terrance, "Can you help me? I have to give this speech." And, Terrance would know exactly what to say. He knows how my heart feels. He's one of the kindest and sweetest and most talented - so talented - guys I know.
PC: What's the memory of SPIDER WOMAN and working with Hal Prince that first comes to mind?
CR: I do SPIDER WOMAN in my show now and every time I do it I get these images. I remember asking Hal, "How am I to appear in a web off the ground if I am not off the ground?" And, Hal showed me the slides. Then, I suddenly saw that by standing on the stage it all looked like a spider web with the slides! I was just standing on the floor and looked like I was in the center of the web! It was just thrilling.
PC: It was really one of the first 3D sets, by using those projections.
CR: It was. Absolutely.
PC: What do you think of SPIDER MAN having a 3D set and all the new technology of digital project?
CR: You wanna know something funny? I'm happy that I feel this way because I remember thinking, "Oh, my God. Please never let me one of those old, old people from the Golden Age that says they don't want all of those things and they just want the actor on the stage!" That's bull! I mean, you need your designers and you need your imagination, too!
PC: Exactly! Why can't we have both ingenuity and spectacle?
CR: When I heard about SPIDER MAN and I heard that he was, like, going to be appearing in all different places [in the theater], all over the place, I was so excited. As long as the audience is taken on the trip that they want them to go on, then that is great theatre. That's exciting!
PC: So exciting! Something new on Broadway, for once.
CR: I just hope everybody can afford the tickets! (Laughs.)
PC: There are so few opportunities to see any great productions at all anymore, so it should be worth the price if it's decent.
CR: I just can't wait to see it!
PC: There's not many great designs these days.
CR: I'm so tired, now, of seeing things with no sets!
PC: We won't name names!
CR: (Laughs.) There's a place for everything, but we have so many brilliant set designers and lighting designers. I like to see the stage change. I like to see the intricacy of the lights and everything working all together. It all has to work together, of course.
PC: Of course.
CR: Thank goodness I've been so fortunate to have great sets.
PC: So many. The end of THE RINK, SPIDER WOMAN...
CR: CHICAGO had a fabulous set! It was extraordinary. You're young, so you never saw it, but Tony Walton's designs were just fabulous.
PC: It's like FOLLIES, that original production. Do you think that was the best that the show could ever be, as successful as the revival is?
CR: No doubt about it. And, I really am a theatre enthusiast, so I can be taken seriously. It just doesn't compare [the revival]. But, it shows you what a wonderful score and story it is, because it is still running and it's in its fourteenth year!
PC: I think it's safe to say it's a hit!
CR: To see it come alive like it did in Bobby's version... a deck of cards and people's faces all over the place. It was so strange - guys in stockings and things. It was just fabulous. So, so fabulous. (Laughs.)
PC: It was so edgy and controversial and in-your-face. Wasn't "Razzle Dazzle" really wild out of town?
CR: It was fabulous out of town! But, Bobby pulled back on certain things and, you know, it was all just a circus. It was dazzling. You would be dazzled like you would be with a contortionist. It was just like a circus - which is what the courtroom is like.
PC: I know you never worked with him as a director, but did you have any interactions with Michael Bennett?
CR: Michael Bennett was in the chorus of BAJOUR!
PC: He was so young!
CR: He was so great. What a great dancer! And, he was fun to be with. He was really cute. I knew him just as a dancer. I had some really fabulous dancers in that show - Peter Gennaro was the choreographer - and Michael was one of the dancers. But, other than that, he was a friend but I never worked for Michael.
PC: Could you tell me about Peter Gennaro's contributions to WEST SIDE STORY?
CR: I think I was the first one to say it. I think I pulled that out.
PC: You were.
CR: I mean, it was very delicate and I was nervous about it. I didn't want to do anything wrong...
PC: Of course not.
CR: Jerome Robbins, to me, is the genius of a lifetime.
PC: And you would know! You've worked with all the best.
CR: He's another one of those amazing people, that I wouldn't be where I am if it hadn't been for him.
PC: Anita sort of now defines a star-making role!
CR: Right. As a director, for me, though, Jerry was one of the greatest. He really taught me how to try to understand what I was doing and to delve into my own self to find something real. So, that was the first time I was exposed to myself, really. (Laughs.)
PC: He taught you about yourself. That's a great director.
CR: Peter Gennaro, though, going back to that: Jerry was smart enough to hire someone who had a great understanding of rhythm and body movement and Latin movement. And, his own brilliant style. So, he hired Peter. (Pause.) It was just perfect.
PC: And "America"?
CR: Originally, "America" was all boys and girls like it was done in the movie. I'll never forget when Jerry said, "Let's take a look and let Peter choreograph it." So, we did it and then we were all excused. When we came back, it was decided that it would be all girls and the guys were gone.
PC: What a great moment in theatrical history.
CR: Those are moments when all the creative people in the show work together. That's the secret of a great show, I think.
PC: What great shows have you seen recently?
CR: Have you seen PEE WEE?
PC: No, I haven't.
CR: I just haven't had the greatest time in the theatre lately, but I was the happiest person when I saw PEE WEE.
PC: What do you think of theatre today? It's impossible to get shows on Broadway, pretty much.
CR: It's different times for different things and each one has something to offer. I just hate to see ticket prices go so high that those gifted people that should be there can't be because they can't be paid and they go somewhere else. We can just hope. With SCOTTSBORO BOYS we have hope.
PC: What a great score that is!
CR: Just fantastic!
PC: It's like a fresh Kander & Ebb score. He still has that passion.
CR: I always tell my audiences, "Don't count, just don't count your age. Age has nothing to do with it; it's your spirit that matters." If you have things to say, you say them and John has things to say and he said them!
PC: How great that it made it to Broadway!
CR: I saw it downtown. I have to see it uptown now.
PC: What was the experience of doing THE DANCER'S LIFE like? What a killer that must have been to do eight times a week!
CR: Oh, my gosh. Yes! But, it's simple: when you love what you do, it's just easy. It's easy. When you are speaking the truth, it's simple. We had a glorious time and we had great dancers.
PC: It was such a great commemoration of your career.
CR: I had a chance to do things that I had had so much fun doing before. You know, seldom do you get the chance to come around again. I was able to do that, so it's great.
PC: And you'll be coming back again to Birdland next week! What will you be performing?
CR: Yes! I wanted to do a completely new show but I haven't quite had the time for that so I am putting some new stuff in. I have to do certain things. Freddy taught me this years ago - because I didn't want to do anything ever, once I did it I didn't want to do it again - and he said, "You're wrong. You have to do them."
PC: You do! He's right!
CR: I know! So, I will be doing some things from SPIDER WOMAN and WEST SIDE and SWEET CHARITY and stuff like that. Just to be in Birdland is a lot of fun. It's great.
PC: I've always wanted to hear you do "The Money Tree". Kander told me it's one of his favorite lyrics.
CR: I just wrote that down! What a great idea! I'll give you credit! (Laughs.)
CR: Oh, thank you! Thank you so much! You're such a doll!
PC: Define collaboration.
CR: One word: unity.
PC: Break a leg next week! You are a legend.
CR: You have such a beautiful spirit. Take care, love. Bye, bye!
From This Author Pat Cerasaro