What Did Chita Rivera Think Was the Best Musical Number She Performed?

Broadway's favorite gypsy passed away last week, leading to some of the most effusive tributes the theater world has ever seen.

By: Feb. 05, 2024
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What Did Chita Rivera Think Was the Best Musical Number She Performed?
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It’s been almost a week, but I’m still having trouble processing the loss of Chita Rivera. I expected to see her onstage again. What always struck me about Rivera, the ultimate gypsy (a term she clung to after others eschewed it in the name of political correctness), is, even in later years, she still seemed like a dancer first, a star second.

“For dancers, their initial feeling and the one that lasts through their entire life is that they just want to dance, they want to fill up space,” Rivera once told me. “They want to be energized. They want to energize people through their dance.”

That was who she was. The last time I interviewed her, I was doing an Encore Magazine piece on my Top Ten iconic dance numbers. I spoke to Rivera, Bambi Linn, Suzanne Charny, Donna McKechnie, Baayork Lee, Randy Skinner, Austin Pendleton, Louise Hickey, and more. Rivera was the only one who quibbled with my selection of numbers. Of her numbers, I was doing “America” and “Hot Honey Rag” (the write-ups of which I put up on my Instagram last week); she wanted “Shriners’ Ballet.” In the end, I did not include it in my Top Ten.

With her gone, I wondered what I could write in tribute. So many people wrote long essays praising her last week. Nothing I could write would cover new ground. But what I can do is comply with her request to me a few years back and write up her favorite number, “Shriners’ Ballet,” as if it was in that original piece (in a similar format and without reliance on her later memoir).

“Shriners’ Ballet,” Bye Bye Birdie

Perhaps no dance number in a well-known musical is quite as controversial as “Shriners’ Ballet” in Bye Bye Birdie. Featuring in its original version the character of Rose going under a table of men, head first, with her legs spread open for four counts of eight, it was cut from the Broadway revival and is frequently not seen in community mountings. There are occasionally flow-related reasons given for it being nixed—the second act number does not move the plot forward—but it is mostly that people find laughing at a woman underneath a table with strangers, who eventually seem to be preventing her escape, distasteful. Gina Gershon, who played Rose in the Broadway revival, called it “gang rape-y” in an interview.

“They totally misunderstand that Bye Bye Birdie is Technicolor as opposed to West Side,” Broadway’s original Rose, Chita Rivera, said. “West Side is dark and beautiful and passionate and you flip it over and there's Technicolor. And who's better for Technicolor than [director/choreographer] Gower Champion? He was from Hollywood. So we had a completely different show and you have to understand the innocence of those people to understand it.”

A comedic number, “Shriners’ Ballet” was a gorgeous showcase number for its Rose, but it was also something more. With a flamenco flare, Rose struts, high kicks, twirls, backward somersaults on the men, dances beside the table, dances on the table, crawls on the floor—there is both a careless verve and a technical precision to the movement that is truly a wonder to behold. What’s more than the Rose though is the men. So much rests on their facial expressions and timing. Even with a perfect Rose, the number falls flat if the Shriners don’t sell that transformation from stiff to lascivious. In fact, Rivera was sold on the piece by simply watching the men.

Gower Champion took me by the hand and took me downstage, and, on the stage, there was a table, and, behind the table, there were guys the length of the long table,” Rivera said. “He showed me the ‘Shriners’ Ballet’ without the center, the focal point that was the girl. It was so brilliantly conceived and created, that I could see it all—I could see the splits, I could see her teasing them—even without the girl. It’s so well-conceived you can’t ignore it.”

Industry Trends Weekly is a short column that runs in the weekly Industry Pro Newsletter. To read past columns and subscribe https://cloud.broadwayworld.com/rec/ticketclick.cfm?fromlink=2263077&regid=&articlelink=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.broadwayworld.com%2Ftopic%2FIndustry-Pro?utm_source=BWW2022&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=article&utm_content=bottombuybutton1. If you have an idea for the column, you can reach the author at cara@broadwayworld.com.

Photo Credit: Joan Marcus