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BWW Exclusive: Broadway Icon CHITA RIVERA Visits the Cast of Eight O'Clock Theatre's SWEET CHARITY in Largo

A Standing Ovation for the Living Legend!

BWW Exclusive: Broadway Icon CHITA RIVERA Visits the Cast of Eight O'Clock Theatre's SWEET CHARITY in Largo BWW Exclusive: Broadway Icon CHITA RIVERA Visits the Cast of Eight O'Clock Theatre's SWEET CHARITY in Largo

It's not everyday that you get to talk about death with Chita Rivera. But that's what happened when I spoke with the Broadway icon during her visit to Florida to meet the cast and attend Eight O'Clock Theatre's current remarkable production of SWEET CHARITY in Largo.

The show has been dedicated to Ms. Rivera, and after the Sunday matinee, she was called on stage to a robust standing ovation from the audience. Director James Grenelle announced to the packed house: "Eight O'Clock Theatre is unbelievably humbled and honored to welcome today's special guest."

And there she was, so stunning at 89, donning head to toe black, walking to the stage and greeting each cast member. In some ways, she is Broadway history. She is one of the very few who ventured from the Golden Age of Musicals to the Pre-Contemporary style. I stood in awe, watching as she entered the stage, and I thought: There she is, in person, the original Anita in West Side Story, the original Rose Grant in Bye Bye Birdie, the original Velma Kelly in Chicago, not to mention her work in Kiss of the Spider Woman, The Rink and, just last decade, The Visit. All strong women, as Mr. Grenelle pointed out in his speech, making sure to include her work in SWEET CHARITY in the list of her incredible roles: "To many filmgoers, Nicki Pignatelli, and to many outside of New York, Charity Hope Valentine."

Mr. Grenelle continued: "This multiple Tony Award winner and true triple threat became the first Latino American to receive a Kennedy Center Honor. She paved the way for powerful women in the theatrical industry, showing that success can be achieved not just from talent, technique and hard work, but also through kindness, generosity and compassion. Her grace, beauty, and unbelievable talent is what makes her a star. Her enormous heart is what makes her a legend."

"How brilliant you all were!" Ms. Rivera told the cast. "Fabulous! You brought back so many memories..." And then she joked: "So many memories I didn't want to have."

Seeing her on that stage, surrounded by the enthralled cast of SWEET CHARITY, I realized that she is more than a living legend; she has become a testament, a monument of sorts to all grand things: longevity, style, spirit, and, best of all, an innate goodness. This is what happens when you do life right. She is the reason so many young women have taken the dive into show business and started a lifelong love affair with the performing arts. She's an inspiration to many, but she's more than that--she's a real person, with no false airs, and she tells it like it is. Genuine, honest and grounded.

Onstage, she hugged Amy Fee, EOT's Charity Hope Valentine. "Gwen [Verdon] would have loved to see you," she said. She also mentioned that Ms. Fee is so talented that "you scare me." I later asked Ms. Fee how it felt to be lauded by one of Broadway's all-time brightest stars. "Oh my goodness, it was so emotional," she told me. "Just to know she's worked this show's's such an honor."

Ms. Rivera later spoke to Stephen Fee, Vittorio Vidal in SWEET CHARITY and Ms. Fee's husband. "That voice!" she called to him. "Remember that voice! What a gift!"

For Ms. Rivera, she hadn't seen SWEET CHARITY in years. "I forgot how long the show is," she told me later at a private Meet & Greet. "But it's as long as it needs to be. Formed brilliantly, organized brilliantly and written brilliantly. And best of all there's hope." She had a twinkle in her eye. "You know that's her middle name. Charity HOPE Valentine."

"That's how I started my review for this production," I said. "There's a reason Charity's middle name is Hope."

I told her that I teach middle school theatre students, ages 11-14, and asked her what advice she has for the young ones who love musical theatre so much. She didn't mince words: "Listen. Learn. You don't know everything. It's really vital to look with your eyes, listen with your ears, and speak only when you're spoken to." (Great advice. I hope my students read that!)

She talked excitedly about working on a new production, a biographical show (called CHITA!). It's amazing that she's 89 years old (she looks barely fifty) and hasn't stopped yet. I then asked her the "dreaded question," the one that's going to give you "the look," that paused moment of "you have got to be kidding." I knew it would get that response, but I asked it anyway: "Which of your many roles do you hold closest to your heart?"

That's when she shot me the look. "All of them," she said quite seriously. "They are all me, a part of me." It's the right answer; and I realize it's impossible to choose, especially the roles that she's had in a career that spans over sixty years. It's like asking who's your favorite child.

We talked about musical theatre history and how she's walked through so many eras of it. "You've lived it," I said. "You were there for the change. My father, who's 91, saw you in Bye Bye Birdie in Philadelphia before it moved to Broadway."

She told me it was an amazing thing, going from the raw drama of West Side Story to the Gower Champion glitz and glamor of Bye Bye Birdie, and she had to "flip it." "It was the Golden Age," she said with a smile as if lost in reverie for a moment.

"And you went from the Golden Age to the more modern shows," I added. The conversation put SWEET CHARITY in perspective: "It's interesting that SWEET CHARITY and Cabaret appeared the same year...SWEET CHARITY came out at the start of '66, and Cabaret was that fall. And nothing was the same after that."

"That was the flip again," she told me. "All those great artists. Like Kander and Ebb. And Hal Prince."

"You had them and you had Stephen Sondheim, all working at the same time," I said. "Changing the face of theater. And you were there for that change." Speaking of Kander & Ebb, I told her that I saw her in Kiss of the Spider Woman in Los Angeles twenty-seven years ago. "The show is about the inevitability of death," she said, "and I played Death."

"You made death not such a scary thing," I said.

She smiled enthusiastically. "Yes!"

"You made it alluring and exciting."

"You got it!" she cheered.

"You made death come alive."

"Yes!" She held my hands. "You got it! If nothing else this week, I got to meet you...and you got it!"

Strangely enough, after my talk with Ms. Rivera, I walked to the car and immediately found out that William Hurt, who starred in the movie version of Kiss of the Spider Woman and won an Oscar for it, had died. Talk about synchronicity.

"You got it!" Ms. Rivera had said to me, smiling so passionately, with so much verve. She told me that this is how I should end the article, with us talking about Kiss of the Spider Woman and its fearlessly embracing zest of death, and how we connected over it. And so I will take her advice and end this on that note. If I've learned anything in this life, it's to never question the instincts of the great Chita Rivera.

Photo Credit: James Cass

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