The Life of the Party
By Eddie Shapiro
In our September issue, we chatted briefly with Broadway legend Chita Rivera. Here we are pleased to present the complete interview with the Tony-winning actress, whose latest show, Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life, is currently playing at San Diego's Old Globe (and will soon transfer to Broadway).
Tell us about your new show!
This a full Broadway show. It's the story of a dancer's life, which is mine. It's got both new music and recreations of classic songs and there's a lot of storytelling. It goes from my dance classes as a child to New York City Ballet and then to all the shows, starting from Call Me Madam to Guys & Dolls to Mr. Wonderful and West Side [Story] all the way up to Chicago and [Kiss of the] Spider Woman. One of the main reasons for doing it was I wanted the young dancers of today to know that things were quite different then. And they shouldn't lose faith. The only way they are going to get it done and get it done well and last as long as I have (if they care to), and at this level, is to work hard and have faith and really respect what they're doing. But you gotta have some history. That's what I want the kids to have, I want them to have history. You mention Jack Cole to so many young kids and they don't know who he is, or you mention Martha Graham and they don't know who she is. They need to go beyond that MTV crap.
How do you think young people today can find examples of choreography like that?
If you search for it, you find. There are many teachers out there who teach these techniques. You have to get the kids interested. They have to be well-rounded and do everything as much as they can. They have to do all different kinds of dancing. African, Cuban, ballet. It's not just tap dancing and looking cute. It's serious and it can be a glorious life. And, you know, the minute you see the camaraderie, the minute you see the club being a tight-knit club'because, you know, dancers are tight'you feel you have so much more in common, particularly when you're a young kid. This will help them to know that they are on the right track.
So was the impetus to do this show to create a living autobiography for dancers, first and foremost?
I think so. I'm funny the way things happen. I let them happen. People ask me, 'When did you know you were going to be a dancer?' Well, I didn't. I had no idea. I was breaking up the furniture and my mother said, 'I gotta get her out of the house.' So she put me in ballet class. It's funny, but that's how it happened. You must be led and then you must do and then you must lead. I didn't know this. Someone said, 'Why don't you write a book?' I don't wanna write a book. I know that I've had a great life and I've met the most talented people in the entire world. In my younger days I was surrounded by the best choreographers and a lot of work. Much more than now. So I said I gotta have a theme that's more important than me. And they always want to hear the dirt. I'm not giving them dirt.
I found that the last time we met, you were always the lady.
[Laughs] But you could read my mind, couldn't you?
Well, it was all in your eyes.
Well, you don't want to spread anything bad. Hey, what good does it do? Everyone's got their own opinions and stuff. It's a wonderful profession and you just wanna spread good stuff. Bad stuff doesn't do a damned thing but destroy. So I said no to the books. I remember saying that if they had given me the Kennedy Center Award onstage, I would have worn the Gypsy Robe [the iconic robe which, on every opening night, is passed on to another Broadway dancer]. I wouldn't have worn a designer dress. I would have worn something that encompassed every single dancer. This show has become that. The award is not for me, it's for every single dancer I ever danced with and every dancer who's ever set foot on a Broadway stage. That's what's good about this [show]. I couldn't do it for me, I had to do it for a much better reason.
I'm greedy, I want it all! I want the show and a book! Because with a book, you get the anecdotes and you must have a zillion of them.
People turn stories and experiences into what they want. I've heard stories totally changed. So until I'm ready to do something where I can totally control the story, this is the next step and this I really like. This I can deal with and this I can share and it comes from my own mouth. It has a better purpose. I want the kids to know how strong the experiences as a dancer can make you. You have to use your body and your mind. It's hard, it's damned hard. You ache. There's another thing I do in the show where I'm playing my ballet teacher and the kids say, 'It hurts Miss Jones,' and I say, 'Of course it hurts. It hurts every single day of my life. But nothing hurts me more than to see you in that lousy fifth position!' You have to know that it does hurt and it passes and it's OK and it helps and it builds, that's all. We never know what we're doing, do we, until we do it.
Well, as you said, you have to be led and then do and then lead.
You know what, that never came out of my mouth before today. When it came out I was like 'Ooh, Chita, that was good!' It's the truth. That's exactly who we are.
Because no matter how hard you plan you never know where you're going to end up.
That's right. You can think you're planning all you want...
And then you come out the other side.
Right! You can be doing great and then a cab can slam into your car and leave your leg in a cast! [As happened to Rivera in 1985]
How much of the show is new and how much is recreations of your own songs?
Well, a lot of it is Kander and Ebb and all those people I've worked with through the years. We do 'America,' stuff from Spider Woman, a lot of that stuff. I've been around so long, I could do a show that goes on and on. But listen, I'm in the hands of an amazing man, [openly gay playwright] Terrence McNally, and an amazing woman, [director] Graciela Daniele.
You've worked with both of them a lot. There must be tremendous trust there.
Oh, yeah, we know each other so well. We've known each other for years.
How does it feel to be working on a retrospective show like this in a year when you lost Cy Coleman and Fred Ebb and Jerry Orbach?
I saw a workshop of Skin of Our Teeth [the last Kander & Ebb show]. And I'm sitting watching it and all of a sudden I heard Freddy's lyrics. It's so brilliant, the score is so fabulous and so is Freddy. There's nobody in the world that writes his kind, his style, his wit. And the patter, it's so fast and it hit me that he is gone. It was as if he was speaking, as if he were there, because his words were there. And I thought I might have to leave the hall. I got so choked up. It was the first time out in public when I wasn't speaking for him or receiving an award for him. I really had to hold on really tight and at the end of it I just broke down. It hits me in waves, I don't know when it's gonna come. You walk past the [New York apartment building] San Remo, and you go 'Oh, my God, Freddy's not there anymore.' But doing their material, it brings them back. You keep them alive by doing the material. You get to say 'Hi' and pay respect. By the way, I also have some fabulous special material written by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty.
Is this your first time performing their work?
They are so talented.
OMIGOD! They wrote a number, I couldn't believe it was so perfect. It encompasses all of the women who have inhabited my body through all of these roles I've played. They give the information as it is with great humor and style and intelligence. They are just amazing people.
Sounds like a dream team.
It is! Chita's a lucky gal!
Well, Chita earned everything she got. Back to Fred Ebb for a moment. Is there a song of his you'd call your favorite?
That's really hard. A song that comes to my head is 'A Quiet Thing,' a song that Liza does so beautifully. It just says it. 'Love comes in on tiptoe / well, what do you know / it's a quiet thing.' I find that the most powerful things tend to be the quiet ones. Keep your eyes open always and stay in the moment because before you know it, you look back and you go 'Oh, my God, I didn't even know that happened because it was so quiet.' That's powerful.
When you were doing the revival of Chicago, you told me about feeling comforted on stage by the ghosts of Gwen Verdon and Bob Fosse. Now you're revisiting your past again, having lost Jerry and Fred and Cy. Are they inspiring you?
Oh, my God, it's absolutely inspiring. It's like putting on the warmest, safest, most comfortable coat, just enveloping yourself in security. It's like them embracing you and you know that you are being embraced by greatness. How can you go wrong when you know you have good friends like that? It just elevates you and helps to make you better and better and better. We all kind of greet each other and become a part of each other and that's the tapestry of our lives.
I love that you are taking that tapestry and using it to inspire.
Absolutely! That's all you want to do. That's all you can do. You have to make your own life, but what you see and what you hear might help you. An accident can make you stronger. Kids need to hear that.