The Horse, Not the Carriage

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

Photo courtesy of Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

Chita Rivera was bound to be the brightest thing in a nondescript rehearsal room in which she’s seated. White walls and institutional lighting could never overwhelm a woman who laughs so easily and punctuates her musings 
with claps.

But on a snowy afternoon in March, this tiny hall near Times Square is especially outshone by Rivera’s fingernails. They’re covered in dark-blue gels and dusted with glitter, and they perfectly complement her electric-blue blouse. When I admire her nails, however, she just giggles, teasing herself for keeping them too long. “I’ve been doing my concerts, so I went and had these put on,” she says. “And now I’ve been so busy that I haven’t had time to have them taken off. But it’s not so bad, is it? Because they are fabulous.”

Words like “busy” and “fabulous” are understatements when describing Rivera. At 82, the two-time Tony Award winner, Kennedy Center honoree, and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom could easily be living in glorious retirement with nothing left to prove. Instead, she’s carrying a new Broadway musical.

Based on a darkly satirical play from the 1950s, The Visit follows Claire, an old woman who wants revenge on the town that shunned her. Now that she’s extraordinarily wealthy, she swears she’ll pay off the townspeople’s debts — but only if they agree to execute the man who broke her heart and ruined her name.

Obviously, Claire is a juicy role, which is partly why Rivera is playing her. But this is also the final musical from John Kander and the late Fred Ebb, the venerated duo behind Chicago, Cabaret, and Kiss of the Spider Woman. Rivera is synonymous with several of their biggest hits. She was the first Velma Kelly in Chicago, for instance, so beyond giving her a great part, The Visit reunites her with longtime friends. (She also has an enduring allegiance to Terrence McNally, who wrote the book, and Graciela Daniele, who choreographs.)

“I’ve got so much history with these people,” Rivera says. “We’re coming in with baggage that is really a blessing. It’s deeper than just the show.”

Despite its pedigree, however, this production almost didn’t happen. Broadway buzz began way back in 2001, when The Visit played in Chicago. A staging at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, Va., arrived seven years later, but then the piece disappeared until last summer, when a streamlined version got solid reviews at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts. After that, the stars finally aligned for a New York transfer.

Rivera has appeared in every version, and she leans forward to grab my arm when she discusses the latest iteration. “I’m so glad it took us this long!” she exclaims. “I’m going to sound a little booga booga, but this wasn’t meant to be 14 years ago. It waited until now. It’s like when Fosse had his heart attack the first day of rehearsal [for Chicago]. We all went in different directions, but we all were ready when he recovered. So it was meant to be.”

No matter how much she adores The Visit, Rivera is also back on Broadway because she simply loves to work. “It makes me feel like I’m up and contributing something,” she says. “I’ve always described myself as the horse, not the carriage — those horses that help make things happen, that help get Cinderella to wherever the heck she’s going.”

Rivera gives a delighted chuckle, accentuated with a clap. “I like to go this way, not that way,” she adds, pointing forward then back. “If I’ve got 20 minutes, I don’t want to waste it.”

In a Broadway culture where A-listers are almost always expected to miss a show now and then, Rivera is known as one of the few stars who rarely call out. This past winter, she refused to postpone her concert in the middle of a snowstorm, even though theaters were canceling performances all over town. “And people came!” she says. “It wasn’t a full house at first, but then it got full. There were friends there. There was a whole orchestra. There was a responsibility.”

That night was filmed by PBS for its Great Performances special, underscoring Rivera’s status as a living legend. But when I suggest that this is how people see her, she demurs. And it’s not false modesty that makes her protest so much as a healthy amount of perspective.

“I just met Pope Francis in Italy, which was an incredible honor,” she says. “And I couldn’t believe I was looking at him. But I also felt so stupid because I said, ‘I’m Chita Rivera, and I’m from America.’ And my real name is not Chita Rivera! My real name is Conchita del Rivero or Dolores Figueroa. You know, Latin people have all these names. And I thought, In front of the pope, for God’s sake! You didn’t even give him your real name! You gave him your showbiz name!”

But her stage name carries a lot of weight, and she knows her co-stars might feel intimidated to be working with the original Anita from West Side Story. That’s why, during the meet-and-greet for a new production, Rivera sometimes introduces herself as Rita Moreno, who won the Oscar for playing Anita in the West Side Story movie.

“Otherwise, you feel kind of stupid,” she says. “You walk in like, ‘Hi! I’m Chita Rivera!’ But they know who you are, for goodness’ sake. So I like to start out with a laugh. I like most things to start with a laugh.”

The Visit is in previews and opens April 23 at the at the Lyceum Theatre, NYC

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