Two-time Tony winner Chita Rivera set for Ridgefield Playhouse
You can poke around the internet for many hours and not find a negative word from or about the Broadway star Chita Rivera.
A big believer in karma, the two-time Tony Award winner says she can get as angry and as frustrated and as opinionated as anyone else — she calls that side of her personality “The Beast” — but she doesn’t see any point in adding more negativity to the world when she goes to work.
“God, I have learned that you do get back what you give out, so why not give out good vibes?,” the star says in an interview during the run-up to two different shows: “Chita: A Legendary Celebration” at the Ridgefield Playhouse Nov. 20 and the long-awaited Carnegie Hall debut she made Nov. 7 in “Chita: Nowadays.”
“I don’t like fighting. There’s a side of me that’s not pretty and not nice. ... But it’s so much more fun and so much easier if you’re laughing and if you can laugh at yourself,” she adds of trying to be a positive force while working in the high-pressure world of Broadway.
“In this business, one minute you’re up and the next one, you’re down. It’s hard, but if you give in to the dark side, it’ll drag you down.”
Rather than kvetching backstage at her early shows, Rivera stayed busy in the wings learning from such stars as Sammy Davis Jr. when she was in his 1956 musical “Mr. Wonderful.”
She also soaked up as much as she could from her “West Side Story” collaborators, director-choreographer Jerome Robbins, composer Leonard Bernstein and lyricist Stephen Sondheim. It was that 1957 landmark musical that made Rivera a star after nearly a decade of chorus work.
Rivera has never understood young performers who don’t try to learn as much as they can from the veterans they work with. “If you don’t, you’re missing out on so much knowledge and energy. They’re teachers, so you watch how they do things. They give you lessons in what’s possible,” she says.
“To be able to watch the greatest people in the world every night is a gift,” Rivera adds of those hours she spent early in her career studying stars like Davis and Elaine Stritch.
The performer jokes that she has always been “a thief in the night,” borrowing the best of what she has seen on stage.
“What really is new?,” she asks rhetorically. “What’s new is that you bring in yourself.”
Rivera learned a valuable lesson in 1967, when she was asked to take “Sweet Charity” on the road by the two show biz idols who created the original Broadway production — director-choreographer Bob Fosse and leading lady Gwen Verdon.
At first, the performer asked herself if she really wanted to step into Verdon’s shoes.
“You can do it if you bring your own shoes,” Rivera says, laughing, of adding her own talent and stage personality to the role. The job would lead to the actress playing a major part in Fosse’s 1969 film version of “Sweet Charity” and then teaming up with Fosse and Verdon for the original 1975 production of “Chicago.”
“Chicago” also brought the songwriting team of Fred Ebb and John Kander into Rivera’s life. That duo would go on to create the two shows in which Rivera won her Tonys — “The Rink” and “Kiss of the Spider Woman.”
If it wasn’t for the late lyricist and book writer Ebb, we might not have seen Rivera in the many cabaret and concert appearances where she doesn’t have the protection of playing a character. The performer says she spent the first two decades of her career ignoring offers to do club shows because she thought, “I can’t do that. I can’t just stand there and talk.”
But when Fosse had a heart attack that delayed “Chicago” rehearsals for six months, Rivera found herself in a rented New York City apartment with her daughter, and no work.
“Fred said, ‘Why don’t you do a club act?’ He wound up giving me every word I spoke. He knew me better than myself. He gave me the courage and the opportunity to get to know myself,” she says of the way Ebb gave her a whole new show biz realm to explore.
“He was so smart about the material and the audience. Now, because of him I thoroughly enjoy it. It’s not easy — you can end up in someone’s onion soup,” Rivera jokes of the cozier supper clubs she’s played. “But being honest was the best part of his lesson.”
The star also learned a lesson in perseverance from Ebb and Kander during the 14 years it took their musical “The Visit” to go from a test run in Chicago to opening night on Broadway last year. Over the course of a decade, Rivera also worked on the dark show in Washington, D.C., and Williamstown, Mass., and then a New York City concert version in 2011, without making the leap to a full Broadway staging.
“We got tired of people talking about it and asking, ‘Will it come in?,’ but we learned an awful lot from each other,” she says of the long road to Broadway.
When “The Visit” finally opened last year, Rivera received another Tony nomination for her acclaimed performance, but the sombre musical drama only ran three months.
“We weren’t happy about the outcome, but we did it, and the company was exquisite.”
At the moment, Rivera says there are no other book musicals she is hungering for.
“I haven’t really thought about it, but I don’t think so. It would have to be something where the subject matter is exciting and inspiring.”
The Carnegie Hall gig was a lifelong dream of the actress.
“That really is thrilling. I mean, it’s Carnegie Hall! Because it’s been there so long and so many amazing people have performed there. You know the joke — ‘How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice’ — well, that’s what I’ve been doing my whole life. I studied in that building years and years ago, and there will be ghosts there, Freddie (Ebb), my mom and dad. New York gave me everything I’ve got and this will be my way of saying thank you to New York.”
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