I don't know why Chita Rivera and I got on the subject of fate and the "what if" principal before her rehearsal of Venecia, the play by Argentinean Jorge Accame that Arthur Laurents has adapted and is also directing for its American premiere at the George Street Playhouse (previewing Feb. 10, opening Feb. 14, 2001). Perhaps an aura of fate still lingered in the air George Street from last season's premiere of Anne Meara's Down The Garden Paths, in which we saw how the lives of its characters would be different if....

"I can't imagine what my life and career would have been like if I wasn't given a scholarship by George Balanchine to the American School of Ballet when I was sixteen years old," says the sixty-seven year-old musical theater star, nominated seven times for a Tony award and twice a winner. "I also don't want to think about what fate would have had in store for me if Arthur hadn't changed the Jews into Puerto Ricans when he was writing the book for West Side Story. Rivera originated the role of Anita in the classic 1957 musical and immediately became the toast of Broadway. It is a spot she has claimed with virtually every subsequent appearance. She laughs aloud at the idea that destiny ("I believe in destiny") again played a part in reuniting her with Laurents for the first time since West Side Story.

Rivera is more anxious to talk about her current role in Venecia, during our brief phone conversation before a rehearsal last week. However, I couldn't resist mentioning her most recent engagement in Anything Goes, at the Paper Mill Playhouse, in which she played the role of Reno Sweeney, and had the audience in awe of her agile, trim figure and jealous because she looks about half her real age. What's your secret I want to know? "You gotta keep movin'," she says, of course, with a hearty and sincere laugh.

Perhaps "movin'" in the direction of roles that don't demand as much physicality are in her future, but Rivera insists she isn't there yet. "I have great therapists, remedies, no addictions, and take a class when I'm not working in a musical. I want to stay in shape," she says adding how strong all the screws nuts and bolts are that were used to repair her left leg that was badly injured after a 1986 car crash. "I can rely on those even if everything around them gives way." Rivera recalls that it was Laurents who walked up to her soon after the car accident and insisted that she dance with him at party in South Hampton. "He pulled me up and said you can do it. Dance with me. I knew I could rely on him."

With Venecia, Rivera is again able to rely on Laurents, her long-time friend, now her director, who called her up a few months ago and said "C'mon, c'mon, you have to do it, the part is you. I want you." Although Venecia is not a musical, appearing in a straight play is not foreign territory for Rivera, who toured as Billy Dawn in Born Yesterday, as Serafina in The Rose Tattoo, and in Oliver Hailey's Father's Day.

"All actors have insecurities, and he had to bully me into doing Venecia, but I love my part, and the play," modestly describing the play as "delicious, romantic and funny." In it, Rivera plays La Vieja, an old blind madam of a rundown bordello who dreams of going to Venice before she dies. Without my suggestion, Rivera voluntarily assumes the accents of La Vieja and one of the girls and gives me an instant preview: "Chiquita, will you take me to Venecia." "`No, no, La Vieja,' the girl says, `I have to work.' Switching registers, Rivera answers back, "Work! Work! Work! And love? Do you know what love is? When are you going to know?"

There is no stopping Rivera in her enthusiasm. She explains that because La Vieja wants to go so badly, the girls at the bordello and a young man who frequents there conspire to make her dream come true: to go to the lovely and haunting Venice and return to the man she once fell madly in love with. They make the blind La Vieja believe that she is on a boat, an airplane, and a gondola. Because she cannot see, she explains, they make up on the spot such sights as the leaning tower of Pisa, and the Sistine Chapel.

Rivera remembers growing up in Washington D.C. a child of the Depression. "My father died when I was seven and my mother raised five children alone. But she made sure I began ballet lessons when I was 11." At 17, after a year of classes at the American School of Ballet with such teachers as Melissa Hayden, Allegra Kent, Maria Tallchief and Edward Vilella, Rivera got up enough courage in 1950 to auditioned (successfully) for the new Ethel Merman musical, Call Me Madam, as one of the four principal dancers.

That show was followed by dancing roles in Guys And Dolls (1950), Can Can (1953) and Seventh Heaven (1955).

The rest? Broadway starring roles in Mr. Wonderful (in 1956, with Sammy Davis Jr.), Bye Bye Birdie (in 1960, with Dick Van Dyke), Bajour (1964), Chicago (in 1975 with Gwen Verdon), Merlin (in 1983, with magician Doug Henning), The Rink (with Liza Minnelli), for which she won the 1984 Tony award as Best Leading Actress in a Musical, Kiss of the Spider Woman (winner of 1993 Tony Award as Best Leading actress in a Musical, and Jerry's Girls (1985). When I mention the five-performance fiasco Bring Back Birdie, in which she co-starred with Donald O'Connor in 1981, she only says "Oh, God, I guess that was fate too," and laughed.

Venecia was first staged by director Helena Tritek in Buenos Aires, where it is currently running. It has been performed in Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Bolivia, Colombia, Canada (in French), Venezuela, Mexico, England (in English at the Gate Theater), and Spain, and will be seen in France and Greece during the 2001-2002 season. Laurents' adaptation and staging of Venecia, which plays through March 11, 2001 at the George Street Playhouse, continues the close artistic relationship he has with the theater.

His own play, Jolson Sings Again, premiered at the George Street Playhouse in March 1999. In October of the same year, Laurents' revised his book for a production there of Do I Hear A Waltz. His newest play, Claudio Lazlo, about a "domineering, passionate actress" whose tumultuous behavior nearly sabotages her most important role, will star Cigdem Onat, who was featured in the Lincoln center revival of Laurents' Time Of The Cuckoo last season. Claudio Lazlo will open, under the direction of George Street Playhouse's artistic director David Saint, on April 21 and play through May 20, 2001.


Key Subjects: 
Chita Rivera, Jorge Accame, Venecia, Arthur Laurents
Simon Saltzman
Writer Bio: 
Simon Saltzman has written dozens of New York theater reviews for This Month ON STAGE magazine. His interviews have appeared in TMOS and on Playbill On-Line.
There are three profiles of Chita Rivera in TotalTheater's Periodica section. Just search for her name to read all three (6/2003)
February 2001