Chita's hot!

When many stars her age are sitting by the phone waiting for that call from their agent, Chita Rivera is in top form on Broadway, dancing an erotic tango with Antonio Banderas in the hit Roundabout Theater Company revival of Nine. And, now hear this: she's about to embark on a daring new musical by Kander and Ebb, The Visit, set to open in January 2004 at New York's Public Theater.

The Tony and Drama Desk Award-winning Rivera received 2003 Tony, Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle nominations for Best Featured Actress in a Musical for Nine. She even hosted the 48th annual Drama Desk Awards on May 18, 2003. "This will be a first for me," said Rivera before the event, "and it's going to be fun and a great evening."

Rivera revealed that being in the revival of Nine by Maury Yeston and Arthur Kopit -- based on Fellini's classic film "8 1/2" -- was not at the top of her To-Do list. 

"I was in L.A. at the Mark Taper Forum doing Lorca's The House of Bernarda Alba last summer when I got the call from my agent. I said I wasn't interested in doing a revival. I don't find them challenging. Then I started hearing these tidbits about what it was going to be, who was going to be in it and who'd direct and, when they called back, I wasn't so negative. I had heard a lot about [Tony Award-winning] director David Leveaux [who's directed revivals of Betrayal, The Real Thing, Electra, Anna Christie and 1984's A Moon For the Misbegotten]. When I heard Antonio was doing it, I thought, 'What an interesting project.'"

Rivera is a long-time Banderas fan, "and I knew he had studied and done theater in his native Spain. I had the time and felt it wouldn't hurt to meet with David. It was a wonderful meeting, and I was totally sold."

In her amazing 48 years on Broadway, which she officially celebrated on May 26, 2003, Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero, now Chita Rivera, has never been a dreamer. "I've been so fortunate throughout," she says, "to have great leading men -- Dick Van Dyke, Brent Carver and Anthony Crivello, Donald O'Connor, John McMartin, and to work with such giants as Larry Kert [West Side Story], Jerry Orbach [Chicago], Jerry Herman [Jerry's Girls], Michael Bennett [ensemble, Bajour] and Rob Marshall. So I didn't go into Nine all starry-eyed, looking at Antonio as this Hollywood star or a great sex symbol. What I always liked most about him onscreen was his intensity. I also thought back to the original and how much I loved Raul [Julia] as Guido. It's very Mediterranean, so it seemed like a perfect marriage.
"The more I talked with David, the more fascinated I became, especially when I began to see it through David's eyes. Over and over, he said he wanted it to be Fellini-like, and that really worked for me."

Rivera plays Italian film producer Lillian La Fleur and has two show-stopping moments: the production number "Follies Bergeres" and an intimate tango danced with Banderas.
That tango is very hot, very sexy, very Chita, she is told. "It's very Antonio, too, believe me! The only thing that could make this experience any better," says Rivera, "is if we were doing it in Rome in the Trevi fountain! Well, come to think of it, we do it in our own Trevi fountain!"

Rivera didn't meet Banderas and her female co-stars [who include Laura Benanti, Jane Krakowski, Mary Stuart Masterson and Mary Beth Peil] until the first day of rehearsal photo call. "Antonio is really quite something," states Rivera. "He's sweet, approachable and very charming. He doesn't carry that Hollywood star attitude -- not even in his sleep. He's genuine through and through. He sincerely wants to be accepted as a stage actor on Broadway. To prove that, he worked on this a very long time. And no one among us worked harder than Antonio."

Having been around so long, says Rivera, "It is really fabulous to see someone respect that space -- to really love theater. And onstage, not only is he generous but he's also constantly creating. He has respect for the director, the choreographer, the scenic designer. What surprised me is his understanding of everything. Frankly, if you want my opinion, he's born for the stage."
In show business, Rivera says, "it's so seldom that the good guy wins."

Rivera also reports total harmony on stage and off. "All of us get along famously!" What? No petty rivalries, no little spats or fit-for-the-tabloids catfights? "No, no, no! We can't have that. We're professionals. We have no time for that nonsense."

Rivera can't hide her delight and anticipation about the New York production of The Visit, but when it was in the midst of intense rehearsals for its premiere at Chicago's Goodman almost two years ago, tragedy struck and really affected Rivera. On September 11th, 2001, as the terrorist events unfolded in New York, word of the disaster drifted into the hall. "We couldn't believe what we heard. The horrible thing was that I was so far from my family. Lisa (Mordente), my daughter [from her marriage to Tony Mordente, Action in the film adaptation of West Side Story], is living in California, but my brothers, sister and friends were in New York. The enormity of the catastrophe was mind boggling, but being with our wonderful director Frank Galati [Ragtime] and [choreographer] Ann Reining, working on a piece we were so proud of and committed to was a gift. In such a helpless situation, it didn't take my mind off the tragedy, but it helped occupy it."

But, that night, with rehearsals over and without the warm support of Galati, Reinking and the company, a deep depression hit Rivera in her hotel suite. "I thought, 'What the heck am I doing!' Compared to what happened, everything else seems trite. Show business! Anything! What did it mean?"

Rivera notes she's always felt like a woman of the world, fascinated and curious about different cultures. "On TV," she relates laughing, "I watch shows in languages I can't understand -- Japanese, Indian, Chinese. Then, as I was watching heavens-know-what, a note was slipped under my door. It was as if someone knew what was going through my mind. It read, 'What you're doing -- being in the theater, entertaining us -- is so vital, particularly at times when the heart is so sad and people need to get away from the horrors of reality."

She reports that she sobbed for another hour, then told herself, "Okay, I've got to keep going!" She did, to critical acclaim. And she's been a powerful force in helping to move it forward to New York -- along with producer Barry Brown.

The musical adaptation by Kander and Ebb, with a book by Terrence McNally -- based on the 1958 play by Friedrich Durrenmatt, was created for Angela Lansbury's return to legit after her long-run, top-rated CBS series "Murder, She Wrote." She withdrew after a 2000 reading because of her husband's illness.

Rivera bravely stepped to the plate. "I had no fear or trepidation going in. I adore Angela. She would have been wonderful, but a friend of mine kept telling me, `Chita, this is going to be your part.'" She was struck by the intimacy of the show and the rapt attention audiences paid. "I'm happiest being in something that has the audience leaving the theater saying, 'I need a drink. I need to talk about this.' And this is definitely one of those shows!
"And, she continues, "it isn't typical musical comedy fare. Not by a long shot. It's about justice and love. The score is haunting and reinforces the drama. It has a European style. There are parallels to Spider Woman. There's dancing, but not huge production numbers. I was delighted to work with Ann for the first time. We've known each other for years, so it was about time! She did a brilliant job."

Rivera says there are waltzes and tangos -- "and the deliciously charming" "Peg Leg Tango." In the musical, "through stage magic and that thing called acting," she only has one leg. She howls, "And at one point, I even take it off. The leg!"

As far as any fear about the darkness of the piece, Rivera says, "Been there, done that with John and Fred and came out quite well -- Chicago, The Rink, Kiss of the Spider Woman. They're not fools and wouldn't have asked me if they didn't feel I could do it. They're like family, my brothers. If they asked me to be on the corner of the darkest street at four in the morning, I wouldn't blink. I'd be there. Then, to work with Terrence and Frank, well that was just the topping on the dessert."

Rivera has been handsomely rewarded for her work in Kander-and-Ebb musicals, taking home Best Actress Tony Awards for The Rink and Spider Woman.

Since graduating from gypsy roles into a spectacular featured spot in West Side StoryI (1957), then starring roles in Bye Bye, Birdie (1960) to the original Chicago (1975) and her 1993 Tony-winning Broadway outing in Spider Woman, Rivera has been synonymous with Broadway. She's now considered a theatrical icon.

She calls herself "a lucky gal" for having had the opportunity to work with Jerome Robbins, Bob Fosse (the film of Sweet Charity), Hal Prince and Arthur Laurents. She also has high praise for Galati. "But every day, I'm still learning!" she says. "I'm, first and foremost, a dancer who's grown into many other things with the help of the geniuses I've worked with."
She laughs, adding, "Dancers are obedient. We do what we're told -- generally without opening our mouths. But, working with these guys, I've always been able, been encouraged, to say what I feel. That's the kind of professionals they are."

As a dancer, Rivera says she's always believed that "in every movement you make there is a dance. When you walk onstage, when you move about the scenery, you can make it all appear as dancing. It can all flow. And, when it's not so obvious, that's when you have the real magic."

In many ways, the fact that Rivera is working and dancing after her horrendous injuries in an automobile accident, is a miracle.
"Every single day," she says, "I pinch myself and say 'thank you.' There's a lot of hard work involved, but I don't understand it if it isn't hard work. Every once in a while, I think, 'You could be doing something much easier!' But would I be happy? No! My philosophy is: If it works, let's do it. People say, 'Aren't you sorry you didn't do the movie of this, or the movie of that?' No! Because this is the path that's been chosen for me; and I'm going to stay on it as long as I can and as long I should."

Rivera says her life in theater has been "a wonderful and rewarding adventure. God truly blessed me! With each job, I feel as if I'm being pushed into a new area with these great playwrights and creative teams who trust me and want to direct me and take me further and further down this path of theatrical adventure."

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Key Subjects: 
Chita Rivera, Nine, Antonio Banderas, David Leveaux, The Visit, John Kander, Fred Ebb, West Side Story, Ann Reinking, Kiss of the Spider Woman,
Writer: 
Ellis Nassour
Writer Bio: 
Ellis Nassour contributes entertainment features here and abroad. He is the author of "Rock Opera: the Creation of Jesus Christ Superstar" and "Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline," and an associate editor and a contributing writer (film, music, theater) to Oxford University Press' American National Biography (1999).
Date: 
May 2003
Subtitle: 
Chita: Back on Broadway and Seemingly Indestructible