On September 11, 2001 as the terrorist events unfolded in New York, Chita Rivera and company were already at Chicago's Goodman Theater, deep in rehearsals. "We couldn't believe what we heard," says Rivera. "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, sisters and friends were in New York. The enormity of the catastrophe was mindboggling, but being with our wonderful director Frank Galati (Ragtime), working on a piece we're so proud of and to be working as hard as we were was a gift. In such a helpless situation, it didn't take my mind off the tragedy, but it helped occupy it."

That night, however, depression really hit Rivera as she was sitting in bed. "I thought, 'What the heck am I doing!' Compared to what happened, everything else seemed 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 related 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," she continued. "It read, 'What you're doing -- being in the theater, entertaining people - is so vital, particularly at times when the heart is so sad and people need to get away from the horrors of reality."
Rivera sobbed for another hour, then told herself, "Okay, I've got to keep going!"

There was a lot to occupy her mind. As almost everyone connected with theater knows, The Visit, with music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb and a book by Terrence McNally, 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 the illness of her husband.

In the 50s, the original play by Friedrich Durrenmatt, was a hit on Broadway, directed by Peter Brook and starring the renowned husband and wife team, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. The Swiss playwright called it "a comedy with a tragic end."

Last March, Rivera became intimately involved. "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.'"

Her faith was so strong, she wasn't overly concerned about the darkness of the piece. "John and Fred had been there before," she notes, "and came out quite well - Cabaret, 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 at the corner of Eleventh Avenue and 42nd Street, 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, after all, had been handsomely rewarded for her work in two Kander and Ebb musicals, The Rink and Spider Woman, with Tony Awards.
This summer, Rivera starred in a tour of the musical comedy, Casper, "that was light and fun, but all I could think of was the two plates I had to consume."

The Visit the musical, as was the play, is in Europe, in a country wracked by poverty. Now, the time is undetermined, as Rivera's character of Claire Zachanassian, a former resident who returns fabulously rich to find a former love, Anton (played by John McMartin). He believes Claire is still in love with him, but she's come seeking revenge because he abused her as a teenager. To see him dead, she offers the impoverished townspeople a fortune -- but on condition they kill him.
The cast of 26 also features Mark Jacoby, Steven Sutcliffe, James Harms and Ami Silvestre.

"The Visit is not typical musical comedy fare!" explains Rivera. "It's about justice and love. There are many parallels to Spider Woman. However, it doesn't have huge production numbers. It's quite compelling, and there's a wonderful intimacy. I'm happiest being in something that has the audience leaving the theater saying, 'You know what, I need a drink. I need to talk about this.' And this is most definitely one of those!"

Opening night, she reports, was the culmination of a wonderful adventure. "A challenge, yes, but an extraordinarily rewarding one. Working with Frank is like working with no one else. I'm a lucky gal, working with Jerome Robbins, Bob Fosse, Hal Prince, Arthur Laurents, but I keep learning. It was that way working with such a kind, warm, spiritual, creative person as Frank. He's so giving, he makes the person playing the smallest part feel as important as the largest part."

To be with Frank Galati when the tragedy of New York and Washington happened was a blessing, states Rivera. "To be with my family (Kander and Ebb) again, helped. And, each morning, when we'd go into rehearsal, Frank would give a comforting talk. It became more than work. No matter what happens here or beyond, this whole experience has been extremely fulfilling."

Rivera adds that co-star McMartin has also been a comfort. "Except for the movie of Sweet Charity, and that was not a one-on-one thing, I've never worked with Jack."
And, she reports what a joy it's been to work with Ann Reinking, who's the show's choreographer.

Does working with such close friends, family, make it hard when there's something you don't like? "There's nothing to dislike in this for Chita, for none of us. And, if it were, I'd go off and say, 'Darling, this is not working.' And they listen."

Rivera notes that she is, first of all, a dancer who's grown into many other things with the great help of the geniuses she's worked with. "God's been wonderful. He said, 'Okay, I'll let you go there.'"

She laughs and says, "You know, dancers are obedient. We do what we're told. Generally, from my school, without saying anything. But, having worked with these guys, I can say exactly what I feel. And they want me to. That's the kind of professionals they are."

Rivera is delighted to be working with Reinking for the first time. "We've known each other for years, so it's about time! She's done a brilliant job, but if anyone's expecting a lot of dancing, they won't get that. There are waltzes and tangos, but Ann's created a number for me that's deliciously charming, 'The Peg Leg Tango.' In this show, I have one leg! And it's looks pretty realistic."

When asked how this is done, she howls, "Stage magic and that thing called acting! But, at one point, I do take it off. The leg!"

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."

Rivera notes that Reinking's basic training was ballet. (She is a beautiful dancer and has created some exquisite material for the young Claire and Anton, in the persons of Tina Cannon and Brian Herriott.) The score, reports Rivera, is haunting and reinforces the drama of the musical. "It has a very European style. John's melodies are so classically his and have a beautiful, slowing melody to them. And Fred's lyrics are a perfect continuation of the book. They're clever and, when they have to be, funny. I keep hearing Lotte Lenya and Germany!"

Many, including McMartin, who, ironically was in the Broadway play with the Lunts, thought the story of The Visit would be difficult to musicalize. But Rivera explains, "John and Fred felt there was great passion in such an unusual love story and that music would only strengthen the relationship."
Kander told a reporter that he looked to the operetta, The Merry Widow, a story of a wealthy European woman, for inspiration.

Since graduating from gypsy roles into a spectacular featured spot in West Side Story (1957), then starring roles in Bye Bye, Birdie (1960) and Sweet Charity (1966) to the original Chicago (1975) and, her last Broadway outing, Kiss of the Spider Woman (1993), Rivera has been synonymous with Broadway.
"Don't think I don't feel like the luckiest woman in the world," Rivera exclaimed.

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, as when I'm flying through the basement of the Goodman for a quick change in three-and-a-half-inch heels and the train of a chiffon dress trailing behind me, I think, 'You could be doing something much easier!'"

But would Chita Rivera be happy? "Not at all! 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. I'm in a piece I would never have dreamed I'd be in, and I'm still in dancing form. And I'm even doing a peg leg dance!"

What's so funny, reports Rivera, again cracking up with laughter, "is that the leg that has the eighteen screws in it is not the leg I chose to be the peg leg! How crazy is that? There's something sick about that!"

With The Visit, explains Rivera, "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."


Key Subjects: 
Chita Rivera, The Visit, September 11, 2001; Frank Galati, John Kander, Fred Ebb,
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).
October 2001