Tony Award-winning Broadway diva icon Chita Rivera is taking her fans on a musical trip through her legendary stage career by singing and dancing her way through songs from her most celebrated musicals.
Aptly titled “Chita Rivera: My Broadway,” the show highlights numbers from “West Side Story,” “Sweet Charity,” “Chicago,” “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” “Bye, Bye, Birdie” and “The Rink.”
Given her extensive experience, it’s no surprise that Rivera has sung the immortal words of some of the great Broadway songwriters (most of them gay) of the last century, including Leonard Bernstein, John Kander and Fred Ebb, Charles Strouse, Stephen Sondheim and Cy Coleman.
Rivera talked to PGN about her upcoming performances and her nearly 60-year career that has made her a national treasure.
PGN: With all the shows you’ve been a part of over the years, was it difficult to choose which songs to perform on this show? CR: Yes, sort of. But there are some obvious ones. I remember years and years and years ago — and I do mean years and years and years ago — Fred Ebb of Kander and Ebb was doing an act for me just before Chicago and wanted me to do “America.” And I went no, no, no. I don’t want to do “America.” I’ve done that and I don’t want anybody thinking: “Oh, look at what I’ve done.” He said, “Chita, you have to because that’s part of your identity.” So I learned a lesson then. So now I do “Spider Woman” and I do something from “The Rink.” So there are certain things that you have to do.
PGN: Do you find that people in the audience are requesting songs that you weren’t planning on doing? CR: No. They don’t say, “Sing ‘Melancholy Baby.’” No, in clubs or in the theater, people don’t speak out like that. In saloons maybe I guess. PGN: Which do you prefer more these days, cabaret-style performances or grander productions like “Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life?” CR: When you live long enough, you realize each one is a gift. Each one is totally different. If you’re lucky enough to have something really good and you’ve had a good time doing it, then it’s like saying which one of your five kids do you like best. So I can’t say. They’re just different. I love it when I do a theater show because that is the theater and it has a theme and a story and you have more people on stage. When you do cabaret, it’s challenging because you’re close to people and that’s good too because you’re much more personable. Each one has its great advantages.
PGN: How did performing on television and film compare to performing on Broadway? CR: It’s not live. Television, when I did it years ago, was in front of a live audience. But most of them are not now. With films you have no audience so you have no connection. PGN: Do you find it as fulfilling? CR: I find it interesting. It’s a time thing. It’s fulfilling after it’s over and you see it. But at the moment, it’s not. Well, personally it is because you try to do what satisfies you to make the whole piece good.
PGN: Are there any songwriters or playwrights you enjoyed working with more than others? CR: Well, my answer to the other question goes pretty much the same way. Kander and Ebb are responsible for most of the hits I’ve been lucky enough to do and they’re very close friends. Most of them are. Jerry Herman, Cy Coleman and Leonard Bernstein are fantastic. Each one is perfect for whatever it is that they have created. I can say I am closer to Freddie and John ... well, not Freddie anymore because he has passed. But they have been my closer friends. But as far as scores, each one was perfect for what they do and I wouldn’t change it for a million bucks. PGN: When you worked with Kander and Ebb or Terrence McNally, writers who are icons on Broadway in their own right, is it easy to agree creatively or are there creative clashes? CR: Oh gosh no. I really don’t do that. Fortunately, they’re really geniuses and if you you’re lucky enough to work with really fabulous people, you just get better and they’re giving you better material. I don’t pretend to know more. They are so smart and clever and they know what they want so much that they can recognize if something isn’t comfortable or right for you.
PGN: When you receive awards such as the Presidential Medal of Freedom and are honored by the Kennedy Center, is that more special to you than the Tony Awards and nominations? CR: Well, it sure is different and you don’t expect it. It’s an amazing thing. The family feels great about it. It’s an honor and it’s very humbling. It’s wild to be sitting with people that have contributed so much. So you feel pretty lucky.
PGN: Do you see your influence on any of today’s actresses on Broadway or on TV or movies? CR: I don’t know. I have no idea. They would have to say that. In some way I have influenced something but I don’t look up on stage and say, “That looks like me.”
PGN: A lot of the productions you have been a part of have gone on to become Broadway classics. Do you feel like your talents were a big part of those successes? CR: Some of it I’ve contributed to yes. I think casting is most important. Yes, absolutely. Without a doubt I do and I say that with absolutely no ego. It’s a fact: Everybody in the show is responsible or part of the success of the show.
PGN: When you first started out on Broadway, did you think that one day you were going to be internationally famous for your work? CR: No, not at all. I just wanted a job. I wanted to work and have a good time at whatever I did. And hoped it would be a hit. I only started dancing because I was breaking up the furniture and my mother put me in school. And I love to dance.
PGN: What Broadway show were you most proud of being a part of? CR: “Spider Woman” and “West Side.” They all are, but they had particular subjects that were important to me. “Spider Woman” was about the differences between people and getting them to accept and live with them, or die in this particular case. That meant a lot to me. It was important that I do that around the country.
Bristol Riverside Theatre presents “Chita Rivera: My Broadway” Sept. 23-25, 120 Radcliffe St., Bristol. For more information or tickets, call 215-785-0100.