"Dance is acting, only without words," said Tony-winning superstar Chita Rivera. She should know. She's excelled at both crafts throughout an incandescent, long-lasting career. Add singing to the mix, and you have a triple-threat artist who is beloved as much for her radiant personality as for her acclaimed career accomplishments. Playwright Terrence McNally has been quoted as saying, "I don't think she has a single enemy, and I can't think of anyone else in the theatre you can say that about. Every show should have a Chita." Luckily the Mark Taper Forum's fine current production of The House of Bernarda Alba does indeed have a Chita, or more correctly, the Chita.
Back Stage West recently spoke with Rivera, who has just racked up two new career highs: for her transcendent non-musical performance as the smothering Spanish matriarch in Chay Yew's moving adaptation of the Federico García Lorca classic, and for her just-announced award from the Kennedy Center Honors to be bestowed in December. Following a career that began in the chorus of 1950's Call Me Madam, through her big break as Anita in 1957's West Side Story, to a series of notable starring roles in the huge musicals Bye Bye Birdie and Chicago, and two Tonys (The Rink, Kiss of the Spider Woman), it seems most performers would be ready to slow down. Not Rivera.
"For me it's all about the work," she said. Earlier this year, she appeared in a dramatic play in New Jersey directed by West Side Story librettist Arthur Laurents, whom she calls "a beautiful teacher and great director." She then appeared in a family show, Casper the Musical, in Pittsburgh, and she's waiting on pins and needles to take The Visit to Broadway next season; it was postponed following Sept. 11 and is currently regrouping. Based on the classic Friedrich Dürrenmatt drama and popular film adaptation, it's a major new musical by her frequent collaborators, songwriters John Kander and Fred Ebb. Rivera is bullish about its prospects; she thinks it's exquisite.
She's done several dramatic roles over the years, sprinkled among her array of musicals. She spoke of the special challenges in playing Bernarda Alba.
"The language is very different from the way one would speak; it's very poetic. Though many years ago I did a lovely adaptation of a Lorca play with National Theatre of the Deaf, I've never really worked in the classics.
"And the mother role is a great one because of its dimension. As harsh as this mother is, she's acting out of desperation, doing what she believes she must to protect her daughters, because her love for them is so deep. Those who don't understand might just view her as mean. It's so important that we understand other cultures and why people do certain things, what has preceded their actions. We have to take the time to listen more. That's why this piece is so powerful."
Rivera expressed gratitude that God has brought her so many challenging shows. "I've luckily done very little fluff," she said. From the humane themes of tolerance in shows from West Side Story to Spider Woman, along with edgy and literate material in so many others, she has indeed been blessed with dream projects and never fails to do them justice. She admitted to having trouble picking a favorite among her many roles, yet she remarked, "When I hear music from West Side Story, it brings back so many wonderful memories. We were all so young then, and it was such a turning point for all of us. And it's so universal. The show was right on time in expressing themes that needed to be conveyed. It pointed out social problems that were right in our own backyards, yet we had not really yet acknowledged them. This was also one of the first Broadway musicals in which dance was so crucial in dramatically portraying the characters and their emotions. Spider Woman was also an amazing, very important show and a great experience for me. I hope dance is not disappearing from musicals. Sometimes I wonder if Spider Woman is not produced as often as one would expect because of the challenges of the dance requirements."
The refreshingly modest Rivera seems generally appreciative of the accolades that never cease. She said she never imagined, as a tomboyish little girl who loved to dance around the living room, toppling over the furniture, that she would ultimately achieve such stardom and adulation. To give moral support to a friend, Rivera went along to an audition; the friend was not cast, but Rivera was—in her first Broadway gig, Madam—the start of a most fortuitous chapter in Broadway history.
"I just loved dance and loved the freedom of the movements. I didn't have the time to do anything but get down to the technical part of this difficult profession. It's not easy to be in this business. You have to constantly work at it. I tell kids if you want a real career, there are so many amazing teachers—meaning people, because everyone is a teacher. Put your head down and keep working hard, and it will keep giving you good experiences. I was lucky to come along at a good time."
Luckily for audiences, Rivera's good time has continued full steam for more than five decades.