CHITA AND HER ACHIEVEMENTS By Peter Filichia
What does Chita Rivera not have in common with Jean Hersholt, Isabelle Stevenson and Irving G. Thalberg?
She didn’t have to die to get an award named for her.
Next week, choreographers and dancers will receive Chita Rivera Awards at the Skirball Center. It’ll be one of the two most notable events the legend will experience in 2023.
The other, of course, was last month’s publication of Chita, the memoir that she wrote with collaborator Patrick Pacheco. Rivera mentions early on that she’s been “more of a dancer than a musical theater star.”
(We’ll be the judge of that …)
Rivera realized that writing a memoir meant “I’d have to lift the veil on my personal life,” she writes. “I know that’s what readers would want.”
Not all of us do. Show us the shows.
We may never know whether Rivera or Pacheco devised one of the main and most delightful concepts of the book: “Chita is sweet and kind,” she insists before admitting, “Dolores is a bat out of hell.”
Dolores refers to Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero – her actual name before show-bizzing it to the moniker (and performer) we know and love. So Dolores’s name is invoked to complain, criticize, blow off steam or express baser instincts.
But our memoirist can’t help being far more Chita than Dolores. That’s clear when she speaks well of Jerome Robbins’ behavior on WEST SIDE STORY. When have you encountered such an opinion?
Although Sondheim’s lyric for “America” has been criticized for demeaning Puerto Rico, Rivera endorses it: “I saw nothing wrong with Anita and the women joking around by comparing this new home with the old one.” She also prefers the stage’s all-female version to the 1961 Oscar-winning film’s take, which has the men expressing disdain while the women don’t.
She starts with WEST SIDE STORY, auditioning for composer Leonard Bernstein, who tells her she’d be “right for the role” of Anita. And all she was hoping for was to be part of the dancing ensemble.
(How could she know at the time that there would be no dancing ensemble per se? Robbins invented the triple-threat concept in which every Westsider would be required to act, sing and dance.)
We all have people we idolize, but who’d expect that Rivera’s first hero was Carol Channing? This happened because the would-be Broadway dancer saw Channing many times perform “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” in GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES.
Alas, Rivera didn’t see her do “A Little Girl from Little Rock,” because that was in the first act, and teenaged Dolores couldn’t afford to buy her way into the Ziegfeld.
In fact, when Rivera had to impersonate Marilyn Monroe (yes, you read that sentence right) in a revue, she says she channeled Channing and not Monroe, who of course did the film version.
Michael Stewart and Lee Adams wrote that Marilyn parody; little did either of them know that Rivera would play the lead in their first official Broadway musical BYE BYE BIRDIE. For one thing, Stewart wrote the character as Rose Grant and had Carol Haney of THE PAJAMA GAME fame in mind to play it. Haney turned it down. Once Rivera showed up, the character became Rose Alvarez.
Rivera reiterates what many of us have heard: “Put on a Happy Face” was originally her number, but director-choreographer Gower Champion had the idea of having Dick Van Dyke do it. Rivera doesn’t invoke Dolores’ expected wrath here, for she felt she had plenty else to do, including “The Shriners’ Ballet.” There Rose, the spurned woman, invades a meeting of the Fraternal Organization of Men and soon wishes she hadn’t.
The dance music isn’t on the original cast album, but it is on the soundtrack. The 1963 film chose Janet Leigh over Rivera. “I was disappointed,” she writes. “Dolores was pissed off.”
At least Rivera was able to repeat her Rosie in London. Her memories of that experience include BIRDIE’s producer Edward Padula riding around London in a car and shouting out the window, “I’m king of the world!” By this point in the book (page 134 out of 303), we know that that’s not Chita’s style. (It wouldn’t even be Dolores’.) As she writes, “What was it that Noel Coward wrote? ‘Why do the wrong people travel?’”
Padula’s boorish behavior didn’t stop Rivera from accepting his offer to star in his 1964 production of BAJOUR. Here she played a Anyanka, a gypsy, and we don’t just mean a Broadway dancer but a person of Roma heritage who was, as Rivera describes her, “a romantic with rough edges.”
True. You can hear Rivera reveal Anyanka’s romantic side in “Love-Line” and her rough edges in “Mean,” in which she admits “I’ve got more callous malice deep inside than ever lived in Dr. Jekyll’s hide.” (My, that Walter Marks certainly can write!)
Let’s get Rivera’s take on the now-controversial label as it applies to dancers: “To be called a gypsy – and I still consider myself one – is to honor the loyalty and bonds of a tribe of people who come together to put on a show.”
Around this time, Arthur Laurents thought she’d be the right person to travel to London and play a much different Rose to a much different Gypsy. Rivera eventually regretted turning down the offer. Although we might feel that there’s no shortage of GYPSY cast albums – there have been more recordings than BRING BACK BIRDIE ever had performances – one with Rivera’s take on Madame Rose would have been more than welcome.
She’s also understandably and justifiably proud of her own heritage. “We dance Latin,” she writes, “we see God!” As a result, she tells of her objections to some of the writing that was originally in her CHICAGO script. She wanted the unmistakable slurs removed; she and we are all glad that they were.
(You may well be shocked when you read what they were.)
CHICAGO’s score was written, of course, by John Kander and Fred Ebb. That they’re prominent in the memoir is no surprise, for they collaborated with Rivera on four new Broadway shows (as well as ZORBA, which she did on tour).
The opening number they gave Rivera in CHICAGO entranced her: “The ‘All that Jazz’ vamp invited the audience to throw away inhibitions, leave their troubles outside and climb aboard an E-ticket ride to a world of unadulterated pleasure.” However, she adds that director-choreographer and co-librettist Bob Fosse was so difficult that she, Kander and Ebb seriously considered quitting. One saving grace: “The reduced rate for booze at the Variety Club at the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel.”
As we know, to our good fortune and theirs, they didn’t. These people know the famous bromide “Musicals aren’t written; they’re rewritten.” So, when CHICAGO’s eleven o’clock number wasn’t working well in the Philadelphia tryout, Kander and Ebb wrote “Nowadays” in an hour. They did, however, wait a day to show it to everyone lest they be accused of doing it fast and not doing it well.
Kander and Ebb also wrote much of Rivera’s acclaimed nightclub act, in which she sang their song “Losing,” which told of her enduring four Tony losses in four tries. As of June 3, 1984, however, Rivera had to drop that song, for she won her first Tony for THE RINK nine years before her second for KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN. Kander and Ebb (as well as Terrence McNally) provided her the opportunities for both.
(Don’t skip over the page on which she relates her acceptance speech for the former win.)
There are delicious details along the way. Elaine Stritch chose not to wear a bra during rehearsals. Are you surprised to hear that Bea Arthur spent some time as a member of the U.S. Marine Corps? Are you more surprised to learn that Gwen Verdon “missed her mother’s funeral because she had a matinee”?
Rivera’s opinion of magician-illusionist Doug Henning in MERLIN: “His stage presence, shall we say, was a disappearing act.” As for producer-turned-prison inmate Garth Drabinsky, she gingerly says, “I know he’s had his trials – literally.”
Chita takes us from the shy young miss who hoped there might be room for her in the ensemble of CALL ME MADAM’s national tour to the star who told Bob Fosse in the middle of his cigarette smoking, “I’ll walk off the stage if you don’t put that out.”
Although she could have wallowed in self-pity about her 1986 automobile accident that made us all believe that she’d never dance again, Rivera is staunch there, too. She blatantly admits the mishap was her fault and doesn’t much dwell on the arduous road back to the stage; that isn’t even Dolores’ inclination. Rivera also relates her response to a male nurse’s remark, “You don’t look your age.” (Giving it away here would be a crime that neither Anyanka nor Velma Kelly would commit.)
Finally, Rivera’s advice to us all comes from an Ebb lyric in the team’s 70, GIRLS, 70: “Say yes!” Indeed, say yes to this marvelous memoir so that you can not only savor all there is to Chita but also understand where Dolores is coming from, too.
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. His new book – THE BOOK OF BROADWAY MUSICAL DEBATES, DISPUTES, AND DISAGREEMENTS – is now available on Amazon.