BWW Interview: Chita Rivera on Her Career & Concerts at Cadogan Hall
With 10 Tony Award nominations and two wins to her name, Chita Rivera is one of the most nominated performers to have graced both Broadway and West End stages. In a career spanning over 60 years, Chita has starred in productions including West Side Story, Bye Bye Birdie, Chicago and Kiss of the Spider Woman.
An icon of the theatre world, Rivera comes to London next month to play Cadogan Hall for just two concerts. Talking to her about returning to her "second home", Chita also shares what audiences can expect from the concerts, as well as her journey from having "never seen a Broadway show" to being presented with the 2018 Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre.
What was your earliest memory of theatre?
Well, I didn't know about theatre. I was from Washington, D.C. and then I came to New York, and got the scholarship for the ballet. But I had never seen a Broadway show. So I had no desire or ambition or anything at that time.
That first feeling [of wanting to do it], that was in the audition for Call Me Madam which Jerome Robbins choreographed. I enjoyed the audition and I got the job and I was suddenly forced to think, "Do I want to go in this direction?" as opposed to ballet.
And I said yes and I called my mother (I was 17 having just graduated from high school). My mother said, "Go for it!". That's how it all happened - I was not dreaming of being in the theatre or dreaming of being in the movies or anything like that. I just wanted to dance.
It might have actually been your mother back then, but what was the best advice you were given starting out so young?
The best advice? Oh, it would have definitely been from my mother!
But my mother brought all five of her kids up with a certain way to live your life, anyhow. That would apply to any profession. I knew very well to try not to lie, to try to be yourself...it was much simpler then than today. You lived your entire life a certain way, being straight and honest and staying out of trouble. Mother never said to me, "Stay out of trouble". She didn't have to!
I tell kids sometimes today: if I thought I was in some sort of situation, I'd always hear my mother's voice in my head or see her in my inner eye, and it saved me.
And thank goodness your mother told you to "Go for it!". Since then you've had an illustrious career, originating roles such as Velma Kelly in Chicago. That show recently had another concert run in the West End. What's it like to see shows like that have such life and still going strong?
There is something very special about that show and I'm so happy that Chicago is still running and being performed everywhere.
It's such a very special piece. It is a very different show from the original. Tony Walton did the original set, which was extraordinary. I saw the show when I was doing Nine with Antonio Banderas. His wife (at the time) Melanie Griffith was playing Roxie. I performed in the 10th anniversary concert as well as a special performance of the show to celebrate John Kander's 90th birthday.
You also originated the role of Anita in West Side Story, which then came across the pond. That was your first time in the UK, wasn't it?
Yes, and that was one of the most exciting things that I've done.
We went to Manchester first and that was an experience! I mean you couldn't see your hand before your face, it was so foggy. And bless our producer, he delayed the opening in Manchester just so I could have my baby!
Yes, they don't make them like that anymore! So Lisa was four or five weeks old when we went to London. And her father Tony Mordente was in the original company with me, so he was there with us. It was wonderful.
We all got on a bus and came to London, looking like Teddy Boys and Teddy Girls. That was thrilling to do. At the time I think [Franco] Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet was also running. And we all got together and I think they came to see us.
Speaking of which, you're playing two concerts at Cadogan Hall next month. What does it mean to be returning to London?
You know, outside of my own home, England is my second home. I love London, I can't wait to get back! They're such good audiences, there's just something different. They know what they're looking at, they understand.
Nowadays, the audience feels as though they have to be part of the show (and they are). But they don't have to react like that: the standing ovations that everybody's used to nowadays. England doesn't do it as much, because they're the audience. (But I must say, it does feel good when an audience stands up and they applaud!)
And is there a particular song or tribute which you're looking forward to sharing with audiences here?
Well, it's a concert full of great memories of a wonderful time when theatre was really superb. We call it 'the golden age'. And I hope audiences have a wonderful time and they feel great when they leave.
There's a tribute to [John Kander and Fred Ebb], I will do songs from Bye Bye Birdie. And because I've played London several times, West Side Story, Birdie, The Kiss of the Spider Woman, the Palladium several times, I'm hoping it will resonate and it will remind people of some wonderful times.
That reminds me, actually: I got a letter from two people who had seen me in some theatre, and they claimed I was responsible for their children! I thought, "Well I don't think I have anything to do with your children!" People are really funny.
Well people do love the theatre and that proves it more than anything else!
It sure does!
Photo credit: Laura Marie Duncan