Chita Rivera can say she’s been “a lucky gal,” but that luck thing only goes so far. Her extraordinary record of achievement in musical theater speaks for itself. She was in the room when Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein, and Stephen Sondheim were figuring out “West Side Story” and asked her to originate the essential character Anita. Bob Fosse made sure she was on board to partner with Gwen Verdon when he, Fred Ebb and John Kander were putting together “Chicago.”
Those aren’t even the productions in which she won her two Tony Awards for best actress in a musical: “The Rink” (1984) and “Kiss of the Spider Woman” (1993). She’s been nominated eight times.
So Rivera may have been fortunate to be at the time and place when these things were happening, but from the very beginning of her storied career, the dancer, singer, actress also has created her own luck.
Rivera will recall moments from those shows and many others in two performances of “Chita: A Legendary Celebration” at Folsom’s Harris Center on Monday and Tuesday. Though the career achievements are monumental and the honors singular – the first Hispanic woman and the first Latino American to receive a Kennedy Center Honors award (2002), recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2009) –Rivera was thrilled to talk about her Washington, D.C., roots.
“I went to Dunbar High School. I sure did,” Rivera said of the well-known Washington school.
Rivera began studying ballet when she was 11 at the influential Jones-Haywood School of Ballet and at 15 went to New York on a scholarship to George Balanchine’s American School of Ballet.
“My ballet teachers (in Washington) were Doris Jones and Claire Haywood,” Rivera said. “Hinton Battle went to that school, Arthur Mitchell came out of that school – these are brilliant ballet dancers. Louis Johnson and I were brought to New York City on ballet scholarship and Louis was the very first black male dancer in New York City Ballet, so Miss Jones is responsible for a lot of trouble!” Rivera said.
Rivera’s entry into professional show business came in 1951 when she accompanied a friend from the school to a Broadway audition to offer moral support.
“I thought what a shame you have to do that – that disgusting thing called Broadway – what a snooty little thing I was,” Rivera said.
The friend didn’t get the job, a featured dancer in the national touring company of the musical “Call Me Madam” but Rivera, who decided to audition also, did.
“I always tell the kids, fear is a terrible thing, if you just look it straight in the face and get right in its face, you can succeed,” Rivera said. “Because I wasn’t scared, I didn’t need the job. But I stood down front, I got the job. She didn’t, and I haven’t heard from her since.”
That role lead to others (the original Broadway productions of “Guys and Dolls” and “Can-Can” when she was billed as Conchita del Rivero) and allowed Rivera to make an impression on “Madam’s” up-and-coming choreographer, Jerome Robbins. Robbins remembered her six years later when he started putting together “West Side Story.”
Rivera created the character of Anita in that landmark production, which Robbins based on the tragic story of “Romeo and Juliet.” It featured music by the composer Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by the Stephen Sondheim. A complicated and difficult project initially, many people thought it was too many things – too dark, too depressing, too lyrically complicated, too ethnic. But “West Side Story” became one of the most important and revered musicals of all time.
Though Rita Moreno eventually starred in the “West Side Story” film, Rivera was moving on with more stage work, including her Tony-nominated Rosie Alvarez in the original 1961 “Bye Bye Birdie” with Dick Van Dyke. The role was first offered to Edie Gorme, who turned it down. When Rivera accepted, the writers made the character more Latin to fit her Puerto Rican heritage.
Rivera never had significant trouble with racial limitations, though, because her philosophy was always “full steam ahead.” She once auditioned for and got the part of a Marilyn Monroe imitation.
“I carry no flag. If I like the part, I just go for it,” Rivera said. “I was either really smart or had some dumb luck. I just went in and did what I love to do and insisted on being seen and doing it. I think that’s the only way kids should do it today. Have no limitations at all. None.”
Rivera eventually began working with director-choreographer Bob Fosse, who cast her in the film version of his musical “Sweet Charity.” He also built the part of Velma Kelly in the first Broadway production of “Chicago” specifically for Rivera to co-star with his ex-wife, Gwen Verdon, who played Roxie Hart.
“I was in California, and Freddie, John and Bob called and asked if I would be interested in playing opposite Gwen. And I thought, ‘Wow how fabulous.’ ”
Rivera thinks some well-known elements of Fosse’s style have overshadowed the depth of his work.
“He was a brilliant dancer himself, and he had a lot of ballet training, he was just a well-rounded dancer. He was also a tremendous vaudevillian,” Rivera said. Rivera also acknowledges much of the Fosse legend is true.
“He was charmer. He loved his women, and he made them look great in a very difficult style –this limited movement, very sensual movement. There’s nothing like it and there’s no one like him,” Rivera said. “Working with Bob you would get stuff done.”
Rivera said that for a successful show, many things have to come together.
“Everything has to be lined up, the universe has to say OK, it’s gonna happen. The book has got to be there because the play is the thing. Then, of course, the book is changed. All sort of things happen as it’s starting to live, and they all have to work for that book, they have to be working for the same thing and working together,” Rivera said.
The key to being a great performer is simpler.
“I think you’re a vessel. You have to be there at the right time, and you say the right words and work with the right people. All of these creators are really teachers and you are the the vessel, you’re the translator,” Rivera said.
“If you’re lucky enough to be in the room with some brilliant people, be ready for it and just do as you’re told.”
Call The Bee’s Marcus Crowder, (916) 321-1120. Follow him on Twitter @marcuscrowder.