West Side Story. Kiss of the Spider Woman. Chicago. Guys and Dolls. Hello Dolly. Bye Bye Birdie. No, this isn't (just) a list of some of the best Broadway musicals in the last 60 years. It's a very short recap of a few of Chita Rivera's most legendary productions. At eighty-three, Rivera has had the kind of career longevity that no one who started off as a dancer could possibly expect. Along the way, she's picked up the Presidential Medal of Freedom and two Tony Awards. Oh, and she's also the first Latin@ to receive the Kennedy Center Honors.
Next month, Rivera will begin a long-awaited residency at New York City's Café Carlyle, the most prestigious cabaret venue in the country, where she'll be performing the songs she made famous & telling stories from her life. The show was intended to open in January, but Rivera postponed after a fall over Christmas revealed a previously undiscovered pelvic stress factor. This isn't Rivera's first major injury. In the mid-eighties, while starring in the musical Jerry's Girls, she suffered a serious compound leg fracture after a car accident. Famously, it required seven chorus girls to replace her. Now, some thirty years later, she's bounced back again.
Broadly spoke to Rivera right before her injury to get her thoughts on Donald Trump, playing a small venue, and how to live life like Chita.
BROADLY: Congratulations on your residency!
CHITA RIVERA: Oh thanks, I find it wonderful because it's a room that Bobby Short, as far as I'm concerned, owns. I remember seeing him there for so many years. He added elegance and high society and it was a great time. I kinda think he still lives there. They even had that big portrait of him out front. Being that he was such a good friend, it's just an honor.
What can you tell me about your act?
It'll be selections from most of the shows that I've done. I've been really lucky enough to have some wonderful shows written by great composers. So I enjoy revisiting them. I hope the audience does! It'll be things from Chicago and West Side and Sweet Charity and Bye Bye Birdie. You know, a few songs you've heard of.
Compared to some of the big Broadway theaters, the Carlyle is such a small space. How does that change the way you do these numbers?
It will be intimate! The hard thing about doing a show in a big theater is trying to make it intimate. And the hard thing about a very small venue is you want to make it natural. You know that every word is being heard and they can look up your nostrils. You better have your costumes pressed properly because you just see everything!
And that's what's nice about it too, you know, it's like a living room with some of your best friends. I remember the first time that I did it with Fred Ebb and John Kander, my two best friends. We'd been doing Chicago and Bobby had his heart attack—that's Fosse—and Ron Field said "Let's do a club act." And I said "Oh God no, I can't be me. I don't know who me is!"
But then we did a fabulous gay bar up here on 71st, The Grand Finale, and it was just a blast! I didn't know I had that side to me. I got to know myself. That's what's so wonderful about all the different venues. They all have personalities, and if you're smart, you go to them and you adapt to their personality and become one with the audience.
Did you ever worry that your career was over after that car accident or at any other point?
I didn't worry, you know. I think it's because of my ballet training from when I was a kid in SAB [The School of the American Ballet]. My foundation has always been very strong.
So I thought about it. And then I went "Oooohhhh no! That's ridiculous."
A wonderful friend and dancer said to me "Chita, it's going to be different, that's all." He's right—but every day you wake up it's different. Every single day. Everybody goes through it. They may not know it until some accident or something happens, but you approach things differently. That's what living is all about. That's what's good.
Speaking of what's good, what was it like to be the first Latina to receive the Kennedy Center Honors?
A responsibility. A responsibility that starts when you put your foot on the stage and decide that you're going to represent not just yourself, but your family and everyone who is in your life. We all belong to the same human race. You have to be a good example for the young kids, not just Latino kids, but all of them. I particularly want to be a good example for the kids that think they can't make it.
That's your responsibility: the minute you decide to open your mouth and say something, the world is going to hear it so it better make sense. You can't be stupid—like listening to the news now! We've got this person named Trump who is just... shocking. Shocking! He's the worst storm I've seen in my life.
Do you have a dream role, something you've always wanted to do?
I really don't. I don't spend much time thinking "Oh I'd love to do; I'd like to do this," you know? You've got to live in the moment. That's what you've got to do, because the moment goes and then you go "what WAS that?" And I don't want to go "what was that?" Because so many wonderful things happen in a moment.
But we're too busy racing to get by, and to get further, when the moment is really the only thing that matters.