Chita the Achiever
By Peter Filichia –
We have two important anniversaries this week, both as the result of West Side Story. It’s celebrating its 54th year of never being out of the public consciousness since its Sept. 26, 1957 debut.
Thus, it was 54 years ago this week that Broadway officially took notice of a performer who would turn out to be one of its greatest stars. She’s Chita Rivera, the first of literally thousands of Anitas.
Rivera had already done three musicals on Broadway. She’d started in Can-Can (1954) in arguably the lowest capacity of any performer: as a replacement dancer. She then moved up to a tiny role in Seventh Heaven (1955), and then had a song all to herself in Mr. Wonderful (1956). If you’re sensing unmitigated progress, show business doesn’t quite work that way. Rivera’s next Broadway job was understudying Eartha Kitt in Shinbone Alley in early 1957.
But late 1957 brought her Anita, the good-natured but street-smart young Puerto-Rican native who would suffer greatly when her boyfriend Bernardo was killed in a street brawl. En route, Rivera introduced two songs that would soon be known to the nation: “America,” in which Anita and her girl friends argued about the worth of the U.S.A., and “A Boy Like That,” in which she attacked Bernardo’s sister Maria for loving the man who literally had killed her love.
So a Tony® nomination had to follow, right? No. Carol Lawrence, who played Maria, got one, but lost to Barbara Cook, who played Marian the Librarian in The Music Man. The other nominees came from Jamaica and Oh, Captain! This was the first instance of Rivera’s not getting enough respect from the Tony Awards®.
What had to rankle Rivera was that not only did she not get the role in the illustrious Academy Award®-winning 1961 film of West Side Story, but also that Rita Moreno, who played Anita, got an Oscar® for it.
But by then, Rivera had already played her first Broadway lead: Rose Alvarez in Bye Bye Birdie. A listen to the 1960 cast album shows her in fine vocal form and capable of many emotions: flustered (“An English Teacher”), plaintive (“One Boy”), angry (“What Did I Ever See in Him?”), self-assured (“Spanish Rose”) and conciliatory (“Rosie”). That knowing trademark chuckle that says “You can’t fool me” is nicely displayed in “Normal American Boy.” At least this time Rivera got a Tony® nomination – before losing to Tammy Grimes in The Unsinkable Molly Brown.
Rivera had been a gypsy in Broadway terms – meaning a dancer who soon leaves one show to join another. But in 1964’s Bajour, she literally played a gypsy: Anyanka, a Romany princess who may or may not be a swindler. On the cast album, Anyanka makes us believe that she’s sincere in “Love Line.” Then she forces our belief down the drain when she sings that she’s “Mean.” (“Your vices are minor, while mine are major league,” Anyanka sings, in one of Walter Marks’ more deft lyrics.) Rivera also gets to play insouciant in “I Can,” where she tries to wangle a party invitation. She can and does.
During Bajour, Rivera was also on the ground-floor of a marketing idea. Ads in the papers offered her picture that was captioned, “Hi! My name is Chita!” Readers were urged to call a certain phone number which would allow them to hear Rivera entice them to Bajour. Who knows how many responded? (The Tonys® didn’t. Rivera was again denied a nomination as her future co-star Liza Minnelli won for Flora, the Red Menace.)
Rivera’s next Broadway appearance was in 1975 in Chicago, as Velma Kelly to Gwen Verdon’s Roxie Hart. As a result, Rivera got to introduce one of Broadway’s most famous opening numbers: “All That Jazz.” She also got an impassioned plea (“I Can’t Do It Alone”), a ‘20s razz-ma-tazz (“When Velma Takes the Stand”) and a song of resignation (“I Know a Girl”). Rivera also had an amusingly venomous section of “Cell Block Tango” before she joined three duets: “My Own Best Friend” and “Nowadays” with Roxie and “Class,” the delightfully down-to-earth complaint with a prison matron.
Make that two duets after Liza Minnelli joined the show. Minnelli wanted to do “My Own Best Friend” alone, and Rivera said “Sure.” Over the years, I’ve heard many people state that one reason that Rivera keeps getting jobs is because she’s nice and co-operative – that producers on the fence about her eventually say, “Oh, let’s go with Chita. At least we’ll have smooth sailing.” But those of us who’ve witnessed Chita Rivera for these many decades know that her good nature isn’t the real reason she is signed. She gets roles because she has distinctive star quality, can do the work superbly, and always does — no matter what the worth of the show. (Bring Back Birdie, anyone?)
Rivera got a Tony® nomination for Chicago, yes, but the statuette went to Donna McKechnie for A Chorus Line. Get ready for a sentence that’s going to sound a bit familiar: What had to rankle Rivera was that not only did she not get the role in the illustrious Academy Award®-winning 2002 film of Chicago, but also that Catherine Zeta-Jones, who played Velma, got an Oscar® for it. At least in this movie we got to see Chita Rivera for a few seconds.
In “Nowadays,” Rivera and Verdon sang, “But nothing stays. In 50 years or so, it’s gonna change, you know.” Broadway indeed has in the last thirty-six. But Chita Rivera? She hasn’t changed, you know. She finally got that Tony® in 1984 for The Rink, but two years later was in a severe automobile accident that shattered her leg. We all thought, “Well, that’s that. We’ll never see her dance again.” We were all wrong. She came back and won another Tony® for Kiss of the Spider Woman – not to mention a 2002 Kennedy Center Honor.
May I end with a personal note? The first time I ever encountered Ms. Rivera in the flesh was October 3, 1964, at the Shubert Theatre in Boston, where Bajour was trying out. I had a first-row orchestra seat right on the center aisle, so I had an excellent view of the lady from her first appearance until her curtain call. After Rivera took her final bow, she looked down directly at me and gave me a wink. I was in heaven.
Since then, I have never missed a single one of her musicals — even Merlin, in which she played a wicked queen who was trying to get the throne for her unfavored son (portrayed by newcomer Nathan Lane). I brought my young son with me, and we sat third-row center. He liked the show, but he liked more what happened at the curtain calls. I can still feel him excitedly turning to me and saying, “Daddy! The Queen just winked at me!”
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday, Wednesday and Friday at www.theatermania.com/peterfilichia;. His new book Broadway Musicals: The Biggest Hit & the Biggest Flop of the Season, 1959-2009 is now available through Applause Books and at www.amazon.com.