Broadway icon Chita Rivera, who just performed her debut concert at Carnegie Hall, takes the stage this weekend in several theaters in the New York and Connecticut areas. Though more intimate than her Carnegie Hall show, “Chita: A Legendary Celebration” promises to be just as thrilling in cozier, smaller venues.
Chita: A Legendary Celebration will recreate signature moments from her legendary career including West Side Story, Sweet Charity, Chicago, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Bye, Bye, Birdie, The Rink and The Visit in a unique solo concert event. In addition to a special tribute to her dear friends John Kander and Fred Ebb, the timeless music of Leonard Bernstein, Charles Strouse, Jerry Herman, and Stephen Sondheim will also be featured, accompanied by her long-time trio.
I had the good fortune to speak with Ms. Rivera. Below are excerpts from our conversation in which Ms. Rivera discusses her upcoming shows, playing rooms both big and small, getting the job done, and how she discovered her voice.
Thank you so much for taking the time from your busy rehearsal schedule to speak with me, Ms. Rivera.
You’re welcome, Bob. But for god sakes, call me Chita. I don’t answer to anything else.
So Chita let me start by congratulating you on the debut at Carnegie Hall last week. You were fantabulous!
Wasn’t that fun? I really had an unbelievable group of guys. It just kept on getting better and better until the appearance of the New York City Gay Men’s Chorus. Which by then you just wanted to shoot yourself—it was so beautiful. It was wonderful realizing that your life has contributed to so much of this wonderful stuff that we’re still doing today. I loved working with Andy Karl, Alan Cumming and what about Javier Muñoz? His rap version of “America” was amazing. I mean who would have thought you could put rap to Bernstein’s score?
The show was so well conceived and your generosity with your dancers, guest stars, and orchestra was very heartfelt.
That’s the way it should be. You get the best out of people by allowing them to do their best work. It just makes you look better. I mean do you know what it felt like to be standing next to Itzhak Perlman? I love that piece of music (“Carousel” from Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris) and I’ve done that number over and over. But when I heard what was coming out of his violin, it blew my mind away. It completely took me someplace else. It’s a moment I’ll never forget.
Your upcoming solo show “Chita: A Legendary Celebration” will give audiences a chance to see you in more intimate venues. What a treat. How does that affect your performance?
You become how you are at a small party versus how you are at a larger one. You can see almost every face and it becomes simpler. It’s still you, but it’s less people. When you’re in a big theater you want to reach the very top of the place. Up to the highest seat, so that each person feels like you’re talking to them. There’s really no difference when you’re in a smaller place, you just don’t overdo it. It becomes far more personal.
What about your signature dance moves?
You try to do it but on a smaller scale. You don’t do as much, but you give the impression of the dance. That’s why the theater is so magical. You can look as though you’re doing things much more than what you’re doing. It takes the experience of working in different places to find out how to size it. I find that people in a smaller room don’t want it to be bigger than it is. They don’t want you to stand there and act like it’s a two thousand-seat theater. You treat them like they’re the only ones in the room.
I noticed your musical director, Michael Croiter, captured every beat, breath and nuance in your performance at Carnegie Hall. What’s it like working with your trio of musicians in these concerts?
It’s so much fun. I hear everything that they do and we can relate to each other much better when it’s just the four of us. Trust me, it’s a gift to have a bigger band to hear all those different licks and different phrases. If you’re a part of it all, you respond to it. But when I just have my three guys I can hear something in the piano and it will just be between the four of us. The audience gets that. They enjoy seeing you enjoying each other.
Audiences are going to be thrilled to hear your most iconic songs. How do you keep them fresh?
I think I just have that quality. I love live theater and I like every different face that I see. Each time you do something that’s familiar; first of all you have to like it. And if you really like it, it’s like someone whistling the same tune over and over, but they’re whistling because they like it. It makes them feel good. Each time I come to another number that I’ve done for years I’m really happy to do it. It’s like eating the same candy that you like a lot. I’m capable of keeping it fresh. I’ve never been bored in live theater.
Having seen you on stage so relaxed and comfortable, do you still get nervous?
Oh my God, all the time! But once you get started you’re in it. No matter what it’s a job and you have to get it done. You have to do it right; otherwise you don’t get the response you want. You have a lot of rules that you have for yourself. You have to be present, sing on key, not fall over the wires and remember every single word. You have to be in the moment.
You came to New York City as a young ballet dancer. How did you discover your singing voice? Did you study or did it come naturally?
It was discovered in a bar. I was in Call Me Madam in Chicago and the cast used to go to a bar and scream and yell when the singers from our show got up to sing. The group of us dancers used to imitate them. One night Sammy, the piano player, said to me that he’d like to see me in his class. I thought he was joking, but he wasn’t. I had about six lessons. When the kids found out I’d been studying they locked the bar door one night. They made me sing, so it was out of shock that I got up and sang. Sammy actually put me up on the piano so I had to do it. That got rid of the fear of opening your mouth for the first time. Back then dancers never thought they could sing. We’d say “dancers dance, singers sing.”
What was the name of that first song you sang?
You want to laugh? It was “My Man’s Gone” from Porgy and Bess.
From that day forward I just followed my instincts. I also learned from the likes of John Kander, Cy Coleman and through every show that I did. Dancers are good students—they listen.
Speaking of dance students, you mentioned the advice your dance teacher gave you before moving to New York: “ Chita, you can get there, but you have to work hard, practice and be ready.” What would you say to young musical theater performers today?
It’s pretty much the same advice. You have to work hard and have a passion for it. It is not easy so don’t think it is. I mean that thing about “be ready” because you do have to be ready. That means you have to take classes as often as you can, travel with the right group of people, and know you can’t do it alone.
Anything else you’d like to say about these upcoming shows?
I just want them to be enjoyed. Get away from whatever it is you want to run away from and come and see us. Maybe you’ll be reminded of nicer days. Most of all I’m there to entertain and that’s what I hope I can do.
Thank you, Chita. It was a privilege to speak with you.
You’re welcome, Bob. Take good care of yourself.
Check out Chita: A Legendary Celebration at the following venues:
Friday Nov.18, 7:30 PM & 9:30 PM Tilles Center, LIU ,Old Brookville
Saturday Nov.19, at 8 PM On Stage at Kingsborough (Brooklyn)
Sunday Nov 20, at 7 PM Ridgefield Playhouse, Ridgefield, CT
Photo Credit of John Kander and Chita: Walter McBride / WM Photos. Photo Credit of Chita in concert: Stephen Sorokoff
About the Author
Bob Rizzo began The Dance Coach as a valuable resource for aspiring dancers, teachers and choreographers looking for professional feedback on technique, performance and choreography. And for those who aspire to a career in dance, The Dance Coach is a trusted advisor offering career coaching and advice based on more than 30 years of professional experience in the dance world! The Dance Coach Blog focuses on dance related topics and people working in the entertainment industry. It features a mix of interviews, tips for dancers, performance reviews, and training opportunities. Read Bob Rizzo’s full bio here.