If Chita Rivera’s career had its own theme song, it would probably be “There’s Gotta Be Something Better than This,” from Sweet Charity – specifically the refrain that goes, “I’m gonna get up, get out and do it!” That line, Rivera tells Almanac Weekly, was her inspiration when she was putting her life back together after an automobile wreck in 1986 that fractured her left leg in 12 places. It’s the sort of horror story that makes one appreciate why some dancers’ legs need their own insurance policies.
“I’ve got 16 screws in one leg and two plates,” Rivera says. Though she shrugs off the life-changing event as her “destiny” and jokes that it enables her to “tell more interesting stories,” she also admits, “I could have done without it.” Undeterred, she opened a restaurant called Chita’s two years later, catering to the Broadway crowd, while working hard on rehabilitation. She recalls the encouragement she got from her friend, dancer/choreographer Gary Chryst, who had made a similarly difficult comeback after severing his Achilles tendon: “‘It’ll just be different,’ he said. He was right. You acclimate yourself to the differences.”
By 1993, Rivera was not only back onstage, but winning her second Tony Award: Best Leading Actress in a Musical for her portrayal of Aurora in Kiss of the Spider Woman. She has been nominated for Tonys ten times (a record equaled only by Julie Harris), including one in 2015 for her most recent Broadway outing: The Visit, the final musical written by John Kander, Fred Ebb and Terrence McNally. That’s not counting the Lifetime Achievement Tony that she just got, or her 2002 Kennedy Center Honors award or her 2009 Presidential Medal of Freedom.
And she’s not done yet, by a long shot. At 85 years old, with a legful of metal, Chita Rivera is still dancing up a storm, and headed for a stage near you as part of a seemingly nonstop national career-retrospective tour. Chita: A Legendary Celebration comes to the Spiegeltent at Bard SummerScape this Saturday, July 28 at 7 and 9:30 p.m. Two shows, people. When the Associated Press calls her “a force of nature,” it’s not kidding.
This will be Rivera’s first time performing in a Spiegeltent. “I’ve never been up to Bard before,” she says. “I’m very curious about this building… It’s wonderful to play tents. It’ll be a remembrance of what it used to be in the ’60s, when I was doing summer stock. I’ve eaten a lot of mosquitos.”
The legendary actress/singer/dancer will be accompanied by her longtime backing trio: Michael Croiter, Jim Donice and Gary Adler. Rivera describes the revue as “90 minutes of joy and fun, going back a little bit in time… I’m fortunate to have worked with all the great composers and choreographers. I’ll be telling stories from different shows.” In case you haven’t been keeping up, this is a reminder that we’re talking about the original Anita in West Side Story, the original Rose in Bye Bye Birdie, the original Velma in Chicago, the woman who scorched the screen with “Hey, Big Spender” as Nickie in the movie version of Sweet Charity. There must be some great anecdotes to go along with those iconic song-and-dance numbers.
While any bio notes that Chita Rivera was the first Latina to receive the Kennedy Center honor, she downplays her role as a pioneer. “I didn’t go into theater because there were not a lot of Latinas. I wanted to dance and sing and not break my mother’s furniture!” That said, she sees opportunities for people of color on Broadway broadening nowadays – especially in the wake of the extraordinary success of Hamilton, which she calls “groundbreaking, just as West Side Story was.”
Part of Rivera’s current role as an elder stateswoman of the Great White Way is to give pep talks to aspiring thespians and dancers. She says that she was “buzzed for days” after talking to students on Manhattan’s West Side recently. “We should inspire each other. I still look for people who inspire me… I tell them, ‘You’re not limited to only one kind of role or one kind of story. Theater is a place where you can be in disguise. You can be anybody.” She’s also a booster of the audience-building power of smaller stages nationwide. “Broadway is not the only place for theater. Our regional theater is superb. We have to keep supporting that; we have to keep attending.”
Saturday night’s shows, says Rivera, are geared for anyone who has “happy memories of shows I’ve been in. It’ll be a joyous, fun evening when you can get away from whatever it is you’re trying to get away from.” As of presstime, a few tickets were still available. Ticket prices range from $45 to $90 depending on location. To order, visit https://bit.ly/2NCojBa.