Monday, May 14, 2018

League of Professional Theatre Woman presents Chita Rivera in conversation with Richard Ridge

Richard Ridge and Chita Rivera
Chita Rivera may be known primarily as an actress and a dancer, but she knows how to choreograph a punchline. She provided plenty of laughs as she spoke about her career with Richard Ridge, the lead correspondent for Broadway World--where he hosts "Backstage with Richard Ridge"--at an event presented in collaboration with the League of Professional Theatre Women on May 7 at The Bruno Walter Auditorium inside the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

In an hour, Ridge did a remarkable job steering the conversation to hit all the high points of Rivera's career. From her start as a student for Doris Jones to her audition for choreographer/ballet master George Balanchine to her Broadway career. Rivera mixed wit with insight throughout the presentation. She recounted being scared at her Balanchine audition: my teacher [Jones] said, "Just stay in your lane, Chita." To this day, she tells people she meets that, "You find out who you are by being who you are."

Rivera also spoke about how learning comes from observing the greats. In Call Me Madam, she remembers watching Elaine Stritch, in Can-Can - Gwen Verdon. "I lived in the wings of every show and learned so much that way," she said.

Playing Anita in West Side Story also taught her - "suddenly we had words," she remembered. She enjoyed working with composer Leonard Bernstein, learning her songs with him in his apartment. "It's kind of fun to say 'Lennie." She liked nicknames - choreographer/director Jerome Robbins was dubbed, "Big Daddy," because "he had all the answers," Rivera said. The show tested her but "there's nothing better than working hard and finding out you can do it."

Observing Dick Van Dyke, when she originated the role of Rosie in Bye Bye Birdie, also became a career highlight - "If you watch, you learn," Rivera said, who referred to many theatre greats by first names. When discussing Chicago she spoke about composer John Kander's talent: "John wrote great vamps," she said. In her head, she kept wishing for a vamp ... and you got what she wanted with "Cell Block Tango."

Aurora in Kiss of the Spider Woman was a hard character for her to find because she showed in fragments through the show. Rivera also "did a lot of climbing during the show, but my name's Chita."

Rivera expressed gratitude about her opportunity to work with talented colleagues. She said that the reason she her tango electrified in Nine had everything to do with her leading man  - "You would be able to do that, too, if you were standing next to Antonio Banderas." In The Visit, a show she commented was about love not revenge "even though a few people die," she adored working with actor Roger Rees.

Ridge, an obvious fan, balanced his admiration with questions that gave insight to Rivera's career and showed the audience her grit, determination and sense of humor. "Every single day you are different," Rivera commented on injuries and aging. "You accept it as it is and you keep going."

Rivera will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2018 Tony ceremony.

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