Mark Shenton Meets: Broadway legend Chita Rivera

Chita Rivera

Broadway is going to play a big part in the West End landscape this year, with shows like Waitress (which begins performances 8th February, with American Idol singer Katherine McPhee reprising the role she took over there), Come from Away, On Your Feet and Dear Evan Hansen booked for openings here in the coming months.

But no star will shine brighter than Chita Rivera. In 2007, she was described by New York Times critic Charles Isherwood as "one of the last living embodiments of the golden age of the musical theatre who continues to perform". She was 74 at the time; today, more than a decade later, Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero (to call her by her birth name) is 86 - and still at it. And this weekend she'll be live in London at Chelsea's Cadogan Hall, for two rare concert performances.

She is looking forward to being back here: "Oh my God, am I ever!", she exclaims on the phone from New York. "It’s my second home, I love it and everything you guys do and how you do it. I can't wait to visit Chelsea again, and see the house on Sloane Street that I stayed in!"

She first came here when the original production of West Side Story transferred to Her Majesty's Theatre in 1958, a year after its Broadway premiere, in which she originated the featured role of Anita. She fell pregnant with her daughter in-between the two runs, and the show waited for her to be available again. "That was [producer] Binkie Beaumont - they don't make 'em like that anymore! It's a drag!"

Chita Rivera
Chita Rivera with Mark Shenton in 2017

Nor do they make them like Chita, either. I saw her two summers ago in a tiny theatre in Cotuit on Cape Cod - and was knocked out. As I was two years earlier in her last Broadway role to date, starring in Kander and Ebb's The Visit. Words like legend get banded about a lot in the theatre - but she really is one. Not that you'd know it from speaking to her, of course. She has an instant and down-to-earth rapport in each of the several interviews I've conducted with her over the last dozen or so years. Yet her career has also spanned such legendary productions as the original Bye Bye Birdie (1960), which also brought her to the West End, and the first Velma Kelly in Chicago (1975).

Chicago didn't transfer originally to London back then - a different production came to the Cambridge a few years later, before the current and ongoing Broadway revival also followed it over here in the 90s. Rivera says of that version: "I swore I would never do that version, because it doesn't compare to the original. As I used to say, I come from a different neighbourhood!" But in 1999, when she was 66, she did join that production at the Adelphi Theatre, swapping roles from Velma that she originally played to instead appear as Roxie Hart. "I got in there and the kids made it for me," she says, speaking of the younger dancers.

Broadway dancers are often called 'gypsies' - and you can take the chorus dancer out of the chorus and make them a star, as Rivera unquestionably became, but you can never take the chorus out of the former chorus dancer. "But it was a different version, and not as good." She then pauses: "Maybe I shouldn't say that - I don't want to hurt anyone's feelings."

It's another sign of just how deeply considerate and nice she is. Today she also recalls other past co-stars, like the late Roger Rees, who co-starred with her in The Visit but left the show early and died soon after. "I have so many friends because I've been around for such a long time. Tallulah Bankhead once told someone I know, 'Don't introduce me to any more people - I have enough friends!' I feel the same way. but when Roger appeared on the scene, I thought, I really want to know this guy! I wanted him to be my friend. And when he died, I really felt cheated."

But Chita never cheats her audiences - she gives them her all, and then some. Though in her autobiographical cabaret in London, she won't quite tell the whole story: "At my age, it would take maybe two days to tell it all!" But she promises there will be songs from some of the many shows she was lucky enough to do. Of course, West Side Story will be there: "The show always works. It's exciting to know that I was part of something that is still a sensational piece of theatre. You hear that music and my skin goes up right away."

As will Kander and Ebb, whose shows have played such a large part in her career, including originating roles in Chicago, The Rink and The Visit. What does she attribute the special rapport she has with their work? "We're still trying to find out why we're even born, so I don't think we know why anything happens! But I attribute it to being ready and in the right place at the right time. they had everything. Freddie's gone but John is still here - he wrote the most beautiful music, and Freddie could write anything!"

She is particularly proud of the roles she originated: "To me, that's it. What you want to do is breath the very first bit of oxygen into that character, and be responsible for making it come alive."

This weekend, Rivera is going to make London come alive.

Chita Rivera is performing at Cadogan Hall at 2.30pm and 6.30pm on Sunday 10th February. 

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