News & Notes
The “younger” selves in Follies will reunite as the older characters; more Gypsy casting
Hal Prince talks about Gold!
Scott Ellis directs Night Music again
Kennedy Center stars reprise their songs
A joyous reunion for the Merrily cast
Sweeney in Chicago
Bryn Terfel stars at the Lyric Opera
Sondheim talks about Sweeney’s creation
Terfel wants to take Sweeney home to Wales
Christin always wanted to play Mrs. Lovett
Into the Woods
Woods is closing; McMartin recalls his role
Kimball gets used to his cow’s costume
A new look at Sunday in Chicago
Another West Side Story tours the country
At Microsoft, there’s time for fun and Forum
A Merrily concert, Saturday Night in L.A.
A new revue, this time for men
Sondheim shows shine at the Fringe
Somehow, this Gypsy got on the stage
Sondheim’s songs span theatrical realism
Chita Rivera looks back on the creation of West Side Story
Lewis Cleale has journeyed with both Bobby and Giorgio
In the Classroom
Students give an enthusiastic response to Sondheim
Patinkin’s new CD celebrates Patinkin
Upcoming Sondheim shows in the U.S., Canada
WEST SIDE STORY: ‘We were all very young’
By Terri Roberts
The last half of 2002 has been very good to Chita Rivera. First there was a successful late-summer run at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, where she impressed many critics with her performance as the domineering matriarch in Chay Yew’s Latin/Asian-flavored adaptation of Frederico Garcia Lorca’s THE HOUSE OF BERNARDA ALBA.
In December, she is set to follow in the footsteps of Leonard Bernstein, Jerome Robbins, Stephen Sondheim and Harold Prince when she and four other renowned artists receive the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors, in recognition of “the unique and extremely valuable contributions they have made to the cultural life of our nation.”
In making the announcement, Kennedy Center chairman James A. Johnson described Rivera as “a musical theatre star of the highest magnitude,” and he was right. From the bubble-gum frivolity of BYE, BYE, BIRDIE to the more squalid landscape of THE THREEPENNY OPERA; from the outspoken dance-hall hostess of SWEET CHARITY to the sexy, vaudevillian murderess of CHICAGO; from the enigmatic film star icon of KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN to her Tony-winning turn in THE RINK, Chita Rivera has distinguished herself time and time again.
But it was September 26, 1957, at the Winter Garden Theater, when her then-burgeoning career exploded. On that night, a distinctively jazzy, urban-tinted score was accented by surly street attitudes, slanguage and snapping fingers, and dancers clad in (gasp!) jeans and sneakers–the dynamic, uncompromising WEST SIDE STORY had opened on Broadway, and from that moment on, the concept of what musical theatre could be, and could do, would be forever changed. And so would Rivera’s life.
So it’s appropriate that now, on the 45th anniversary of this revolutionary show, this legendary triple -threat performer would follow WEST SIDE STORY’s previous honorees–co-producer Prince, composer Bernstein, lyricist Sondheim and director/creator Robbins–in being lauded for her accomplishments in the performing arts.
TSR caught up with Rivera in Los Angeles before she moved to New York to star in a revival of NINE.
“We didn’t know what we were doing at the time,” she said. “We were all very young, and you never know how a show is going to turn out, anyway. But we were surrounded by such amazing teachers. We just listened. We were like sponges–we had to be because there was so much information, so much creativity around us. I think I was 21 or 22, but I felt like I was 12. We all felt like that.
“The energy was really amazing. Every single one of those men, the creative team, had this very special kind of power. We just sucked it all up and grew with it. (Librettist) Arthur Laurents had his own, and Jerry, of course, was powerful. Stephen seemed to have been quiet and shy; that’s what I remember about him. That, and he was the youngest. I don’t even know how old he was. (He was 27.) And Lenny was just this whirlwind of energy. We were all sucked up in it.
“People always ask, ‘How did it feel? Did you know that it was going to be such a huge hit?’ Well, we knew nothing. It was like working from the inside out. I used to say that we were the innards. We were the heart and the liver and the kidneys–the inside of the body. None of us realized what was going on because we were so busy ‘being’ it. Being taught, being scared. Fear works sometimes, it really does. And so every day was another challenge for us.”
One of the big challenges for Rivera lay in the fact that Anita was her first major supporting role. Until then, she’d been a principal dancer in CALL ME MADAM, GUYS AND DOLLS and Ben Bagley’s SHOESTRING REVUE, and had small featured dance roles in CAN-CAN and SEVENTH HEAVEN. But playing the fiery Latina lover of Shark gang leader Bernardo was a whole new level of performing for her. And rehearsals with Jerry Robbins often went to unexpected places.
“Jerry and I used to sit and talk about colors, and things that actors do in delving into characters and getting some idea of who you are,” Rivera said. “Well, this was our first experience with all of that, so it was sort of like getting to know yourself. That was amazing.
“For example, we were working on the taunting scene–which he’d never let me do more than once a day, to keep it fresh–and we were all sitting, reading the script. He said, ‘If anybody wants to get up, get up. You do what you feel like you want to do.’
“Well, that’s not the life of a dancer. You don’t do that. You do exactly what the choreographer tells you to do. But all of a sudden we had this kind of freedom, which meant that you really had to deal with your own emotions and your own mind. And we suddenly started moving around and it became very real, and then he started staging it.”
“Reality” was always the keyword in rehearsals. In the “I’ve Never Even Known a Puerto Rican!” chapter of Craig Zadan’s SONDHEIM & CO., story after story attests to Robbins’ commitment to grounding his young, then-unknown, cast in the reality of their characters’ lives–keeping gangs separate (even during meals), creating turmoil, etc. He also posted articles about such subjects as street fights and racial tensions. Rivera remembers one story in particular that had a profound impact on everyone.
In 1957, New York was horrified by the brutal murder of two young teenagers in a Hell’s Kitchen park. The boys, who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, were attacked by gang members who had shown up for a scheduled rumble with a rival gang. One of the attackers, a 16-year-old Puerto Rican with a history of violence and abuse, was dubbed by the press as “the capeman” due to the red-lined black cape he wore. Decades later, Paul Simon turned the incident into a musical called The Capeman.
“(The murder) had just happened down the block,” Rivera recalled. “And on the bulletin board, where we checked in every day, was a full page of this handsome young man with a black cape. I believe it was a knife in his hand and a body under his foot. And the top of the thing said, ‘This is your life.’ Jerry had written that.
“It just grabbed us around the throat. Me being Puerto Rican–I mean, we were all aware of gangs and things, but we didn’t live those lives. We didn’t live in neighborhoods where they even existed. It was still work to us. But that thing smacked us right between the eyes.”
Robbins’ directorial assistant, Gerald Freedman, used similar “reality” techniques to help Rivera come to grips with one of her most difficult scenes–Anita’s confrontation with Maria about Bernardo’s death, and Tony’s role in that tragedy. It was his prodding that helped her connect to the painful emotional core of the scene’s fierce, spitfire song, “A Boy Like That.”
“We were in rehearsal and we started singing it and Gerry Freedman said, ‘That’s fine, Chita, now I want you to think about (real-life brothers) Julio or Armando. And as you sing it, just think about them, about this possibly happening to them.’
“And I started to laugh and I said, ‘Oh, I know what you’re trying to do. You’re trying to sneak up on me so that something will come out of this.’ And he said, ‘Well, while you’re laughing, just sing.’
“So I started singing and all of a sudden the song hit me, it hit me right between the eyes and I couldn’t stop crying. And he kept saying, ‘Keep singing, Chita, keep singing.’ And I was backing out of the room because I was being exposed. If I had known I was going to be exposed, I wouldn’t have minded, but it was such a shock to suddenly connect with my soul, my deep feelings. And when he finally said, ‘That’s it!,’ I was up against the wall, up against the door almost, exiting the room. It was an amazing moment.”
Being named a recipient of a Kennedy Center Honor was something completely unexpected for Rivera. This writer happened to be in the house the night that Gordon Davidson, artistic director of the Mark Taper Forum, came out on stage after the curtain call for THE HOUSE OF BERNARDA ALBA and announced to the audience that Rivera had been chosen to receive this elite commendation. The enthusiastic standing ovation she received visibly moved her, and later, during this interview, she was still a bit happily stunned.
“That’s something you just don’t expect!” she said. “Especially with dancers, where it’s ‘shut up and dance, pick ’em up and put ’em down.’ You just do the work and that’s the glory. And now suddenly somebody really says to you, ‘You’ve done some good stuff.’ Even though you know that through the years you’ve been lucky enough to have been in some amazing shows, but somebody has stopped and said, ‘Congratulations.’
“I’ve been blessed my whole career, my whole life, with great friends, great teachers and great experiences; I’ve done some wonderful things all along the line. But this is truly unbelievable! So much of it is not just because your peers feel a certain way about you–and that is tremendous–but also because you know how much it means to your family and to your friends, because we’re all connected. And I honestly feel as though I’m representing all the gypsies. It’s all good stuff.”