Broadway legend Chita Rivera on the secret behind her “guts” and “courage”

  Chita Rivera recently turned 90, and she’s been reflecting. “I always used to think that we should have two lifetimes: one to try it out, and the second one to know what’s coming,” she said.

  But no one would ever mistake Rivera’s life for a rehearsal. A three-time Tony Award-winner, a Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, and the first Latina Kennedy Center Honoree, Rivera is a theatrical legend, starring in the original productions of “Chicago,” “Bye Bye Birdie,” and “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” just to name a few.

  And as she recently took the stage at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, with musical director Seth Rudetsky, Rivera could still bring the fire as “West Side Story”‘s Anita, the role that made her a star.

  Rivera doesn’t move quite the way she used to, but in her soul (she writes in her new book, “Chita: A Memoir”), she remains a dancer.

  Rocca asked, “How would you describe the dancer’s mindset?”

  ”Oh, ha ha! Oh, my God! Do as you’re told!” she replied.

  And whatever you do, don’t complain.

  ”That is certainly a theme of your book,” said Rocca. “It’s not 100 percent; it’s 200 percent.”

  ”Yeah, that is the way I was taught from the very beginning,” she replied.

  Rivera’s story begins in Washington, D.C., where she was born Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero Montestuco Florentina Carnemacaral del Fuente. Her Puerto Rican father died when she was seven years old. Her mother was left to raise five children.

  In her book, Rivera describes herself as two people: Chita and Dolores. “Chita is, ‘Hello, how are you? It’s so nice to be here.’ Dolores is, ‘What is it you want?’ It’s a darker side. I believe that Dolores is responsible for me having a career. She’s the guts. She’s the courage.”

  It was decidedly Dolores who, as a small child, jumped from one piece of living room furniture to another. “I missed one time, and I went through the coffee table,” said Rivera. “And my mother said, ‘That’s it, you’re out of here. You’re going to a ballet school.'”

  At 16, Rivera was accepted into New York’s elite School of American Ballet. But while Rivera studied classical dance during the day, at night she explored a different side of herself, dancing at Manhattan’s Palladium nightclub. It was there, she said, “I discovered the rhythm. I discovered the beat. I discovered my heartbeat. I was becoming attuned to my sex appeal. And the rhythm was hot.”

  She soon abandoned ballet for Broadway, in such shows as “Guys and Dolls,” “Can-Can” and “Seventh Heaven.” By 1956, she was appearing in the show “Mr. Wonderful” starring Sammy Davis, Jr. “I fell in love with him,” she said.

  ”What drew you to him?” asked Rocca.

  ”His sensitivity. His talent. Oh, my gosh, his humor.”

  Davis told her not to sell herself short, that she had the talent to be a star, which she soon proved in “West Side Story,” dancing, acting and singing.

  Chita Rivera and Carol Lawrence perform “A Boy Like That/I Have a Love,” from the original cast album of “West Side Story”:

  It was on “West Side Story” that she met fellow dancer Tony Mordente. They married, and soon enough she was expecting. She continued dancing in “West Side Story” six months into her pregnancy. “Yes,” she laughed. “My gynecologist had a heart attack when he finally saw the show. But I had kept in shape.”


  One photograph, taken by actor and choreographer Leo Kharibian, that captures Rivera’s energy in the role hangs in a Manhattan saloon owned by another man from Rivera’s life, the late restaurateur Joe Allen, who famously decorated his Broadway hangout with posters from shows that flopped, including “Bring Back Birdie,” the 1981 sequel to “Bye Bye Birdie” that closed after four performances (“A bomb,” she offered).

  Rocca asked, “What’s your advice to somebody, in any field, who experiences a failure?”

  ”Leave that behind, leave it behind,” she replied.

  The 1984 musical “The Rink” teamed Rivera with Liza Minnelli.

  Minnelli, struggling at the time with alcohol and prescription pills, was forgetting lines and missing performances. “It was very awkward, knowing that she was having complications,” said Rivera. “I felt very bad for her at times.”

  Just two years later, Rivera would face a challenge even greater than working with Liza. In 1986, a car accident left her with 12 pins and two plates in her left leg. Rivera not only recovered; she went on to a Tony, dancing the title role in “Kiss of the Spider Woman.”

  Rocca asked, “Do you think that beginning your life as a dancer helped you to survive stardom?”

  ”I do believe that being a dancer gave me the ability to fight, and to withstand, and to cope,” Rivera replied. “If I come back, I want to come back a dancer. That would be my second life.”