Chita Rivera: Queen of the Gypsies

After 65 years of building a theatrical resume that includes the original productions of the most beloved and acclaimed shows ever mounted on a Broadway stage you will certainly have more than a few stories to tell. When the writers, directors, choreographers, and co-stars you’ve collaborated with on those shows are the legends by which modern day legends-in-the-making find inspiration you have understandably formed a special wisdom and invaluable awareness about not just your craft but also humanity.

Stage legend Chita Rivera brings her wisdom, songs, and stories to San Francisco’s Nourse Theater on Saturday, April 29 as a part of the Broadway @ The Nourse series. It will be an unscripted and informal evening where the audience will be eavesdropping, so to speak, on conversations between the Tony winning “Queen of the Gypsies” and Broadway’s living encyclopedia, Seth Rudetsky. Chita will be accompanied by Mr. Rudetsky on the piano as they transition between performing the songs that made up her career and telling the back stories behind those tunes. From originating the character of Anita in West Side Story to being the original Velma Kelly in Chicago as well as her Tony winning turn starring in Kiss of the Spider Woman, Chita has enough stories to tell and songs to sing to fill an entire season let alone one night.

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I was lucky enough to steal some time with Ms. Rivera recently and found myself so engaged that we ended up chatting far beyond the allotted window of time I was initially given. Ms. Rivera’s radiant warmth, authentic humility, and untainted empathy for everyone and everything around her leaves you with an inspirational optimism that the seemingly mundane can be far more glorious than what it seems if only we allow it to be.

You are a widely regarded as the “Queen of the Gypsies”- That said, you have arguably had the grandest career of any Broadway Gypsy that I can recall. What do think you can attribute that to?  I came along at a really good time where there were so many dancers. If you went to an audition you were guaranteed to see at least 200 competing for the same job. We’re Gypsies because we’re a family. We never know where we are going next and we keep our minds open and we cover each other. We care very much for each other. When you dance in that one line you make 8 people look like one. It’s a phenomenal feeling. You never really feel alone when you’re a Gypsy.

I came along when there were a lot of really amazing shows, and they were hits. The kids used to stay in those shows for a long time. They didn’t jump off and run to do a TV show or anything like that. They stuck with the show and they gained extraordinary experience just by staying and making every single night of a performance an opening night which meant their focus was really good.

“I keep telling younger kids today not to look down your nose at the Gypsy. Don’t look down your nose at the chorus dancer because that’s the best place you can possibly start. To get the Gypsy Robe, to be honored by those kids that have the same bunions, the same nasty feet, and the same aches and pains that you do. It’s a great honor and a compliment to be a good old Gypsy.”

That’s an interesting allegory to what we might now be lacking socially.  Absolutely! That’s exactly what we need. We need everybody to come together. We need everybody to understand each other’s problems. We need to get away from just ourselves and we need to share because there is power in numbers.

Do you think that supporting and connecting with each other and resting on each other’s shoulders to move forward from a setback or out of the shadows is another reason aside from the entertainment aspect, that the gay community is attracted so strongly to the world of theater?  Yes. Because we tell stories. We tell other people’s stories. We become people other than ourselves. It’s a great joy to be able to be in the theater because of that reason, to understand how other people feel, to take up their flag, to speak for them. I think we are really pretty blessed to be interpreters. We have to do that now. Don’t get me crazy. Don’t even mention a particular name cuz I’ll go off. <laughing>

Well you certainly aren’t alone in that reaction, especially here in San Francisco. One thing that you have been quoted as saying is “Everyone should get through the ensemble to get disciplined”. I’m a firm believer in paying one’s dues and was hoping you could expand on that.  When you are in that line and you are working hard to be like that guy or girl beside you it’s tough. You really have to be aware. You really have to give up some of yourself in order to find what the rest of that line is like. It makes you tougher. It makes you more aware. It makes you care. You come out the other side if you’re gonna suddenly be get picked out of the line to do a role then you’re given another responsibility, a singular one without all of your chums. You’re standing on your own two feet a little bit more. It just makes you a better person not only in the theater but in everything that you do. I hope I answered that for you.

You absolutely did.  Oh, good. Good, good, good.

You have this incredible resume of working with the most brilliant creative minds we’ve ever known. It would be unfair to ask who your favorite has been so I won’t do that. But…  Good. Because, each one has something unbelievable. With Fred Ebb and John Kander I don’t even know who I would be, you know? And Terrence McNally, you know. To speak the words of these people!?! They actually discovered “me”. They allowed me to find myself. Do you know what I mean?

Is that a mark of a good collaborator?  Absolutely! I always consider myself a student anyhow. I think until the day I die I just keep learning and I just keep looking because I meet different people all the time. I’ve also always thought that we were a huge canvas. When we were born we have a huge, clean canvas with a blob of red somewhere on it and that’s your heart and your soul. The painting is your life. You have different colors and different shapes and those are the experiences you’ve had. So, I’m hoping my painting is gold and red and green and blue and purple.

I would say that your painting is also colored with shades of infrared and ultra-violet that the human eye can’t see. If I may say so, you go beyond typical colors  <laughing> Thank you! I like that.

Regarding the long list of directors and writers what is your knee jerk response when I ask about an experience that stands out as you look back at all your Playbills?  You know, to be standing in front of Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins. Lenny, you know we were just talking about him this morning over breakfast. We were talking about audition songs. Someone was doing an article and asked what my favorite audition songs are. I’ve been alive so long who the heck remembers! I don’t remember. I do remember one incident where I was auditioning for West Side (Story) and they were having me sing for Lenny. In those days dancers were dancers and singers were singers. We never knew we could sing or any of that. So I just decided, and it’s ok if you laugh, I sang “My Mans Gone Now” from Porgy & Bess. <laughing> I wondered why Lenny was almost bent over he was laughing so hard. But I kept going. This is an opera and I’m singing it in my bass-baritone voice. He actually asked me to sing it again. I just remember that moment with this great genius in a beautiful way because he was a beautiful man. I knew he was thinking ‘What in the world is she doing?”, but I got the job! There were so many wonderful, wonderful moments it’s hard to pick one.

I can imagine. I’m sure if I were to ask you the same thing tomorrow you would have another totally different answer. I’m curious about why it wasn’t until 2009 when you released your first solo album and how it is that you didn’t perform at Carnegie Hall until 2015?  Oh, I don’t think time has anything to do with it. Well, time does, but I think it happens when you’re ready. I don’t think we have any control over any of it. I think things just happen to you in your life. I think the universe controls, you just have to be ready. That was my time. That was my time to play that unbelievable hall with my great friends, to show them off also, and in a building where I used to study dance when I first came to New York. You can’t make those dates. They are kind of made for you. Your life shapes all of this and I don’t think you’re in control. The only thing you’re in control of is being ready to execute. When that came up I went, “Ooh!”.

Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life set-ups 11/30/05 Credit Photo: ©Paul Kolnik NYC 212.362.7778 studio@paulkolnik.com

Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life / Credit Photo: ©Paul Kolnik

When I was fortunate enough to be acknowledged for Tony Awards or the Kennedy Center or whatever, it was all a big surprise to me. I never thought one day this was going to happen. I just wanted to wake up the next morning and be ready to do my next show. I didn’t dream of like, “Did you ever want to be a Broadway whatever? Did you ever want to do movies”? No, I wanted to dance. That’s what I wanted to do and along the way came all of these great friends and these unbelievable creators. Along the way!

I could listen to your perspective and wisdom all day but we need to talk about the show you’re doing and the reason you’re coming to San Francisco, Broadway @ The Nourse with Seth Rudetsky. What I loved about the first one in this series earlier this year is the casual and unscripted format of it.  That’s all Seth!

The “Mayor of Broadway”! The audience really gets to know the tale behind the song. You have a lifetime of stories to be able to tell. What are you looking forward to revealing to San Francisco while you are here?  Well, I love, love, love, love, love San Francisco! I was going there when the Fairmont had all their shows. And the Geary, and the Curran, and all of those when I lived in California. I lived there for such a long time. My daughter just loves California and she was brought up much of her life there. I’ve played there and I love it.

Seth has this formula that nobody else has! He also has this gift. He’s an unbelievable piano player and a great historian. If there’s something you don’t want known you better not let It out there because he will find it! <laughing> And, he’ll make it really funny and really interesting. I think Seth is seriously the cleverest of all of us. He created this formula and it’s really fun. I get really tired of talking about myself. I’d rather talk about something else. Seth makes it fun. He connects a story to a song. He brings back wonderful memories that you’ve kind of let go through the years and he’ll bring them up again and you’ll revisit these stories and those moments and you’ll be reminded that maybe you did something. I’ve never denied it. I’ve always known that I’ve been truly lucky and blessed with opportunity so I’ve never forgotten it. Still, it’s been a long time so you do forget some things. Seth doesn’t let you forget it. He’s just the most entertaining guy around.

The evening is also a benefit for the SF AIDS Foundation, Project Open Hand, and the SF Gay Men’s Chorus. Kind of bringing it back to all of the people you’ve known along the way, you been in the center of the AIDS crisis in the 80s and 90s in New York City and felt the massive impact it had on Broadway as well as on yourself and your loved ones. I don’t want to assume but is that one of your reasons for doing this event? What is your connection still to the HIV/AIDS crisis?  It’s my dedication until the day I die to represent and to keep in the forefront and get rid of this horrible thing. And to remember so many of my friends. I’m sitting here right now looking at one of my greatest friends who was one of my dancers in many shows, Tony Stevens. He’s gone. He was one of the most divine and wonderful spirits and gifted guys. I live around it. I live in it. I hope forever to be available. Barry Brown and Fritz Holtz, Fritz is gone but Barry is still a producer, they did the very first AIDS benefit. They asked me to be a part of it and I was. I just never forgot it. I’m dedicated to it. Your friends get sick, you get sick.

And thank you for that dedication. One last question before I let you go. Over the years I’m sure you’ve given out a lot of advice. What sticks with you as the most poignant or effective piece of advice that you have received from someone else?  My mom brought all of us up to care about your neighbor. To share. Share, care, give, love, and not be selfish in your life. I think you get back a lot more than you give when you are open like that. I always tell the kids to be ready for whatever it is they have to do. Just be aware and be ready. Just being a loving, open, caring, sharing human being, I think, is vital.

And it’s so easy to do!  You know, I keep telling them too, we make life so much more complicated. It’s so much more simple. We get so much from each other. Standing alone is a very lonely thing. Sure, you can talk to the trees, they write songs about it. You drive through the toll booth and you’re feeling like crap. Then the woman behind the register says, “Good morning! How are you feeling?” with a smile and all of a sudden your better! It’s so simple. Use your eyes to see, use your ears to hear, use your hands to help. You know, use whatever the heck you’ve got! We could talk forever, you and me.

Yes, please!



Don’t miss two-time Tony Award winner Chita Rivera with Seth Rudetsky in Mark Cortale’s Broadway @ The Nourse concert series on April 29th at 8:00pm.  Tickets are available at www.cityboxoffice.com/broadway or via phone at (415) 392.4400.

For over 30 years Project Open Hand is a nonprofit organization that provides 2,500 nutritious meals and 200 bags of healthy groceries each day to help sustain their clients as they battle serious illnesses, isolation, or the health challenges of aging.

The San Francisco AIDS Foundation has been working to end the HIV epidemic since 1982.  Their refusal to accept HIV as inevitable has led to their mission to radically reduce new infections through education, advocacy and direct services for prevention and care in the most vulnerable communities.

Founded in 1978 as the first ever openly gay chorus, San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus is one of the largest male choruses in the world.  Their 300 members carry the mission of creating extraordinary musical experiences that inspire community, activism, and compassion.

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