It’s safe to say that most people, when awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, retire. Yet it seems that Chita Rivera, who received the nation’s most prestigious civilian recognition in 2009, is just getting started.
A Broadway legend, Rivera will make her first appearance with a second luminary of the Great White Way, Tommy Tune, on Friday, January 26, in Scottsdale, when the pair will tell stories in words and movement in the kick-off event for the 2018 Arizona Musicfest. Their appearance is called Just in Time, a reference to the remarkable fact that this is the first time Rivera and Tune have worked together, despite careers that have paralleled each other for decades.
“I don’t know how it is that Tommy’s and my paths have never before crossed,” Rivera says during a recent phone interview. “It’s about time.”
What will two dancing, singing legends do onstage together?
“You’ll see us putting our live together and telling different stories and doing numbers from our shows,” Rivera says.
“Our shows” for Rivera and Tune means a kind of pocket history of Broadway. Tune either starred in or directed/choreographed a raft of musicals from The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1978) to The Will Rogers Follies (1991) and starred in the film version of Hello Dolly!
Rivera has been a star since the heyday of musicals in the 1950s. She was the first Anita in West Side Story, creating the role for the original Broadway production in 1957. She went on to originate starring roles in Bye Bye Birdie (1960), Chicago (1975), The Rink (1984) and Kiss of the Spiderwoman (1992), winning Tony Awards for the latter two shows, and to star in many major revivals, including Nine (2003) and Mystery of Edwin Drood (2012).
Resting on those considerable laurels is not enough for Rivera, 84.
“It’s what I do, I’m in the business,” she explains. Giving up doing shows would be for her the equivalent of a chess master giving up chess. Why quit work that gives you the ongoing prospect of creating new characters, new experiences?
Rivera waxes enthusiastically about her life as a performing artist:
“When you’re lucky enough to open a script by Terence McNally or a score by Kander and Ebb or Jerry Herman, it’s like you’re living different lives with each show. It opens you mind to all sorts of other life situations.”
She credits two people who, early in her career, gave her much-needed professional boosts: Musical theater star Gwen Verdon and composer Leonard Bernstein.
“Gwen was the perfect example of a brilliantly well-rounded artist,” Rivera says. “There wasn’t anything she couldn’t do. When she was in Can-Can (1955) I was starting out and I auditioned as an understudy. She took me aside and said, ‘Don’t be an understudy. Pursue your own career and put your own mark on what you do.’ That was the first time anybody said anything like that to me.”
Twenty years later, Verdon and Rivera co-starred in the original Broadway production of Chicago.
She remembers Bernstein as another earlier encourager. Rivera was a dancer when Bernstein cast her as the fiery Puerto Rican second female lead, Anita, in West Side Story. The role required her to sing, which she was not comfortable doing.
“I was a dancer, and dancers in those days yelled the songs they had to sing,” Rivera remembers. “I didn’t seriously think I could make anything sound beautiful. Lenny sat me down to learn some of the songs” – including the iconic “America” – “and taught me to use my real voice, to control my breath and appreciate my sound. He literally taught me how to sing.”
While Rivera’s name is virtually synonymous with Broadway stardom, she has never transferred the roles she originated onstage to the movies. Neither Anita in the film of West Side Story, nor Rosie in the movie based on Bye Bye Birdie, nor Velma in the film of Chicago put her on the silver screen. It’s not just her: Movie musical casts generally ignore the stage originals. Why is that?
“I don’t know if I’m qualified to talk about that,” Rivera says. “They are two totally different forms. In the theater, you are a part of the play, in the moment. You can feel the breath of the audience. That’s far more exciting than film, where you have to learn techniques that allow you to shoot the end of a movie before the beginning. I take my hat off to those who can do it, but I like living the story from beginning to end.”
Her own story is one that began long ago and shows every sign of going on for some time. And she means to share it with the Valley January 26.
Just in Time, featuring Chita Rivera and Tommy Tune, Highlands Church, 9050 E. Pinnacle Peak Road, Scottsdale, 480.488.0806, azmusicfest.org, 7:30 p.m. Friday, January 26, $43 to $89.