Review of “Chita, A Memoir”

Reviewed by Steven LaVigne

When she accepted her Tony Award for her performance as Velma Kelly in the revival of Chicago, (now the longest running revival in Broadway history), Bebe Neuwirth referred to Chita Rivera, who’d created the role, as a “goddess.” She is a goddess, but first and foremost, Chita Rivera is a living legend! At 90, Rivera has honored us with her beautiful book, Chita, A Memoir. It’s a definite must-have for any theater lover’s shelf.

Born Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero Anderson, in Washington, DC, she was in the middle of five children, the remainder of them her brothers. At a young age, she broke her mother’s coffee table, so she was sent to dancing school. This led to appearances in the choruses of Call Me MadamGuys & Dolls, Mr. Wonderful with Sammy Davis, Jr., and leading roles in West Side Story, Bye, Bye, Birdie, Sweet Charity (on stage and screen), Chicago, The Rink, Kiss of the Spider Woman and The Visit.

Nominated for ten Tony Awards, she’s been honored three times(The Rink, Kiss of the Spider Woman and a Lifetime Achievement Tony). She’s the first person of Latin-American heritage to win the Kennedy Center Honor and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

In the opening pages, Rivera informs us that she’s actually two people: while Chita is the performer, willing to please everyone, Dolores is the fiery woman inside who takes over whenever she thinks something’s wrong and needs changes, no matter the circumstances. Dolores has helped Chita become successful quite often!

In 1951, Rivera accompanied a friend to an audition for the road company of Call Me Madam starring another theater legend, Elaine Stritch (and if you don’t know who she is, why are you in theater?) Rivera was cast instead and she was on her way to a 70+ year career full of highlights. The first of these was creating the role of Anita in West Side Story. She worked with composer Leonard Bernstein, lyricist Stephen Sondheim, librettist Arthur Laurents and director-choreographer Jerome Robbins, creating one of the theater’s great musicals. So important was Rivera to the show’s success that, she and her husband Tony Mordente, who played A-Rab, learned she was pregnant. Rivera stayed with the show until at eight months, she couldn’t continue. The London production was postponed until after the birth of her daughter, Lisa Mordente.

She returned to Broadway to create the role of Rose opposite Dick Van Dyke in Bye, Bye, Birdie, a production she writes about at great length. She loved working with director-choreographer Gower Champion, although he and Dolores had a few run-ins. She also played Rose, opposite Peter Marshall in London, and while she was there, learned that Rita Moreno would play Anita onscreen (Moreno won an Oscar for her performance) and that Janet Leigh would play Rose in the film of Birdie.

Rivera worked consistently, appearing on television and in such ill-fated musicals as Zenda, 1491 and Bajour. On an episode of The Judy Garland Show, Rivera’s in the spotlight, Vic Damone and Garland perform a medley of songs from West Side Story!

Rivera’s next big opportunity was working with Bob Fosse starring in the national company of Sweet Charity and playing Nickie in the film version. She also had a supporting role on her old co-star, Dick Van Dyke’s second TV series.

In the mid-1970s, Fosse and his wife, Gwen Verdon invited Rivera to create the role of Velma Kelly in the original production of Chicago. During the creative process, Bob Fosse had his first heart attack. To help keep several people in the ensemble employed, Rivera created a nightclub act that would keep them all busy until Chicago was back in rehearsal. She’s continued performing this nightclub act and it was featured several years ago on PBS. Curiously, Catherine Zeta-Jones won an Oscar for playing Rivera’s role onscreen. This is something Dolores has strong feelings about!

A legend is entitled to a couple of failures. Bring Back Birdie is a sequel that lasted 4 performances, while Rivera was the glue that held Merlin together, because her co-star, Doug Henning, was a fine musician, but couldn’t sing, dance or act.

In the early 1980s, Rivera became something of a muse for playwright Terence McNally, composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb, who wrote three musicals for her. The Rink, was produced in 1984, costarred Liza Minnelli and is about the conflicts between an estranged mother and daughter. Rivera won her first Tony, but  during the run of this show, Minnelli realized she had a drugs and alcohol problem, and entered the Betty Ford Clinic for the first time. Minnelli was replaced by Stockard Channing, who gave a good performance, but she can’t sing either. (She has no legato, which I witnessed when I saw her in a Broadway revival of Pal Joey).

While appearing in the revue Jerry’s Girls, featuring the music of Jerry Herman (Hello, Dolly!, La Cage Aux Folles) Rivera was in a serious car accident and her left leg was broken in twelve places. Ever the trooper, Rivera was back on the road a couple of years later touring in Cole Porter’s Can-Can.

Mssrs. McNally, Kander and Ebb created a Tony Award-winning role for her in the musical version of Manuel Puig’s novel, Kiss of the Spider Woman. It’s here that I need to interject that I’ve seen her twice onstage and got to meet her. In 1970 she starred with John Raitt and Barbara Baxley in the tour of Zorba, (also composed by Kander and Ebb). I saw it in Milwaukee and thoroughly loved it. Rivera was very kind and lovely to converse with. Zorba is a superb musical. I don’t know why it’s not produced more often! There are terrific roles for a multiracial cast!

Rivera took Kiss of the Spider Woman to London, but she returned to face the penultimate role of her career in The Visit.

The Visit was originally written for Angela Lansbury, who turned it down for personal reasons: her husband was dying and she chose to care for him. Based on the play by Friedreich Durrenmatt, this was the last play that Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne performed before they retired. It’s the story of Claire Zachanassian, the world’s wealthiest widow. Scorned by the populace of her hometown, she was forced to leave. Since then, the town’s gone bankrupt because she owns it. She agrees to change their economy if they’ll kill the man who wronged her. She plans to travel, carrying his coffin with her.

The Visit was perfect for Rivera. It was developed over the years, and its Broadway engagement was played in one act. (It was videotaped and can be seen on YouTube). It’s a lovely show and features fine roles for an older cast. When you hear the songs, you come to understand that no one but Rivera could have played this role so beautifully as she does.

Chita: A Memoir is beautifully written and filled with the type of theatrical experiences you wish we could all have. She writes about the people she knows and those who strongly influenced her over the decades.

The Fred Astaire Awards for Dance have been renamed The Chita Rivera Awards for Dance and Choreography, and she received a Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama.

Chita, a Memoir is a must-read! Brava, Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero Anderson!