Broadway legend Chita Rivera lends voice to San Francisco Symphony's 'Peter and the Wolf'
Chita Rivera isn't part of American musical theatre, she is American musical theatre. The Broadway star originated the roles of Anita in West Side Story, Rosie in Bye Bye Birdie, Velma Kelly in Chicago, and created starring roles in Kiss of the Spider Woman and The Rink (opposite Liza Minnelli).
While those roles often went to others when the shows were made into movies, Rivera's stellar acting, singing, and dancing gifts were immortalized on screen in the 1969 film Sweet Charity. ("Hey Big Spender," anyone?)
At 73, Rivera is as busy as ever. She'll narrate SF Symphony's Peter and the Wolf this Saturday, Dec. 10, and her rehearsal and performance calendar this past month has been so full that our phone chat had to be rescheduled three times.
"I just did a staged reading of Kander and Ebb's musical The Visit," she tells me when we finally connect. "And I'm in rehearsal for a reading of a new show called Zarra. It's a take-off on Zorro, only she's a dress designer. The important thing is to keep working."
When I ask her for specific memories that stand out from her landmark performances, two themes emerge again and again: her admiration and love for her collaborators, and the fact that no one knew what show would be a hit until it opened.
West Side Story "On opening night in D.C., we had no idea what we had, but it blew the roof off the theatre. That's when we realized it was something really special. 'America' stopped the show dead. We said to [director] Jerome Robbins, 'What do we do now?' He said, 'Go downstairs, get ready for the next scene, and go on with the show!'
"Sitting in Leonard Bernstein's apartment while he was teaching me the score to West Side Story, I was so nervous. I thought, 'Please God, don't let me throw up.'"
Bye Bye Birdie "Dick Van Dyke and [director] Gower Champion were so wonderful. I first went in to read with my friend Tom Poston, and he thought the show was awful. 'No one's gonna wanna hear these kids on telephones.' That shows you how much you know.
"Being on the inside, you're so busy working and trying to get it right, you don't think about how it will play. But hearing that laughter from the audience was mind-blowing; you realize why you're in the business."
Rivera chalks up her success to four elements, which she shares with aspiring young performers. "I've had the best company in the world, a lot of it is luck, you have to be ready to give it 200% – and believe in what you're doing."
Sweet Charity "When I first saw the musical starring Gwen Verdon I fell in love with it, and with her. Then I played Charity in the national touring company, then I did the film with Shirley MacLaine. We were old friends; we'd studied together. Gwen was the first to breathe life into the character, so she really owned it. But Shirley was adorable."
The Rink What was it like to star opposite (insert gay gasp here) Liza Minnelli? "We'd always wanted to work together and play girlfriends. Fred Ebb and John Kander called and said they had a new show, and would I star in it? I jokingly said, 'Let me think about it.' Then they said, 'How would you like to work with Liza Minnelli?' I said, 'Let me think about it.'
"They said it's about a mother and daughter. I said, 'Who plays the mother?'" But her role as the mother opposite Liza Minnelli in The Rink earned Rivera her first of two Tony Awards. She would win again for Kiss of the Spider Woman .
Chicago Rivera played Velma Kelly opposite Gwen Verdon's Roxie Hart in the original 1975 production. "Gwen was always one of the performers I looked up to, and one night I thought, 'Oh my god, I'm sharing the stage with Gwen Verdon!' The two of us worked so well together; we were both of the same school, both workhorses, and the whole show had such style."
Twenty-two years later, director Rob Marshall cast Rivera in a cameo role (as a tough female prisoner) in the film version. "Rob was in the chorus of The Rink, and he was determined to have me in the film. When I saw it, I thought, 'Oh my God, I look like Cher in drag!' But I loved the movie, and Catherine Zeta-Jones was wonderful."
Rivera has since received the highest honors a performer can hope for. She was the first Latina to be a Kennedy Center Honoree in 2002, when a new generation of performers re-created her greatest numbers. "It reminded me of all the things I've done, and that I really represented all the dancers in the theatre. All those wonderful chorus kids came down and danced for me, and I jumped up and one of my diamond earrings popped off. I thought, 'Oh my god – they're not mine!'"
She was also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009. "You have to have humor in your life, and when someone tells you you're getting the Medal of Freedom from Obama, I thought, 'Why?' Then I saw my whole family there and all these amazing people.
"There was an adorable Marine there, and I wondered, 'What if he leaned in to me and said, 'We've made a mistake.' But the award is really saying thank you for being an example to young kids.
"It really was breathtaking, especially since I'm from D.C. I looked down from the Oval Office window at the Washington Monument, and saw the lawn where I ran around as a kid."
Rivera jumped at the chance to narrate Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf with the San Francisco Symphony. "It's another lovely stone in my brooch, another bright moment to give an audience some enjoyment. And San Francisco is one of my favorite cities in the entire world, but you guys must hear that all the time."
San Francisco Symphony performs Peter and the Wolf, narrated by Chita Rivera. Sat., Dec. 10 at 1 & 4 p.m., Davies Symphony Hall, SF. Tickets ($15-$57) at http://www.sfsymphony.org/ or (415) 864-6000.