By Harry Haun
23 May 2015
Two daughters hath Chita Rivera: Lisa with an S, and Liza with a Z.
Lisa with an S is Mordente, born in 1958, about the time Mom and Dad were doing fine in West Side Story(Chita was Anita, and Tony Mordente was A-Rab; they got married, and pregnant, just before the show bowed on Broadway). Now, Lisa Mordente has grown up and already starred in a revival of–you guessed it–West Side Story.
Liza with a Z, who hails from the multitalented House of Minnelli, is a relatively recent addition to Casa de Rivera. Only in the past few months have these two former Chicago cellmates been able to get The Rink, their turbulent family act, together–and into workshop–and through rehearsal–and, now, onto Broadway.
t has to be said that Jules Fisher, the man who lit Chicago and is now producing/igniting The Rink, is pretty pleased with himself about his powderkeg casting. Two more potent doses of Showbiz Concentrate can't be had for love or money. It's stage royalty meeting screen royalty, and the kinetic energy is kinda awesome.
And still he's cautious. "When you read in the paper 'Chita Rivera and Liza Minnelli in The Rink'," Fisher says, "there's a certain expectation that comes to mind: you normally expect a glitzy Broadway musical with spangles and beads because that's what they've done most of their careers–but that's not our show, so, in a sense, I'm trying to change the audience's expectations. I don't want the audience to come and think they're going to see an evening of roller-skating. I'm very cautious of that in the advertising, the posters, the art work, all that kind of stuff."
The Rink has been in the works almost as long as people have been saying, "Why doesn't somebody write a show for Chita Rivera?"–almost, but not quite–and, since 1979, playwright Terrence McNally and songwriters John Kander and Fred Ebb have been applying themselves to just such a task, setting to music a stormy mother-daughter, love-hate, push-pull relationship and plopping it down in a dilapidated old roller rink which has been earmarked for demolishing; amid the ruins of this symbolic arena, the mother-and-daughter owners of the joint hammer away fiercely at the remnants of their relationship.
This month at the Martin Beck–with A. J. Antoon (who usually fine-tunes dramas like That Championship Season) serving as director/referee–the four-year-old labors of these three music-men are finally coming to fruition, ironically enough, just as mother-daughter conflicts are coming to fashion (The Glass Menagerie and 'night, Mother onstage, "Terms of Endearment" and "Entre Nous" on screen).
With The Rink, there's not a tassel or bauble on the premises; this is a different kind of lightning striking than these stars are used to. "The greatest satisfaction I've had with this show," Fisher confesses, "is to go from having faith in the piece when I first read it to seeing the dimensions these two ladies have brought it. I never expected the depths of feeling they've given it. I think people will be extremely surprised by the acting. There's real acting which you don't see much in musicals. Most acting in musicals is so surface it can be expressed in a single line, but this gets richer and richer as the evening goes on because the more facts are uncovered, the more meaning the drama has. I think people will be moved by it, that they'll come out of the theatre feeling better than when they went in, for some reason."
The Rink may have been erected to Chita Rivera specifications, but the late-blooming notion of Liza for the daughter role was strictly creative afterthought. "There was a question we kept asking ourselves," rationalizes Fisher. "'If a woman walked into the audition who acted as well as Liza does and looked visually like Liza does, would we hire her?' The answer, of course, is yes. She is so perfect for the part, anyway, it didn't have to be altered to fit her. She Is That Character. She's exactly the right age, and she personally knows the problems of a mother-daughter struggle. That's one of the resources Liza's using to act this piece. Her acting instincts are more intuitive than trained, and she and Chita work marvelously together."
This, you can sense, is a love match of long standing. Liza herself tracks it back to early '61: "Chita was the first person I ever saw on Broadway, and, in Bye Bye Birdie, she's the one who made me decide what I wanted to do. I thought, 'Oh, I'd like to do that.' It was so immediate. It wasn't like the movies; it had nothing to do with what my parents did, and it looked so exciting."
In 1975, through some kind of accident of the gods, these two theatrical dynamos struck sparks on the same stage–in Chicago, when Liza subbed five weeks for ailing Gwen Verdon–and it was then she and Chita were, as she says, "joined at the hip." Ever since, they've been looking for another excuse to co-star.
If The Rink answers that dream, then Liza deserves a little credit for letting the dream happen. One day, over lunch, she not-so-innocently asked Chita if the daughter part had been cast yet. It hadn't, so Liza pressed on. "'Now look," I told her, 'I haven't asked anybody else, but it's your show, and I wanted to ask you first: what do you think if I played the daughter?' She went right through the ceiling. 'Stop right there!' she said. 'Don't do this to me! Don't dangle a little jewel in front of my nose like that! It's not fair. Now you know you can't do this. You've got other things to do. It's not going to happen. I'll get all excited, and then I'll get disappointed again.' Adamant. So I said, 'Well, may I ask Fred?' She said okay, and I went to Fred Ebb. Same song, second verse: 'Don't say that! I'm going to get all excited and disappointed.'"
Liza's powers of persuasion, when put to the test, are no match for anybody born of woman: she talked herself into the show. "This is something I really wanted to do," she readily admits. "I wanted to work with Chita again. I wanted to work with somebody on a stage instead of carrying around a vehicle. When you're doing concerts, even if you have 12 musicians who are right with you in everything, you're still alone out there. There's no give and take. Working with Chita – I mean, what we get out of each other is extraordinary. Nobody knows she can what she's doing in this show, and they've forgotten I can do it. First and foremost, I'm an actress–and I always have been. There's not one sequin, they's not one eyelash, it's all the way back to "Sterile Cuckoo" basics. I understand this role very well, although, in a way, I never got a chance to go through that with my own mother. She died before we could. But all mothers and daughters are alike, really. It doesn't matter if your mother is a famous film star or runs a roller rink. You still go through the same pull and tug."
How much real-life can Chita draw for the mother role? "I think all," she declares at point-blank range. "I think the times when I get disappointed and angry with my daughter–which, in the show, is a lot–I can probably go back in my own head and get some of the anger that I don't let out with my own daughter. That's what you do, anyhow. You use your past experiences and feelings."
"It's interesting: I have a daughter, and Liza's mother was so famous. For years when she was young–and, thank God, they've dropped this–she was known as Judy's daughter. Now, she's Liza–she's finally Liza–and my daughter is one of Liza's very closest friends, if not her best friend. It's all kind of a family with us, smoldering with mother-daughter feelings."
"When we did our workshop, it was fabulous to see the men so moved. It's not a women's show, by any means. It's a people's show. It's about the problems between relationships. There's a quintet in the show, and the words–to sing my part of it is very moving. I have to fight. I haven't had this feeling since West Side Story. It's very difficult to be deeply in emotion, even though you feel you control it, and then to have to sing. It's hard."
Chita started in musical comedy in 1952, knowing no fear, secure in the scholarship she had won to the American School of Ballet, a bit haughty about accompanying a less-fortunate classmate who had to take an audition for a Broadway show. That's how Chita wound up on the road in Call Me Madam and the friend wound up with zip. "This is the terrible thing about fear. It just holds you back. I had no intention of taking that job. I didn't need it, I didn't want it, and I got it."
After that came the wearing rounds of audition eliminations, like the ones in A Chorus Line. "That used to be my whole life. When I went out for Can-Can, they were auditioning 250 people at one time for one role. I still claim that this is what makes you strong. Too many people give up because they feel somebody's hit them too hard, somebody who couldn't shine their shoes. Creative people are sensitive. Otherwise, they can't feel, and they can't show you your own feelings."
"I really don't enjoy being onstage alone. I would rather have people out there with me. I have a better time. I can relate to them. They give back. You have to believe that the play is bigger than you, that you can't do anything alone. Not really."
Be that as it may, Rivera et Minnelli both have their own little niches in Tony Award history. At 19, Liza became–and remains–the youngest actress ever to win the prize (for Flora, the Red Menace in 1965); and her reputation has grown in at least one more statue (for The Act of 1977). Both shows were scored by her current musical mentor, Kander & Ebb, who, in the interim, dashed of a little number called "New York, New York" to keep her happy. (The three are very close friends, and it's likely Liza'll do the movie version of their Chicago.) Sometimes Liza doesn't even need to be nominated to win a Tony (witness the honorary she got because her one-woman show broke the Winter Garden house record in 1973). Three for two is pretty good hitting in anybody's book.
When this little statistic is dropped on Chita, hew jaw plummets and her left eyelid slides to half-mast where it goes into a kind of St. Vitus Dance. She is Tony's eternal also-ran – having come home empty-handed all four times at bat: Bye Bye Birdie, Chicago,Bring Back Birdie and Merlin–and this is just a little funny face she likes to put on whenever the subject of Tony strike-outs rears its ungallant head. Is she blue? Not a bit, thanks to classic sketch (sort of the Do's and Don'ts of Tony-Losing) in the classy night club act Kander & Ebb concocted for her when they weren't otherwise engaged with Zorba or Woman of the Year.
"I like Kander & Ebb more than other songwriters I've worked with. I have special material in my act that I think is just unbeatable, just as Liza does, just as Joel Grey does. You can't beat Liza with a Z–I mean, that's so on the nose–and you can't beat the Tony-nomination song they did for me. It is so funny because it is so honest. Sometimes I think that I'd rather not have an award. I can get more out of this material than I could out of an award."
Should The Rink connect as hoped, this could well spell the end of a beautiful bit-of-business Just in case, better prepare to retire that routine, Chita, with one big send-off in late spring–say, just before somebody opens the envelope and says that the nominees for Best Actress in a Musical are...
Think Rink, girls!