Chita Rivera's Life Hits Broadway as a Musical

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Dancer Chita Rivera has teamed up with Terence McNally to create a musical about her life in theater. The show had a warm-up in San Diego and is now heading to New York City, where the curtain goes up on the performance Sunday.


Chita Rivera calls herself a gypsy. The term is used to describe chorus dancers who travel from one show to the next and too frequently live out of a suitcase. Rivera may believe she's still part of that sorority, but gypsies don't have eight Tony nominations and a Kennedy Center honor, nor do they star in a Broadway show with an eponymous title. Jeff Favre reports.

JEFF FAVRE reporting:

"Chita Rivera: A Dancer's Life" is a musical revue that runs from her birth 72 years ago in Washington, DC, to the Kennedy Center honor in 2002. But she insists it's not a one-women show; she shares the stage with a chorus of gypsies.

Ms. CHITA RIVERA (Entertainer): I didn't want it to be about me, you know. I mean, I know I've had a great professional life. I've had a great life, period. But I just didn't--I thought, `That's boring.'

FAVRE: It wasn't until her Kennedy Center honor that she realized what this show could be about.

Ms. RIVERA: Rob Marshall, the director of the movie "Chicago," who's an old friend of mine--he had directed this portion of the Kennedy Center for me, so he got, like, 30 or 40 dancers and it was like seeing 40 horses at high speed just hit that stage. And the energy was just amazing! And they were all gypsies; they were all dancers. So I went, `Wow, that's what I'm sitting up here for. I'm sitting up here for them. I'm representing them.'

FAVRE: Growing up, Chita Rivera was one of five children. Her father died when she was seven. She took to dance early, and at 16, Rivera won a scholarship to George Balanchine's School of American Ballet. "A Dancer's Life" opens with Rivera at the White House, reflecting back on her career.

(Soundbite of "Chita Rivera: A Dancer's Life")

Ms. RIVERA: My journey from somewhere out there in the dark to standing here in the White House terrace was something I began to understand. Chita the little girl dancing with her father wasn't such a stranger to Chita the woman talking to the president. They were somehow still the same person. Looking back doesn't have to be painful.

(Singing) The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time.

FAVRE: The two-hour performance centers on Rivera's career, which began at the age of 17 in "Call Me Madame," choreographed by a young Jerome Robbins. Seven years later, she landed the part for which she still is best known.

(Soundbite of "Chita Rivera: A Dancer's Life")

Ms. RIVERA: The show I was waiting for, but didn't know it, was...

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. RIVERA: ..."West Side Story."

(Soundbite of applause)

Ms. RIVERA: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. RIVERA: (Singing) A boy like that killed your brother. Forget that boy and find another, one of own your kind, stick to your own kind.

FAVRE: "A Dancer's Life" is filled with Broadway tunes--some classic, others forgotten--as well as new songs by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty. The show's book was written by Terrence McNally, who also wrote "The Rink" and "Kiss of the Spider Woman," the musicals that earned Rivera her two Tonys.

Mr. TERRENCE McNALLY (Playwright): I'm a playwright, and I don't spend my waking hours thinking of `What can I make a musical of next?' But when they called me, `Would you be interested in trying to tell Chita's story through the shows she's done?' I just said, `Of course,' because Chita is a walking history book of the golden age of the American musical theater. Look who she's worked with, from, you know, Jerome Robbins to Hal Prince to Bob Fosse to Kander and Ebb, Sondheim, everybody.

FAVRE: McNally wrote in the rehearsal room while Rivera worked with director and choreographer Graciela Daniele and music director Mark Hummel. Rivera talked; McNally listened. Much of their discussions centered on favorite co-stars, including her idol, the late Gwen Vernon, who appeared with her in the musical "Chicago."

(Soundbite of "Chita Rivera: A Dancer's Life")

Ms. RIVERA: Whenever I hear that, there's only person I see in front of me, standing in her own special light. No one can replace your co-stars. Who could? Oh, my God.

(Singing) It's good. Isn't it grand? Isn't it great? Isn't it swell? Isn't it fun? Isn't it nowadays?

FAVRE: Vernon died in 2000 at the age of 75, just three years older than Rivera is now. But Rivera finds aging little more than a passing annoyance.

Ms. RIVERA: It's sad that people spend so much time thinking about that, because they put limitations on themselves. You just--and you don't have to be limited any sooner than you are. I mean, we all have to be realistic. I don't do flying splits anymore. I don't do back flips and all the stuff that I used to do. You want to know something? I don't want to. I don't want to do that. I now have been in the business so long that I can get the same response from, you know, doing something with finesse and with some other kind of technique.

FAVRE: "A Dancer's Life" premiered at San Diego's Old Globe earlier this fall, where it was met with mostly positive notices. Lewis Segal of the Los Angeles Times wrote that the strength of the production stems from the powerful connection between the audience and its battle-scarred, self-effacing, indomitably triumphant woman. This may not be a one-woman show, but the success will depend on how Rivera bonds with New York audiences. Charles Isherwood, theater critic of The New York Times, said these types of shows rely both on charisma and content.

Mr. CHARLES ISHERWOOD (Theater Critic, The New York Times): I think the most successful recent show in this vein is probably Elaine Stritch's show, and I think that show really thrived on her personality. Elaine Stritch, in fact, doesn't have the kind of Broadway career that Chita Rivera had, in a sense, in terms of musical theater, but I think because she had such a strong personality and such a colorful past, she sort of--the show became more about her as a woman than her as a performer.

The most recent solo debacle on Broadway would probably by Suzanne Somer's solo show, in which she basically, you know, relived her highlights, such as they were, of her career, and also sort of performed an instant infomerical. It was a rather odd enterprise that did not go over too well.

FAVRE: Isherwood thinks "A Dancer's Life" has a good chance to succeed because audiences and critics champion Rivera, the gypsy who rose from the chorus to the spotlight. Terrence McNally concurs.

Mr. McNALLY: The point of this show is the joy in the creation of these pieces and the beauty and spontaneity of them, and not as Chita danced and every bit as well as she did 50 years ago. Of course, she doesn't. The point is to show you what these dancers were about, and it's a challenge to the future, really. This is what musical theater is. Let's do it again.

(Soundbite of "Chita Rivera: A Dancer's Life")

Ms. RIVERA: (Singing) In 50 years or so, it's going to change, you know. But, oh, it's heaven nowadays.

FAVRE: "Chita Rivera: A Dancer's Life" is appearing at the Schoenfeld Theatre in New York. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Favre.

(Soundbite of music and whistling from "Chita Rivera: A Dancer's Life")

HANSEN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

(Soundbite of music and whistling from "Chiata Rivera: A Dancer's Life")

Ms. RIVERA: (Singing) Wa, wa, wa, wa, wa, wa. Wa, wa, wa, wa, wa, wa. Wa, wa, wa, wa, wa, wa, wa, wa.

And isn't it good? Isn't it grand? Isn't it...

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