Home Entertainment ‘I was going to be a nun!’ Broadway legend Chita Rivera on Chicago, West Side Story – and her love of sumo wresting

‘I was going to be a nun!’ Broadway legend Chita Rivera on Chicago, West Side Story – and her love of sumo wresting

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‘I was going to be a nun!’ Broadway legend Chita Rivera on Chicago, West Side Story – and her love of sumo wresting

The one and solely Chita Rivera solutions the cellphone at her residence in New York, however she sounds an early warning: we may very well be joined at any second by a 3rd get together. That may be Dolores, the hell-raising alter ego of the 90-year-old Broadway megastar, who makes a sequence of arresting interventions in Rivera’s new memoir. “It’s Chita proper now,” she says with a sly chuckle. “However Dolores may pop in at any second.”

Dolores, Rivera’s start title, is what her mom referred to as her each time she brought about hassle. When Rivera was in rehearsals for West Side Story in 1957, she started to make use of the D-word to tell apart her gutsy, unpredictable aspect, in distinction to the standard strait-laced nature that led Chicago lyricist Fred Ebb to dub her “Miss Dove”.

Rivera was rehearsing a quantity through which her character Anita – whose brother has simply been killed in a gang rumble – tells her pal Maria to stay with the Sharks and steer clear of the Jets. However the tune wasn’t touchdown. The directorial assistant, Gerald Freedman, advised Rivera to think about her personal siblings had been slain. “And Dolores,” she remembers, “defiantly sang the tune with my brothers in thoughts.” Within the many years that adopted, this aspect of her would stand up repeatedly. With out Dolores, she says, her profession merely “wouldn’t have been as dramatic”.

‘The merry murderess’ … with Gwen Verdon in Chicago.
‘The merry murderess’ … with Gwen Verdon in Chicago. {Photograph}: HarperCollins

In Chita: A Memoir, Rivera reveals that the holy theatre of Sunday mass nearly led her to develop into a nun as a substitute. “I used to be introduced up in a really Catholic family,” she says. “I used to be fairly snug trying ahead to being a nun. Most younger Catholic ladies have that feeling. However then I went and fell by way of the espresso desk and my mom put me in ballet faculty.”

To elucidate: Broadway has a damaged piece of bamboo furnishings to thank for the glittering profession of one in all its best “triple-threat” entertainers (one who excels at singing, appearing and dancing). As a baby, Rivera would bounce off the partitions of the household’s Washington DC residence. When she crashed by way of the desk, aged 9, her exasperated mom determined ballet could be a option to burn some power and study somewhat self-discipline.

Rivera’s childhood was clouded by the demise of her father when she was seven, but it surely was full, too, of mischief together with her siblings. “You learn to defend your self whenever you’re one in all 5, you understand? You need to survive – and survive joyfully. There’s nothing higher than a great snicker.” At college she was a category clown: “I used to be sneaky – I’d do something for amusing.” Comedy is a part of what drew her to musical theatre. She efficiently auditioned for George Balanchine’s College of American Ballet however, after a few years, broke from the corps of ballerinas. “I’d have needed to be identical to everyone else. I wasn’t about to do this.”

No socialising … West Side Story rehearsals with Rivera on left, Stephen Sondheim at the piano and Leonard Bernstein standing.
No socialising … West Facet Story rehearsals with Rivera on left, Stephen Sondheim on the piano and Leonard Bernstein standing. {Photograph}: HarperCollins

This want led to a profession not on display however on stage, with its nightly thrill of unpredictability – a spot the place “what occurs, occurs. And when errors occur, you need to make it plausible.” She is bemused by the very thought {that a} movie is shot out of sequence. “You are able to do the top earlier than you do the start!” she marvels. “I take my hat off to them.”

Rivera’s film appearances are scarce however embody a prison-cell cameo, sucking on a cigarette, within the Oscar-winning 2002 model of Chicago, the musical she launched on Broadway in 1975. Rivera originated the position of ruthless vaudevillian Velma Kelly, whose husband had it comin’ – to cite the Cell Block Tango – when she discovered him in mattress together with her sister. Dubbed “the merry murderess”, Velma is jailed for his or her taking pictures.

The half was pure Dolores and the staff was to die for: choreography and course by Bob Fosse, plus music by John Kander and lyrics by Ebb, the duo who later gave her such memorable songs in The Rink, Kiss of the Spider-Lady and The Go to. However Chicago’s rehearsals have been derailed when Fosse had a coronary heart assault. Whereas they waited for him to get better, Kander and Ebb recommended making a separate nightclub act for Rivera to carry out. She was initially reluctant. “I mentioned, ‘Oh no I can’t do this – I’d have to face up and be myself and I don’t know who I’m!’” However the membership act grew to become successful and bought her into the position of Velma, not least as a result of it was the primary place All That Jazz was heard. She would return with the act, and numerous accompanists, for a few years.

… Rivera receiving the presidential medal of freedom from Barack Obama in 2009.
‘You need to survive joyfully’ … Rivera receiving the presidential medal of freedom from Barack Obama in 2009. {Photograph}: J Scott Applewhite/AP

When Chicago was revived in London within the Nineties, Rivera rocked as much as play Velma’s reverse quantity, Roxie, the position originated by her nice pal Gwen Verdon. “She gave me the arrogance to be courageous sufficient to be myself, whoever I used to be,” she remembers. I ask what she realized from different performers, reminiscent of Sammy Davis Jr, with whom she had a relationship. “I realized that you simply give completely every part and that you simply’re broad open whenever you’re on the market – open to something which will come your means. He was essentially the most giving performer I’ve ever come throughout. He gave his coronary heart to the viewers. I realized to not maintain again from Sammy.”

In 1956, the pair starred collectively in Mr Great, which gave Rivera one in all her first character roles on Broadway. She had began out performing as Conchita del Rivero however shortened this after being advised it was too lengthy for posters. Chita Rivera was snappy, melodious and “nonetheless recognised my household background” she causes in her memoir, including that if it sounded “too south of the border” for anybody, then “that was their drawback”.

For some time, she had toyed with Chita O’Hara, as her mom had Scottish and Irish blood. Her father was born in Puerto Rico and, as Anita in West Facet Story, Rivera felt a kinship together with her fellow Sharks. She was one of many few within the forged with Puerto Rican heritage, she says. Her offstage romance with co-star Tony Mordente, one of many Jets, was difficult by choreographer Jerome Robbins’ order that the actors taking part in Sharks and Jets shouldn’t socialise, to make their onstage confrontations extra tense. The pair married and had a “Shark-Jet daughter”, Lisa, who finally performed Anita herself in a manufacturing in Florida, choreographed by Mordente years after the couple’s divorce. “It was most vital that she make it her personal,” Rivera remembers with satisfaction, “and that’s what she did.”

With a little help from her friends … Rivera and the Beatles on TV in 1964.
With somewhat assist from her buddies … Rivera and the Beatles on TV in 1964. {Photograph}: HarperCollins

When Rivera turned 90 this yr, Lisa threw her an enormous get together. Rivera remembers arriving on the restaurant: “There was the variety of my birthday – you’ll discover I haven’t mentioned it – and it was so huge there was no means I may get round it. If it hadn’t been my daughter, I’d most likely have mentioned, ‘Take that down!’ I’m nonetheless in shock.” Mom and daughter typically carry out collectively – together with a forthcoming gig with Rivera’s piano, bass and drums trio.

When Rivera’s mom died in 1983, the stage offered a sanctuary. On the day she bought the information, she nonetheless carried out in a matinee. “It’s a very protected area,” she explains. “You may have the household, which is the forged; you could have the background of the story; you’re giving to the viewers and also you’re receiving from them.”

She speaks lovingly of the rituals of theatre. Does she have any backstage routines? “The one time my door would shut could be simply earlier than I went on and I mentioned my prayers. I’d say the Our Father, the Hail Mary and the Act of Contrition. Then I’d go off to be loopy!” An altar was stored in her dressing room and fellow actors would hand over their photographs to put on it for her prayers. “My prayer was all the time, ‘Let me say the suitable phrases, let me please the viewers, let me do a great present.’”

‘No holding back’ … with Sammy Davis Jr and Hal Loman in Mr Wonderful.
‘No holding again’ … with Sammy Davis Jr and Hal Loman in Mr Great. {Photograph}: HarperCollins

Rivera has made her life on the stage however what are her different passions? “Sumo wrestling,” she replies swiftly. “Yeah! I like sumo wrestling!” When she took a musical to Japan within the Nineteen Eighties, she fell “head over heels” for the wrestlers. “I like the bigness, the formality. My publicity agent and myself, years in the past, launched some sumos over right here and one was in search of a swimsuit. He bought the pants and he put her in a single leg and me within the different.” She giggles, then segues into speaking about her favorite main man. “It’s Boris Karloff – however because the monster in Frankenstein. I’m loopy for Frankenstein.”

Loopy, the truth is, for all issues Halloween-ish. She has even noticed trick-or-treaters sporting Anita’s purple gown from West Facet Story, which aficionados know to match with only one earring (Rivera’s personal suggestion for the character – as a result of “Anita’s a little bit of a pirate”). “After they put on that gown they usually have that one earring on, I give them the OK. It’s all concerning the element!”

As we discuss, Rivera begins to scare up some plans for trick-or-treaters this yr. “I’d have a casket on the market, skeletons, tombstones. I’m looking my window now and seeing what area I’ve.” There’s darkish laughter down the road: “I like scaring individuals.” Dolores appears to have lastly emerged, simply earlier than our time runs out. “Oh, that is Dolores,” she heartily agrees. “She’s the satan.”

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