Chita Rivera is a theatrical icon and one of the most nominated performers in Tony Award history having earned ten nominations, won twice and received the 2018 Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theater. She created iconic starring roles in such landmark Broadway musicals as West Side Story, Bye Bye Birdie, Chicago, The Rink, Kiss of the Spider Woman and The Visit. Among honors are The Presidential Medal of Freedom presented by President Barack Obama and the coveted Kennedy Center Honor. This conversation centers on cabaret/club experience.
Host/Interviewer Michael Kirk Lane won the 2020 MAC Award for Male Musical Comedy Performer having won a MAC in 2018 for Best Show. Experience managing two of the city’s most renowned cabaret venues (The Laurie Beechman Theatre, Don’t Tell Mama) offers him a unique vantage point and perspective on the art form. For 20 years, Lane has also been a teaching artist. An infectious fan (not cloying), he’s an astute and genial interviewer.
The host opens tonight’s conversation with a montage clip from Broadway’s A Dancer’s Life featuring Chita Rivera in a plethora of numbers and dance styles followed by some of her many credits. “I’m sure it’s nice for some people to see me and say, she’s alive!” the guest quips in response. At 18, she started in the touring company of Call Me Madam and at 24, having been busy between, she originated the role of Anita in Broadway’s West Side Story. How then, did clubs come into her life?
The guest tells us she’d been reticent to perform in clubs. She could hide behind characters, while for cabaret work she’d have to be herself. “I didn’t know who I was.” When Bob Fosse had a heart attack on the first day of rehearsals for Chicago, the production was put on hiatus. “Ron Field, Fred Ebb, and John Kander talked me into doing a club act. I learned a huge lessons about both myself and different audiences playing all over the country.”
MKL: “Some performers teat the audience like their scene partners.”
CR: “Freddie (Kander) taught me everything I know. I’d introduce myself first as Chita, then as Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero. That was Freddie getting into the mind of the audience. ‘I know what you want to see’, I’d say as Latin music began. I played a little maraca, a little tambourine, and sang an excerpt from La Bamba. ‘Ok, we got that out of the way, now let’s get on with the show’ prefaced what I really wanted to present. It was so clever.”
MKL: “They only think they know you. Cabaret is a different art form.”
The performer got her club sea legs at New York’s Grand Finale, then a gay bar. “We opened it up to an everybody bar. Ron wanted a small place because audiences were comfortable there. I had three gorgeous guys. Hello, hello, hello. Hotel rooms can be uppity. These were different people. The Carlyle (home to Bobby Short) was a fabulous room, but I went whoa, how am I going to talk to audience way over there?!”
MKL: “Besides Bobby Short, were there other predominantly nightclub performers you were eager to see?
Mabel Mercer is cited. “She made me want to delve into lyrics. A successful performer communicates, respects the audience, and leaves something to the imagination…It’s so sweet to see how nervous an audience can be. England isn’t like this, but in America now, people feel like they’re part of the show.”
Lane asks what it was like to have “these men” write special material written for her. “They knew my life, what my personality was, what made me laugh, what embarrassed me… `Why Don’t They Mention the Pain’ is a phenomenal number. It’s so funny. Freddie and John knew. I seriously lucked out.” Immensely droll lyrics and choreography replete with crutches. Watch it on YouTube. “Freddie was the epitome of love and artistry, the extreme fabulous end of a number. John was quiet and played this amazing music. He was the backbone.”
MKL: “How do you approach collaboration for a club act?
Exuding warmth, Rivera relates how her team loves and trusts each other, that everybody has a say; that they make suggestions and try things. She points out that unlike theater or film, elements can be replaced in a club act and recalls Ebb telling her, “Don’t expect everyone in the room to know who you are just because you’ve been around forever. Meet your audience as if it was the first time.” Good advice.
MKL: “Aa a singer do you approach material differently in a club act than on Broadway?”
CR: “No. You have to respect the lyricist, to tell the story as it’s meant to be told.” Rivera seems to have transitioned, albeit with expert help, to the intimacy required in clubs. She may not talk about it, but she lives it. Many theater actors continue to look over our heads as they’re accustomed from a large stage. Rivera leans out, catches your eye, and shares.
“I come from the Merman school, so I had to learn this. Grasping what a microphone can do helps control things.” Lane asks about New York clubs. Birdland, 54Below (at which Rivera felt unfaithful because of Birdland), The Laurie Beechman Theater, and Carnegie Hall – “The room of rooms” – are mentioned.
MKL: “One of my pod groups is watching The Kennedy Center Honors. Can I ask you about that? And then piggyback with The Medal of Honor event?”
Rivera compares the first to an out-of-body experience. President Bush was beside her daughter, Lisa. (She imitates him.) “I remember sitting very tall in the first balcony. It was a matter of pride, but also responsibility. In regard to the second, awarded by President Obama, she replies “I fell in love for a few minutes. You really feel he’s looking at only you. Both of them are the warmest, kindest people…Fortunately my head is still the same size.” Lane tells his guest that she’s a role model. “Why else are you in it if you can’t make somebody cry,” she says.
MKL: “I always end the segment with the question ‘What is cabaret?’”
CR: “First of all, it’s a song Freddie and John wrote,” she begins grinning. “It’s an art form that is as serious and important as any other we have, a way to get closer to your audience and for them to know you.”
A last video clip (redundant in content to the first, alas) is a montage from Broadway Cares Equity Fights Aids in which the artist showcases her singing and dancing skills. On tonight’s screen, she’s clapping in delight while watching.
Audience questions include whether Rivera came from a musical family – Yes. Her dad played clarinet in a Navy band with Harry James, she had an aunt who was an opera singer; her siblings are musical, though not professionally. She’s asked whether not thinking of herself as a singer (she doesn’t) frees her storytelling. “I hope not. That should come from your head and heart. I know I can hold a note, but I’d like to sing like Mabel Mercer, connecting to lyrics.”
A last audience question elicits recollections about friendship with Gwen Verdon. “Sometimes when you meet your heroes, you’re disappointed. She was technically amazing. Then God gave her that red hair and a sense of humor nobody else could touch. She could do the sexiest movement and keep it from being vulgar.”
“When I finally found myself standing next to her in Chicago and we sang `Two Dancing As One,’- how can you do anything better!? They (the public) didn’t compare. We couldn’t wait to get on stage together and we never had an argument. I imitated Gwen in my club act. Graciela Daniele put a spotlight where she’d be. The audience got it right away.”
Chita Rivera is a Fourth of July sparkler, infectiously excited and animated. The artist continues to work, to learn, and to be grateful for a journey with friends.
Michael Kirk Lane’s Cabaret Conversations
NEXT: Sidney Myer December 7 at 6:00pm