Corrections or additions?
This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the February 14,
2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Chita & Arthur Together
I don’t know why Chita Rivera and I got onto the
of fate and the "what if" principal when we spoke before her
rehearsal of "Venecia," by Argentinean Jorge Accame. Opening
night is Wednesday, February 14, for George Street Playhouse’s
premiere of the work that had been adapted and directed by Arthur
Laurents. Perhaps an aura of fate still lingered in the air at the
George Street from last season’s premiere of Anne Meara’s "Down
the Garden Paths," in which we saw how the lives of its characters
would be different, If.
"I can’t imagine what my life and career would have been like
if I hadn’t been given a scholarship by George Balanchine to the
School of Ballet when I was 16 years old," says the 67-year-old
musical theater star, nominated seven times for a Tony award and twice
a winner. "I also don’t want to think about what fate would have
had in store for me if Arthur [Laurents] hadn’t changed the Jews into
Puerto Ricans when he was writing the book for `West Side Story.’"
Rivera originated the role of the lovely Anita in the classic 1957
New York musical, and immediately became the toast of Broadway. It
is a spot she has claimed with virtually every subsequent appearance.
She laughs at the idea that destiny ("I believe in destiny")
has again played a part in reuniting her with Laurents, for the first
time since "West Side Story."
Rivera is more anxious to talk about her current role as an elderly
blind madam in "Venecia," during our brief phone conversation.
Yet I couldn’t resist opening with a question about her most recent
engagement in "Anything Goes" at Paper Mill Playhouse. She
played the role of Reno Sweeney and had the audience in awe of her
agile and trim figure, and jealous because she looks about half her
actual age. What’s your secret, I ask. "You gotta keep
she says, immediately, with a hearty and sincere laugh.
Perhaps "movin’" in the direction of roles that don’t demand
as much physicality are in her future, but Rivera insists that she
isn’t there yet. "I have great therapists, remedies, no
and take a class when I’m not working in a musical. I want to stay
in shape," she says, adding how strong all the screws nuts and
bolts are that were used to repair her left leg that was badly injured
after a 1986 car crash. "I can rely on those even if everything
around them gives way." Rivera recalls that it was Laurents who
walked up to her at a party in South Hampton soon after the car
and insisted that she dance with him. "He pulled me up and said,
`You can do it. Dance with me.’ I knew I could rely on him."
With "Venecia," Rivera is again relying on Laurents, her
friend, now her director, who reportedly called her up a few months
ago and said, "C’mon, c’mon, you have to do it, the part is you.
I want you." Although "Venecia" is not a musical,
in a straight play is not foreign territory for Rivera, who toured
as Billy Dawn in "Born Yesterday," as Serafina in "The
Rose Tattoo," and in Oliver Hailey’s "Father’s Day."
"All actors have insecurities and he had to bully me into doing
`Venecia,’ but I love my part, and the play," says Rivera. She
modestly describes the play as "delicious, romantic and
In it, Rivera plays La Vieja ("the old lady"), an old blind
proprietress of a rundown bordello who dreams of going to Venice
she dies. Without my suggestion, Rivera voluntarily assumes the
of La Vieja and of one of the girls to give me an instant preview:
"Chiquita, will you take me to Venecia? No, no, La Vieja, the
girl says, I have to work." Switching registers, Rivera answers
back, "Work! Work! Work! And love? Do you know what love is? When
are you going to know?"
There is no stopping Rivera in her enthusiasm. She explains that
La Vieja wants to go so badly, the girls at the bordello and a young
man there conspire to make her dream come true: to go to the lovely
and haunting Venice and return to the man she was once madly in love
with. They make the blind La Vieja believe that she is on a boat,
an airplane, and a gondola. Because she cannot see, she explains,
they make up on the spot such sights as the Leaning Tower of Pisa,
and the Sistine Chapel.
Rivera grew up in Washington, D.C., a child of the
"My father died when I was seven and my mother raised five
alone. But she made sure I began ballet lessons when I was 11,"
she says. At 17, after a year of classes at the American School of
Ballet with such teachers as Melissa Hayden, Allegra Kent, Maria
and Edward Villella, Rivera got up enough courage in 1950 to
audition as one of the four principal dancers in the Ethel Merman
musical, "Call Me Madam."
That show was followed by dancing roles in "Guys and Dolls"
(1950), "Can Can" (1953), and "Seventh Heaven" (1955).
Then as a Broadway star in "Mr. Wonderful" (in 1956, with
Sammy Davis Jr.), "Bye Bye Birdie" (in 1960, with Dick Van
Dyke), "Bajour" (1964), "Chicago" (in 1975 with Gwen
Verdon), "Merlin" (in 1983, with Doug Henning), "The
(with Liza Minnelli, for which Rivera won a Tony), "Kiss of the
Spider Woman" (winner of 1993 Tony award as Best Leading actress
in a Musical), and "Jerry’s Girls" (1985).
When I mention the five-performance fiasco of "Bring Back
in 1981, in which she co-starred with Donald O’Connor, she only says
"Oh, God, I guess that was fate too!," and laughs.
"Venecia" was first staged by director Helena Tritek in Buenos
Aires. It has also been performed in Uruguay, Chile, Bolivia,
Canada (in French), Venezuela, Mexico, England (at the Gate Theater),
and Spain, and will be seen in France and Greece during the 2001-’02
Laurents’ adaptation and staging of "Venecia, which plays through
March 11 at George Street Playhouse, continues his close artistic
relationship with the theater.
Laurents’ play "Jolson Sings Again" premiered at George Street
in 1999. Next, in October of the same year, Laurents’ revised book
for "Do I Hear A Waltz?" was given a production.
His newest play "Claudio Lazlo," about a domineering actress
whose tumultuous behavior nearly sabotages her most important role,
will star Cigdem Onat, who was featured in the Lincoln Center revival
of Laurents’ "Time of the Cuckoo" last season. "Claudio
Lazlo" will open, under the direction of George Street artistic
director David Saint, April 21, and play through May 20.
— Simon Saltzman
New Brunswick, 732-246-7717. Opening night for the American premiere
of Jorge Accame’s play. To March 11. $24 to $40. Wednesday,
14, 8 p.m.
Corrections or additions?
This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com
— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.