- Chita Rivera
“It’s actually kind of easy,” says Chita Rivera, 85, about “Chita! A Legendary Celebration,” which the iconic actor, singer, and dancer will bring to the Spiegeltent for two performances at Bard College’s SummerScape festival on July 28. “When you have this kind of longevity, and you’ve worked with and been around some of the best people in the business for so many years, you just sort of know what works the best.”
Rivera was born in Washington, DC, to a US Navy Band musician father, who died when she was seven; to make ends meet, her mother took a job at the Pentagon. In the late 1940s, Rivera studied dance at the influential choreographer George Balanchine’s School of American Ballet in New York. Her big break came with her role as Anita in 1957’s original Broadway production of “West Side Story”; major parts in the Broadway debuts of “Bye, Bye Birdie” (1960), “Chicago” (1975) and “Kiss of the Spiderwoman” (1993) followed, and her innumerable other career highlights include “Call Me Madam” (1951), “Guys and Dolls” (1951), “Can-Can” (1953), “The Rink” (1984), “The Visit” (2001), and the film version of “Sweet Charity” (1969).
This year marks the centennial of another American legend of the arts, Leonard Bernstein, the composer of the immortal music of “West Side Story” and a mentor to Rivera. “Isn’t that something?” she says about the occasion via phone, while wrangling her daughter’s bull mastiffs out the door. “Lenny was extremely special, and it was such an honor for me to be asked to introduce the tribute to him that’s part of PBS’s ‘A Capitol Fourth’ [to be broadcast on July 4].”
Given the current sociopolitical firestorm over immigration in the US, one can’t help but think of the continued resonance of the themes of “West Side Story.” Based on “Romeo and Juliet,” the musical transposes Shakespeare’s tale of forbidden love to 1950s New York and sets it against the rivalry between two ethnic street gangs: the Jets, who are white, and the Sharks, who are Puerto Rican. As the main characters, Tony (an ex-Jet) and Maria (the sister of the Sharks’ leader) fall in love and struggle to stay out of the fighting, issues of race and culture are confronted.
“We’d all like for [such issues] to not exist at this point, it’s a horrific problem,” says Rivera, who is of Puerto Rican heritage. “But the music in the play is beautiful, and it seems like everyone who hears it loves it, no matter what age they are or where they’re from. I just spoke to a group of kids in Florida who were about to do their own production of ‘West Side Story.’ I told them, ‘For the show to be vital, you have to be serious about it while you’re doing it. You have to mean it.’ And they really seemed to get that.”
Chita Rivera will present “Chita! A Legendary Celebration” in the Bard SummerScape Spiegeltent at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson on July 28 at 7 and 9:30pm. Ticket prices start at $45. For more information, call (845) 758-7900 or visit www.fishercenter.edu.