A report by Elysa Gardner for The New York Times.
The young man, maybe in his early 30s, pretended not to stare at the striking woman who had just stepped into the elevator. She beckoned, teasingly, when he exited — “We’re coming with you” — making him blush like a schoolboy. “Big fan,” he managed before darting off, a star-struck grin on his face.
At 86, Chita Rivera has yet to endure that career phase Stephen Sondheim identified in “I’m Still Here” as, “Sorry, I thought you were whoozis/Whatever happened to her?” Heading into an office above the cabaret venue Feinstein’s/54 Below, where she’ll begin a string of performances on Monday, the musical theater veteran walked with a classical dancer’s line, still suggesting the grace and fire that secured her breakout role as Anita in the original production of “West Side Story,” one of numerous plum parts she has introduced over more than six decades. The most recent — the embittered romantic Claire Zachanassian in “The Visit,” crafted by her frequent collaborators John Kander, Fred Ebb and Terrence McNally — earned Rivera a 10th Tony nomination in 2015.
Rivera will nod to this history, as she has done in previous cabaret and concert performances, at Feinstein’s. “It’s not brand-new, because my life’s not brand-new,” she said of the show. “When you’re lucky enough to have been around when the Fred Ebbs and the John Kanders and the Jerome Robbinses and the Leonard Bernsteins and the Jule Stynes were expressing themselves, and you were in their company, in their stories — then you have something to say. I don’t give myself a lot of credit.”
Ten days before opening, Rivera was still finalizing the set, weighing whether she should reference, in her typically generous between-song patter, a recent bout with bronchitis. “A couple of months ago, I was talking like this,” she said, lowering her already dusky sub-alto to a basso rasp. She’s including at least two numbers from “The Visit,” though that musical — based on a play by Friedrich Durrenmatt, about a woman seeking vengeance on a man who betrayed her decades ago — didn’t enjoy the level of success that greeted her other Kander and Ebb credits, notably “Chicago” and “Kiss of the Spider Woman.”
Rivera still believes it could have another life in London, where she performed a pair of concerts earlier this year. “I think that audience would understand a love story that is European, as opposed to a ‘Mary Poppins.’ A story about a woman who enters with an empty casket and leaves with a full one — but it’s all done for love.”
The composer Kander said that his trust in Rivera’s intuition, which had been shared with the lyricist Ebb, who died in 2004, extended to often calling her when they had completed a song, “even when it didn’t involve her.” Kander added, “I think with great theater artists, and this is certainly true with Chita, the longer they perform, the more you see the essence of their talent. It becomes more distilled as the years go by.”
While Kander also praised his friend and colleague’s enduring discipline and focus, Rivera herself insisted she can easily slip “into my lazy mode” while at home outside New York City, where she lives with her daughter Lisa Mordente, two bull mastiffs and a “feral cat.” (“Thank God, she’s not brought me any dead animals,” Rivera said of the cat. “I keep her well fed.”)
“When I’m not doing something regularly — and that to me means working every day — I watch too much television,” Rivera said. The subject of FX’s warts-and-all bio-series “Fosse/Verdon” was raised. Rivera knew and worked with fellow musical star Gwen Verdon and the choreographer Bob Fosse, most famously on “Chicago.” Had she been tuning in?
“Have you?” Rivera responded.
Later, as discussion turned again to the many legends she has collaborated with, she said, “I wanted this to be a good story about Bob and Gwen. They were an amazing couple, and they produced so much wonderful stuff, but today all they want is dirt.”
Rivera is more bullish on, if anxious about, prospects for Steven Spielberg’s new film adaptation of “West Side Story,” which is due next year. Admitting she’s “not mad for” the 1961 movie, in which Rita Moreno was cast as Anita, Rivera said of Spielberg, “If there’s anybody that can do it, I believe he can, because he’s always dedicated to doing excellent work. But then, what do you do with Jerome Robbins’s steps?” (The man who conceived the musical and directed and choreographed the original stage production was fired while working on the first film; the ballet wunderkind and Tony winner Justin Peck, who worked on the 2018 screen thriller “Red Sparrow,” is choreographing the new one.)
It’s clearly a matter of personal importance for Rivera, whose father was Puerto Rican — and who said she has “never felt as badly about what’s going on in this country as I do right now” — that this particular musical tale, of intolerance and violence and doomed love, all made transcendent through song and dance, be told authentically.
“I know this story from the liver, from the gizzard, from deep inside,” she said. “It’s a serious story, and a story that still exists. And maybe this wonderful Jewish man can do it. Let’s hope — I have goose pimples just thinking about it.”
From May 27 to June 4 at Feinstein’s/54 Below; 54below.com.