Saturday, December 7, 2002

Triple threat Chita Rivera the dancer-singer-actress forever linked with the role of Anita in the original “West Side Story” is one Washingtonian who never looks back.
Not for her is a reliance on past achievements as a star in many of Broadway’s most successful musical theater productions. She keeps “the real world” separate from the world of showbiz that she has inhabited since she was a teenager.
“I don’t wear at home the parts I do on stage,” Miss Rivera says in a telephone interview from her four-acre retreat in Westchester County, N.Y.
The two-time Tony winner, who is among the five outstanding performing artists being celebrated in this weekend’s Kennedy Center Honors ceremonies, was born in Washington on Jan. 23, 1933, and received her first dance training at the Jones-Haywood School of Ballet in the District’s Northwest. Her Puerto Rican father, Pedro del Rivero, was a musician in the U.S. Navy Band who died when she was 7. Her mother, who became a government clerk to support five children, had thought to quell young “Conchita’s” tomboy antics through dance.
The ploy worked all too well. In 1949, the talented youngster was offered a scholarship to George Balanchine’s School of American Ballet in New York. Three years later, she was hired, almost on a fluke after accompanying a friend to an audition to become the principal dancer in the national touring company of “Call Me Madam” with Ethel Merman. After that came “Can-Can” and several other shows.
Major recognition arrived in the fall of 1957 with the opening of the innovative “West Side Story,” in which she played the singing-dancing part of best friend to the star-crossed female love interest of a Puerto Rican gang member. Her performance was electric; critics raved; the world opened up.
(A note: “West Side Story,” whose plot is based roughly on Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” was first seen by paying audiences on a preview run at the District’s National Theatre. The reception here, she recalls, was totally enthusiastic.)
Hearing “America” one of her signature songs from the show performed recently at a New York benefit was thrilling and brought tears to her eyes, Miss Rivera says. The witty, spirited number mocking all sides of the immigrant experience always has been a showstopper.
She glosses over the question of why she didn’t get to play the same role in the movie.
Ballet teacher Doris Jones, still active at 90, says her former pupil believes it was “because she had too much color in her skin tone. Her father was black and her mother light. She did a beautiful job in the stage play, so there was no excuse.”
Miss Rivera’s daughter, Lisa Mordente, a performer like both of her parents, insists from Los Angeles that her mother was performing in “Bye Bye Birdie” at the time and “would never have left the show to do the movie.” (Her father, Tony Mordente, a dancer and director, also was in “West Side Story”; the couple divorced many years ago but stayed friendly.)
“She is so unaffected, almost as though she is a star in spite of herself,” Miss Mordente says, describing her mother’s special grace and wisdom. “She taught me the difference between showbiz life and real life and [how] never the twain shall meet. We had dinner at 4 p.m. every day at the table with place mats and no TV. There was Mom, and there was the lady I would sit in the orchestra pit and watch onstage. I never got the two mixed up.”
Asked about past disappointments or regrets, Miss Rivera a regular charm machine demurs. “The secret is not to think the negatives,” she says in response to a standard question about the sources of her much-remarked-upon energy.
It is Miss Mordente and not her mother who mentions a serious car accident in 1986 that resulted in Miss Rivera having 12 screws placed in her leg. “You would never know it,” Miss Mordente says. “They said she would never dance again. A year later she was up and gone. She had no intention of stopping.”
“She is like the biggest kid. In a room full of kids she has the child’s heart,” says Ann Reinking, anointing her friend as “one of the goddesses of Broadway and film.”
From all accounts, Miss Rivera is a warm, spontaneous woman who manages to avoid the catty, backbiting side of the theatrical world by staying focused on present and future possibilities. Even at age 69, they are more than promising.
She goes into rehearsal soon for a revival of Tommy Tune’s “Nine” with Hollywood’s Antonio Banderas in his first Broadway role, scheduled for January. In January 2004, the renowned show-writing team of Fred Ebb and John Kander plan to bring to New York’s Public Theater their musical version of Friedrich Durrenmatt’s “The Visit” (Terence McNally wrote the script) in which she appeared during a run in Chicago last year.
This past summer without having had any formal acting training in her life she played a nonmusical dramatic role in a production of Federico Garcia Lorca’s “The House of Bernarda Alba” at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. It wasn’t the first time. Among other stage and TV credits in her lengthy biography are “Born Yesterday,” “The Rose Tattoo,” and even “Mayflower Madam.”
“You just do what comes across your path,” she says. “But if ‘Chicago’ is there and a play [is there], I’d choose ‘Chicago.’” She has performed in several versions of the hit musical by Bob Fosse, and counts among her favorite stage experiences the times when she starred opposite the late Gwen Verdon.
So sunny is her personality that Miss Rivera even embraces the repetition involved in a long-running show.
Repetition, she insists, is “the best thing” about it. “You get new reactions each time. The great thing about theater is [that] it keeps getting better and better this way. Of course, there are some things you would like to do for three months and then have two months off, depending on how much it takes out of you. But it’s like having a family, unless it’s a bunch of bad eggs. I’m lucky to have great casts and a place to go every night at 8 p.m.”
Her second Tony award was for her starring role in “The Kiss of the Spider Woman” that she played for two years straight. The first Tony, for best actress in a musical, came with “The Rink,” also from Mr. Kander and Mr. Ebb, who have become long-standing friends. She calls them “the ones who have done the most for me.”
“They don’t have those kind [of performers] anymore; she is the only one left,” says director-choreographer Louis Johnson, another Doris Jones student who got a dance scholarship to the School of American Ballet the same year as Miss Rivera. The choreographer of the movie, “The Wiz,” who recently retired as head of New York’s Henry Street Settlement dance department, Mr. Johnson talks about the “it” thing a stage personality and talent “that people of that era had. Gwen [Verdon] had it. You knew when you went to see a show that the show was going to be something….”
Mr. Ebb volunteers how difficult it is to have a friendship with someone who is a star because “in the course of a professional relationship you might encounter difficulties. It can be complicated.” That apparently hasn’t been the case. (The Kander-Ebb team is also close to Liza Minnelli, who once called Miss Rivera her mentor.)
“She is warm and hilariously funny and ego-less,” says Mr. Ebb, who was unwilling to offer an opinion on whether Miss Rivera is a better dancer, singer or actor. “The fact she can do it all is testimony to why you can’t say what she does best. Ethel Merman was a much better singer than dancer. Gwen Verdon was a much better dance than singer. That is what a genius she is.”

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