Like most of us these days, the triple-threat Broadway icon is constantly looking for ways to keep herself busy during lockdown whilst observing social distancing guidelines.

I call on a quiet Friday afternoon and find Ms Rivera in good spirits at her home in Upstate New York. She cheerfully recalls her mother’s futile pleas for her to rest. ‘My mother, if she were alive, would be very happy that I’m taking naps in the afternoon. She tried to get me through my entire life to take a nap. And I would never ever do that. Well, now I’m taking naps and I’m not so sure I like that!’, she laughs.


Her daughter, the singer, dancer and choreographer Lisa Mordente is by her side during this period. Lisa is Ms Rivera’s ‘most treasured production’ and the only Shark/Jet baby in history. Despite director Jerome Robbins’ strict demand back in the day for the Sharks and the Jets [West Side Story’s two rival gangs] to refrain from associating with one another in order to create more tension on stage, Ms Rivera ended up marrying Tony Mordente – a Jet.

Chita Rivera is very fond of England and has returned to this country time and again throughout her impressive career. She has performed on numerous occasions including in ‘West Side Story’, ‘Bye Bye Birdie’, ‘Kiss of the Spider Woman’, and most recently played two exclusive concerts at Cadogan Hall in 2019, as part of her solo tour.

When asked about her fondest memory of her time in England, she enthusiastically remembers having met HRM Queen Elizabeth ll, but that having ‘had a life as full as I’ve been blessed to have’, it’s difficult to choose only one. ‘I like the people of England and the theatre there. People go to the theatre. They sit and they listen and they really have an understanding of what they’re going to see. I appreciate that.’, she explains.


Ms Rivera continues, ‘My daughter was a year old the first time we went there and the second time, with Birdie, she was three years old. Each one of those shows was a big hit and the audiences were wonderful. I’ve had the opportunity to not just work in England, but to live, have neighbours, and have a life there. We have many many friends in England.’

During the London production of ‘Kiss of the Spider Woman’ in 1992, she met Mr Harry Gabriel, Shaftesbury Theatre’s beloved stage doorkeeper, for whom a handful of distinguished artists, including Ms Rivera, will be performing an online concert on 15 July, to celebrate his 40-year career. ‘I love Harry! You walk through that door and the very first face you see is Harry’s face. It’s the most welcoming, the warmest and the sweetest introduction to your evening that you can possibly have. It does help when the first person you see is a welcoming sight. And he enables you to really do a wonderful show!’, she exclaims.


Ms Rivera made history by originating and shaping the roles of Anita in ‘West Side Story’ (1957) and Velma Kelly in ‘Chicago’ (1975), both of which secured Oscars for Rita Moreno and Catherine Zeta-Jones, respectively, who went on to portray the characters on screen.

She landed the leading role in ‘West Side Story’, the ground-breaking musical by Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Jerome Robbins and Arthur Laurents, back in 1957. Having brought ‘passion, motherly instinct and devilish humour’ to the role of Anita, she credits Leonard Bernstein, in no small part, for her singing abilities.

Bernstein had invited Ms Rivera to his apartment to help her inhabit the role of Anita musically. ‘He taught me to appreciate and understand the music itself. And he went through it with me, note for note. He actually, I can almost say, taught me how to sing. His personality was a warm and friendly one and he made me feel as though I could do this amazing music. I was very nervous at first, but he made me comfortable. He was not so superior that I felt as though I couldn’t do it. He put me on the same level as himself and I felt as though I was the right person for that music. So it was exciting to sit next to him and feel his energy and understand his music.’, she recalls.


Ms Rivera’s voice adopts a sad tone when asked about the great playwright Terrence McNally, whom we’ve lost to coronavirus earlier this year. She talks about him in the present tense, as if he’d never left us, and declares that, ‘Terrence McNally is a great playwright. He is brilliant. He taught me how to speak his language, how to have faith in myself, and how to play in this wonderful piece of theatre called ‘Kiss of the Spider Woman’ and get good reviews out of it. It was brilliantly written, therefore every night I went into that theatre was an exceptional evening for me.’

‘The Visit’, the final musical collaboration between Terrence McNally, composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb, added more awards to Chita Rivera’s impressive résumé. ‘The Visit was extraordinary! He writes very well for Kander and Ebb, and obviously he writes wonderfully for me. It was a very exciting time in my life. It was a complicated show, a very dark musical, but he made the audiences understand what the play was all about. Some people misunderstood it and thought it was a play about death. We thought the play was really about love. But that’s what’s so great about theatre. You go to the theatre and you have your own interpretation.’, she says.


With her upcoming shows being postponed due to the pandemic, Ms Rivera keeps herself busy by doing virtual shows and interviews. Over the past few months, she has made a few online appearances to fundraise for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, The Actors Fund, recently raising over $100K for Broadway Cares’ COVID-19 Emergency Efforts during the stream of her October 2013 concert, ‘Chita: A Legendary Celebration’. The 2013 benefit concert for Broadway Cares, which took place at the August Wilson Theatre, originally raised around $500K at the time, bringing Chita: A Legendary Celebration’s performance total to over $600K.

Notwithstanding the technical difficulties that come with such endeavours, she accepts that, for now, this is the only way ‘you can express yourself and explain how your experience has been’.

Her advice to everyone who is struggling during ‘this time of confusion’ is to find ways to make their own lives interesting. ‘We find out more about ourselves by delving into our own conscience. It’s very hard but you have to look forward to waking up in the morning and finding something constructive about your life and about your work.’, Ms Rivera reflects. ‘This pandemic is making us aware of each other much more than we have been. I think it’s turning into a less selfish time and it’s making us realize how fortunate we have been in our lives by thinking about other people, not just ourselves.’


Despite admitting that the business has changed drastically since she started her career, Ms Rivera is adamant that one thing did remain the same. ‘You have to accept the fact that times change but the wonderful thing about the theatre is that it’s alive. Audiences are very smart and very aware of when you’re being truthful and when you’re being phoney. So I think the theatre forces us to be honest.’, she elaborates. ‘This pandemic is a whole ‘nother bag of beans. We have to wait until this is over to find out how our theatre is going to be done. We’re not in charge and, in a way, that’s good.’

For any individuals who are looking to pursue this career, Ms Rivera has one simple piece of advice: ‘They have to have patience with themselves and get to learn as much as they can about the business and about other people. But most of all, I think they have to have faith in themselves, in what they want to do and how they want to express themselves.’

One of Broadway’s greatest legends, with numerous iconic roles under her belt, Chita Rivera is 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 Theatre. In 2009, she was awarded The Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama and in 2002, the coveted Kennedy Center Honor. In 2018, Ms Rivera was honoured as a Living Landmark by the New York Landmarks Conservancy.


Looking back at her illustrious career, Chita Rivera proudly declares that if she had the opportunity to go back in time and do it all over again, she wouldn’t change a thing. She explains, ‘This is what I tell the kids: “Your eyes are meant to see, your ears are meant to listen and your mouth is made to speak. You’ve got to use them all.” Hopefully, you use them in the best of ways. But you must see, listen and speak. And I think I did all of that. I was extremely obedient as a performer, and by listening and seeing I learned so much not just about the theatre, but about my life. So I don’t think I would do things differently. And I think that’s a blessing.’

She continues, ‘I can honestly say I’m one of the luckiest performers in the world because I came at a very full time, The Golden Age, when the theatre was alive and well and there was a piece of good theatre in most theatres. I worked with some of the greatest and most creative people: Jerome Robbins, Jerry Herman, Michael Kidd, Jack Cole. And they’re a part of my being now.’

Ms Rivera was interviewed, together with her long-time friend and colleague, Graciela Daniele, for Khadifa Wong’s upcoming documentary ‘Uprooted: The Journey of Jazz Dance’, which is a cinematic exploration of the art form of jazz dance. ‘Graciela is a great gift and a great talent. She is a great director and this is a girl that has been through much in her life and she has now put it back into the theatre. She is like my soul sister. We’re hoping this piece will be successful.’, she concludes.

‘Uprooted: The Journey of Jazz Dance’ is set to be released on 20 July.

Chita Rivera will make a guest appearance on the online training platform, Bridge to Broadway, on Wednesday, 1 July, at 6pm BST/1pm EDT. Her fans, as well as up and coming industry professionals, will get the unique chance to learn more about her career and ask her questions during the Q&A segment of the masterclass.