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Remembering an icon: Chita Rivera

The two-time Tony Award-winning performer, Lifetime Achievement recipient and Kennedy Center Honoree passed away on Jan. 30.

Chita Rivera as the 2021 Tony Awards (Credit: Bruce Glikas/Getty Images)

I remember the first time I saw Chita Rivera onstage. I was on assignment to review her cabaret “Chita Rivera: The Secret Life” during its run at the old Feinstein’s at Loews Regency in November of 2008. It was the first review I had ever written. I was a junior in college, writing about her show for the school paper. What a way to start out.

Growing up as a dancer, I knew all about the legendary Chita Rivera. I was raised on “West Side Story” and “Bye Bye Birdie.” I eventually found YouTube videos of her signature Fosse precision in “Nowadays” alongside Gwen Verdon and “Big Spender.” As my obsession with Broadway and musical theater intensified, Chita Rivera was simply a name I knew. Decades ago — let alone today — her name was synonymous with our art form and the greatness within it. And then, I got to witness why.

When Chita took the stage that autumn night, her presence was like a vacuum. Her mere toe on the stage called for attention. She owned the room — without a tinge of overbearingness. She was seductive in every sense of the word, inviting us in and capturing our senses. 

That night, I got to watch her as Anita and Rosie, Anna and Nickie (and Charity), Fifi and Velma. In my reflection, I wrote that Chita “exposed the woman she is because of the women she’s performed.” It’s true. Chita offered us stories and songs of the characters she played and how they shaped her life. But it is also true that she exposed the woman she was through the women she performed. These roles were written well, but she made them strong. She made them pop. She made them singular. 

Chita was a thrilling performer because there was as much going on in her eyes as an actor as in her legs as a dancer and her vibrato as a singer. She was funny (making a meal out of itching to dance and stopping herself in “I Won’t Dance”), and poignant (slicing the air with her “A Boy Like That”). 

In her interludes, Chita shared memories of these famous roles throughout her career, riffing off the cuff — or so I thought. Years later, I attended another of her cabarets, and there they were: the same stories. Verbatim. What knocked me over was not that Chita had a script (of course she did!); it’s that her timing, her delivery, her ability to listen and respond to the audience made her routine feel unscripted. Only a master like Chita could make something so planned feel so spontaneous. 

More than her talents, Chita embodied wisdom. She taught us — women especially — how to own things. Whenever she sang “All That Jazz” from “Chicago,” she unabashedly referred to John Kander’s opening notes as “My Vamp.” (Chita famously joked that she called Catherine Zeta-Jones to congratulate her on winning the Oscar for the movie musical of “Chicago” and told her, “You keep the Oscar, and I’ll keep my vamp.”) She received accolades graciously but with pride — as if to say, “I earned this.” And she had. 

When I entered theater journalism full time, Chita was one of my earliest interviews. It was 2016, and she was promoting her cabaret at Café Carlyle. I wanted to know how Chita, at age 83, managed the longevity of her career. She told me, “The kids should know: There is a huge, long future in their lives if they want it, and you have to give up certain things, but they’re replaced by other things that are certainly worthwhile.” She sacrificed for the art. Because as gifted as she was, cartwheeling around her living room as a toddler until her mother put her in dance class, Chita Rivera was also an emblem of craft and discipline.

She didn’t believe in shortcuts. She didn’t believe in exercise fads. She believed in old-fashioned hard work. She believed in the ballet barre. Chita Rivera was a rarity of raw talent and focused effort.

The loss of Chita Rivera hits hard not only because Broadway has lost a canon-defining performer and an unparalleled person. But we have also lost one of the last connecting threads to a bygone philosophy of theater. Chita stood at the end of a long line of a tradition in which auditions took place on Broadway stages and the ensemblists were “the kids.” Even as she ascended to stardom, Chita considered herself a graduate of the line; she did so much to legitimize dancers as complete performers in the musical theater. She carried herself with poise, always.

Until the very end, audiences clamored for Chita, and Chita loved and respected her audiences. 

That night at Feinstein’s in 2008, Chita asked to see me after the show. She knew I was there “reviewing” her. She greeted me so enthusiastically, so legitimately. She made me feel like a real writer, which most certainly kept me on the path that led me to where I am now. Most important, in dedicating that time to me, she made it clear that every audience member mattered to her. 

In 2018, I asked her about the practice of stage door-ing, whether she thought it was too much to ask of actors to have to greet the public. She replied: “You always make time for your fans. It’s food. We are food for each other. And we’re foolish not to take time to eat. You look into the face of a person that feels you and understands you. It’s invigorating. It can make you forget any problems you might have just for a minute. That gives you strength, you know. That’s why it’s important to stop, because you never know what somebody’s going through.” 

Well, Ms. Rivera, it’s going to be a hearty meal in heaven tonight, and I hope they greet you appropriately: with your vamp.