Living legend is not a designation that should be casually tossed around. But in the case of Chita Rivera, it’s a mantle that should be deservedly accorded to her given the staggering accomplishments she’s accrued in the world of Broadway and live theater. Space here limits naming all the awards Rivera has been honored with since she first professionally took the stage in 1952 for a national tour of Call Me Madam alongside the late Elaine Stritch. But understand that Rivera is a nine-time Tony Award nominee and wound up taking it twice for The Rink (1984) and Kiss of the Spider Woman (1993). She also became the first Hispanic woman to receive a Kennedy Center Honors award (December 2002) and later received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009. And while one might expect retirement to be the current order of business for the 83-year-old performer, she’s currently on the road with her two most recent performances: a Nov. 7 Carnegie Hall appearance for Chita: Nowadays and a Nov. 18 Long Island stop at the Tilles Center for the Performing Arts, where audiences will be treated to Chita: A Legendary Celebration. When asked about the key to longevity for this ageless wonder, the Washington, D.C. native points to a rather simple approach to her craft combined with a creative restlessness that quells any hints of complacency.
“You just live your life and do it like you’ve been doing it your whole life,” she explained. “I eat and rest properly, exercise, keep myself in shape and as I tell the kids, I’m always ready. Plus, I don’t get ahead of myself. I just go, ‘I love this today. This is great. I hope I can do it tomorrow.’ I always knew that I wanted to dance and one thing led to another, so I’ve been pretty lucky.”
While Rivera’s earliest memories are of her older brother showing movies in the basement of their family’s house followed by his baby sister showing off what she’d learned at ballet school, things really took off for the 15-year-old Rivera when she auditioned for the School of American Ballet before storied choreographer George Balanchine.
“When I auditioned, I didn’t know it was [before] Mr. Balanchine. Had I known, it would have been a horse of a different color,” she recalled. “He was like the sweetest grandfather you could have. He was gentle, kind and put me through my tasks. It was wonderful doing it and great when it was over, and was even greater when I realized that I had my scholarship.”
And while Rivera admits her busy schedule doesn’t allow her to be as up on New York City live theater, off-Broadway production Cagney is a current favorite. (“I love Cagney. The fellow who plays Cagney [Robert Creighton] did [The Mystery of Edwin] Drood with me, and he’s just so adorable and cute. I wouldn’t have missed seeing it for the world.”) She has noticed the Great White Way’s trend towards more revivals in recent years, a development that concerns her when it comes to the genre having room for up-and-coming creative types.
“There aren’t as many original plays that have been given an opportunity. I think a lot of people have just gone off to television because they want to make their money, and I think the ticket prices are hard for people,” Rivera said. “God knows there’s a place for revivals because we should have wonderful shows that we’re seeing from years ago back up on the stage. But it shouldn’t be at the expense of taking a chance on a wonderful piece of theater that’s brave and offers brand-new writers, dancers and talent an opportunity. I think that’s the number one thing that I see that’s different. Plus, what are they going to do? Everything is just so expensive. It kills us.”
Chita Rivera will be appearing in Chita: A Legendary Celebration on Nov. 18 at The Tilles Center for the Performing Arts, 720 Northern Blvd. in Greenvale. For more information, visit www.tillescenter.org or call 516-299-3100.