Friday, February 2, 2024

Bye, Bye, Chita (Rivera)

Believe me, though I struggle each week to find appropriate topics for my Beverly in Movieland blog posts, I’m not thrilled when performers I admire pass to the Great Beyond. Even when they’ve lived long, full lives, it’s sad to think that they’ll be among us no more.

 One shining star who has just left us is the magnificent Chita Rivera, known as a dancer, a singer, an actress, and an all-around grand lady of the American stage. Rivera, one of five children born to a Puerto Rican father and a multicultural mom, discovered her love of showbiz early. Trained in dance, with a scholarship to George Balanchine’s School of American Ballet, she soon gravitated toward the bright lights of Broadway. Before she turned 20 she was dancing in touring companies of hit shows, and made her Broadway debut in Guys and Dolls. In 1957 came her breakthrough role: that of the fiery Anita in West Side Story. Her reviews were glowing, though she was not nominated for a Tony, and the Best Musical honors went to another of the year’s hits, The Music Man. (This was an era with a lot of great shows on the Broadway boards.)

 Another disappointment: in 1961, when West Side Story was turned into a film, the role Rivera had created on stage went to a different fiery Latina, Rita Moreno, who went on to win an Oscar for her performance. (On screen, the role of Anita seems to be an awards magnet. Though Steven Spielberg’s 2021 remake of the film was nominated for seven Oscars, the only winner on Oscar night was the actress playing Anita, Ariana DeBose. A sidenote: in the remake, Spielberg gave Moreno a juicy new supporting role as Valentina, the widow of drugstore owner Doc, who gets to sing “Somewhere” at a key moment in the film.)           

 I’ve always wondered why Rivera was not asked to repeat her Broadway role. Age had nothing to do with it: Moreno was actually a year older. I’m hardly privy to any behind-the-scenes gossip, but have always suspected the choice was made because Moreno (a Hollywood veteran who had played supporting roles in Singing in the Rain and The King and I) was equally talented AND a great deal prettier than her Broadway counterpart.

 In any case, Rivera recouped on Broadway as the female lead in Bye Bye Birdie, opposite Dick Van Dyke. Her character, Rose Alvarez, was specifically written as a Latina (which is one reason Dick’s stage mother disapproves of her so heartily). When the play became a movie, Van Dyke was invited along, but Rivera’s part was taken by Janet Lee in a dark wig. Ah, Hollywood! Fortunately, though, we do have some Rivera performances on film. She had played Gwen Verdon’s pal, Nickie, in the stage version of Sweet Charity.  In 1969. when Bob Fosse directed the film version, Verdon was replaced by Shirley MacLaine as the taxi dancer with a heart of gold.  And Rivera (hooray!) again got to play Nickie, displaying her musical talents along with MacLaine and Paula Kelly in the clip below.   

 She finally won a Tony Award in 1993 for a phantasmagoric role in Kander and Ebb’s musical take on Kiss of the Spider Woman. I don’t much remember that, but I’ve hardly forgotten her 2015 appearance in the short Broadway run of Kander and Ebb’s eerie The Visit. At 82, she didn’t exactly dance, but her performance was stunning. I watched it along with my own first dance teacher, the great Carmen de Lavallade. It’s one of my favorite memories.

 It’s been a tough week for Broadway fans. On January 30 we also lost Hinton Battle, a Tony-winning featured dancer best known for creating the role of the Scarecrow in Broadway’s The Wiz, which—by the way—was directed by Carmen de Lavallade’s talented husband, Geoffrey Holder.



No comments:

Post a Comment