Full disclosure: I’m a musical theater nerd. And I moved here for acting school. Before that puts two automatic strikes against me, know that I do try to keep my bouts of belting show tunes at the top of my lungs to a bare minimum. But some habits die hard, and my ardent admiration of a good old-fashioned Broadway diva persists. The word ‘diva’ tends to be overused these days,but I’m talking ‘diva’ in the true sense of the word: a distinguished female singer or a prima donna. One name, echoing around in the musical theater pantheon for decades before I ever set foot on a stage, ticks both the singing and dancing components of the word: Chita Rivera.
If you don’t share my diva obsession, consider this your Chita Rivera primer: a classically trained ballerina, Rivera took to the musical theater stage in 1951 at the tender age of 18. Since then, she originated roles in some of Broadway’s biggest hits, including the fiery Anita in West Side Story and the notorious Velma Kelly in Chicago. She’s been nominated for TEN Tony awards, winning twice, and now at the age of 82 was just granted the Drama’s League’s Distinguished Performance Award for her role in the new musical The Visit, an honor for which she beat out the likes of Helen Mirren and Bradley Cooper.
In case you can’t tell, I’m a bit of a fan. So when the opportunity arose to cover a party being thrown in Chita’s honor to celebrate her latest role, I jumped at the chance. Hosted at the Top of the Strand on an evening that seemed custom-made for a rooftop soiree, the party was billed as a Broadway Gypsy Tea Dance. The gypsies are the chorus members of Broadways shows, and full contingencies from the casts of Something Rotten, Aladdin, Mamma Mia, The King and I, Kinky Boots, and An American in Paris were on hand.
One thing you must know about Chita is that, despite her age, she’s still a dancer through and through. When she swept onto the rooftop in a flawless Giorgio Armani suit and Dries Van Noten boots, she did so with a grace and poise that can only come from a lifetime of ballet classes. Pair that with the cha-cha steps she did to the applause of the crowd that had been anxiously awaiting her arrival, and it was clear a star had entered.
After making the rounds, greeting guests, grabbing one of the evening’s signature Chita Margaritas, and posing for selfies with the hordes of young dancers flocking around her, Chita made a beeline for a clique of familiar faces, dancers from shows currently on Broadway and a contingency of ensemble members from Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life, a retrospective of Chita’s career that she performed in on Broadway nearly ten years ago. It seemed clear that these weren’t just back-up dancers to her, but also dear friends.
The gracious star also took time out for a few more photo ops and to chat with several reporters (yours truly included) before the end of the evening. And of course, the questions centered on her role in The Visit, with Chita being only too happy to chat about this latest project. “It’s very different from An American in Paris or any of the bigger shows,” she told me when I asked her about the experience of working on the show. “But that’s what Broadway’s all about. It’s all about different stories to tell, different sized stories to tell, and ours is an extraordinary story.”
No one would argue with her the the plot of The Visit is truly a story worth discussing. Chita plays the world’s richest woman—for real, she puts Bill Gates to shame—who returns to the small hometown she hasn’t seen in over fifty years. I don’t want to spoil anything for you, but suffice it to say that she comes with nefarious intentions and an offer that the townspeople just may not be able to refuse. (Cue evil henchman laugh.) The show marks the final collaboration between John Kander and Fred Ebb, the songwriting duo behind the aforementioned Chicago and Cabaret, and Terrence McNally, the playwright behind It’s Only a Play and Mothers and Sons. The show had been in the works for over fourteen years before making it to Broadway this season, and Chita’s been along for the ride. “All of the variations of the play before this current production have led us to this one – it’s all part of the process,” she told me. “It’s just been thrilling to see it change like it has, and to see audiences really understanding it and being so happy to go on the show’s roller coaster ride.”
Chita says that much of the credit for the fact that this production is the one to make it to Broadway goes to executive producer Tom Kirdahy. “Tom, who’s just a divine human being, believed in the show and he fought for us. And he’s the one who brought us to the Lyceum Theater, here in New York.” That being said, I can claim a bit of pride in the fact that there’s also a Barneys tie-in: our CEO Mark Lee, along with his partner Ed Filipowski, also serve as producers of the show.
And the feeling of being nominated for her tenth—yes, TENTH—Tony award? Chita summed it up for me in one word: “Familiar,” said with a laugh. “This is what I’ve done I’ve done my whole life. I’ve worked with the greatest of geniuses in the theatre, and I’ve done just the best shows. And so it’s wonderful to be back in New York again, in one of these beautiful theaters, and with a show that I’m extremely proud of.” And her pride was also evident when I asked what might be coming up next for her. “I would really love to take this show to London. I think London would really understand and appreciate this show.”
Back to the party, it wasn’t long before the crowd of professional dancers started boogying along to electro-pop remixes of the West Side Story soundtrack. Two of those Dancer’s Life dancers, Lainie Sakakura and her husband Alex Sanchez, even dazzled the crowd with a short routine.
Amidst all the partying, I did find time to sneak in one fashion-related question. I mean, this is Barneys after all. I asked Chita about how she’d describe her personal style and was thrilled to get a little anecdote in response: “I remember John Kander saying to me one time that his wardrobe was only jeans and tuxedos,” she told me. “He said, ‘I’m either going to the opera or relaxing.’” When I prompted a bit further about her style, though, “Years ago, it used to be bikinis and shorts, but I don’t get to the beach that often any more,” she giggles. “I love my Armani suits. Even though I do like color—I’m wearing red to the Tonys, red, like mega-mega-statement—but I like black and white. I love Italy, so I love that Italian, linen, summer, beautiful cloth that you wear when you’re in Positano, my favorite place in the world. I love chic, I love simple, I love absolutely simple and clean, wonderful lines.”
As the evening begin to wind down, the sun setting and margarita glasses being whisked away, I couldn’t help but feel that I’d been in the presence of someone almost otherworldly—an inimitable star whose warmth and charisma radiated in a way that few could ever hope to emulate. In a word, a diva.