“America” in the original 1957 Broadway production of “West Side Story” belonged to her. So did “Spanish Rose,” in the original 1960 Broadway production of “Bye Bye Birdie.” So did “I Can’t Do It Alone,” in the original 1975 Broadway production of “Chicago.” So did the title song in the original 1993 Broadway production of “Kiss of the Spider Woman.” And so did, and so did, and so did …
Frailty, thy name wasn’t Chita. Tenacity was more her hallmark.
How else to account for the will and the grit to fight through the effects of a car accident that resulted in a compound fracture of one of those glorious gams? That crash left her, in her 50s, with 16 screws in her left leg, the kind of traumatic injury that finishes the exploits of pro kickers and Olympic skiers. But not Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero Anderson, who grew up on Flagler Place in D.C., taking ballet classes at the storied Jones-Haywood School. There were five more Broadway runs and four more Tony nominations to rack up, among the lifetime 10, which included wins for “The Rink” and “Spider Woman.”
Which is why her death on Tuesday, at the tender age of 91, came as a special shock. We all have to go, but somehow I wanted to believe Rivera’s lease on life came with endless extensions.
How her eternal vivaciousness could be so infrequently bottled on film is an enduring travesty. What was it that Hollywood missed that theater audiences grasped ecstatically? Rita Moreno was an Anita for the ages in the 1961 movie of “West Side Story,” and Janet Leigh was a pretty good Rosie in 1963’s “Bye Bye Birdie,” but those were landmark Rivera creations. (Here’s one of those “What was that about?” turn of events: Puerto Rican Rivera’s Rose in the stage version of “Bye Bye Birdie” became White European Leigh’s Rosie in the movie. They dyed Leigh’s hair and made her “ethnic”!)
As far as major motion pictures go, though, at least we have 1969’s “Sweet Charity,” directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse, in which Rivera played a rent-a-dancer in a seedy Times Square dancehall, alongside Shirley MacLaine. “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This,” by Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields — one of the greatest Golden Age dance numbers ever captured on film — is performed with intoxicating élan by Rivera, MacLaine and Paula Kelly.
Watch it on YouTube, please, because it reveals musical theater’s renewable resource. The energy and joy of performance — the ingredients that turn lonely 12-year-olds into Playbill-hoarding superfans — are ideally harnessed by Fosse and his actresses. The sequence also happens to show off Rivera’s stunning combinations, of both the kinetic and emotional varieties. In a skimpy, sparkly mustard-colored outfit, she leads off the six-minute number, and sets the interlude’s yearning tone.
“I’m not going to spend the next 40 years of my life in the Fandango Ballroom,” Rivera’s Nickie tells the others. “I am not going to become the world’s first little old gray-haired taxi dancer!” And off we go, insistently, irresistibly, as the orchestra strikes up and the three women twirl and leap out of their tawdry dressing room and onto a New York City rooftop.
“There’s gotta be something better than this,” Rivera sings.
There’s gotta be something better to do
And when I find me something better to do
I’m gonna get up, get out and do it!
The musical may at other points condescend sentimentally to its title character, played by MacLaine, but in this number, you feel elementally connected to these women and the universal human craving they embody — for more. Rivera raises a flag for an entire community in the scene: a Latina actress playing a character both soft and tough, moving in unison with a Black dancer and a White dancer and all evincing the same artistry, and hope.
She seemed to pop up in every nook and cranny of the hall of fame: working with John Kander, Fred Ebb, Jerome Robbins, Stephen Sondheim, Gower Champion, Leonard Bernstein, Neil Simon, Gwen Verdon, Liza Minnelli, Fosse. Her peers were the hoofers, the Verdons, the Reinkings, all belonging to a master class of Broadway dancers, in a line stretching from Ruby Keeler to Donna McKechnie. Roles for the great dancing stars, sadly, thinned out, as musicals in the contemporary era turned to more dramatic themes.
Rivera never dwelled on what passed her by, or on the times she was overlooked. “I grew up in a household led by two very strong, generous and resilient women who never looked back in self-pity or regret,” Rivera wrote about her family in “Chita: A Memoir,” published last year. “‘Get on with it’ might as well have been a motto stitched into the del Rivero coat of arms. I’ve followed it all my life.”
We who love musical theater got to follow her. She played Velma Kelly, opposite Verdon’s Roxie Hart, in that “Chicago” that gave her yet another milestone part; the production was eclipsed in the banner year of 1975 by the blockbuster “A Chorus Line.” It would take a revival of Kander and Ebb’s “Chicago” on Broadway two decades later, starring Ann Reinking and Bebe Neuwirth, to cement the greatness of the musical. (It’s the version that is still running.)
But it is Rivera and Verdon’s double act that remains indelible. And if you were lucky enough to see it, you know Rivera’s sleek, sensuous turn in “Cell Block Tango” — possibly the most rewarding song about justifiable homicide ever composed — counts among her pinnacle moments. When you start to add all those moments up, they amount to one of the richest Broadway musical résumés.
I got to see her many times, but in retrospect, most affectingly, for what would turn out to be the last big part she’d create, in Kander and Ebb’s musical version of Friedrich Durrenmatt’s absurdist tragicomedy, “The Visit.” Aptly enough, the 2008 Signature Theatre production directed by Frank Galati brought her back to the Washington area to portray Claire Zachanassian, a wealthy dowager bent on a ghastly revenge. It was a minor musical, but the occasion still felt major, by virtue of that magnetic quality Rivera retained, a radiance that might have been represented in that del Rivero coat of arms.
I happened to be with Matthew Gardiner, Signature’s artistic director, on the day she died. He was assistant director on “The Visit,” and he remembered Rivera as a generous force of nature, deflecting rather than demanding attention. Such was her effect on him, he said, that he still has the shoes Rivera wore as Claire as a keepsake in his office.
The lasting impact Gardiner talked about took me right back to “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This.” Because Rivera found that something better, the perfect platform for her talent, on the stage. Nickie in “Sweet Charity” declares definitively at the top of the song: “I am getting out!” Fat chance, Chita. We are all grateful that you never did.