Chita Rivera on The Visit That's Lasted 13 Years
Kander & Ebb's leading lady reflects on the changing tides of Broadway and hopes the third time's the charm for the songwriting team's overlooked musical.
Chita Rivera has racked up two Tony Awards over the course of her legendary career, which spans over a half century and counting. By no accident, both of her Tony-winning roles (The Rink and Kiss of the Spider Woman) were built by the incomparable threesome of playwright Terrence McNally, composer John Kander, and late lyricist Fred Ebb.
Rivera, now 81, returns to her lucky writing team in Williamstown Theatre Festival's upcoming production of The Visit — a musical that may be brand new to audiences but is long overdue for the Kander & Ebb muse. Based on Friedrich Dürrenmatt's satirical play Der Besuch der alten Dame, The Visit — which follows an oft-widowed heiress who brings her newfound wealth to her poverty-ridden hometown — first crossed Rivera's path in 2001, with what was intended to be a pre-Broadway production at Chicago's Goodman Theatre. Thirteen years later, the musical has enjoyed a production at Virginia's Signature Theatre in 2008 and a one-night-only staged concert at the Ambassador Theatre in 2011, but it has yet to find its Broadway legs.
Rivera spoke with TheaterMania about her long journey with The Visit, all the way to its latest incarnation, directed by Tony winner John Doyle, which she hopes will finally be "it." Though she notes the road to Broadway has changed since her days working with greats like Leonard Bernstein and Bob Fosse, she's crossing her fingers that this show will break through its concrete wall to give the next generation of musical theater artists something new to revive.
You've been following this project for over thirteen years now. Has it been a test of patience?
My eyes have been opened. I really believe in time and timing. With [Kiss of the] Spider Woman, critics killed it but it refused to go [and when] I picked it up, it became very much alive. I do believe theater pieces have their own heartbeat. I'm thrilled we have another opportunity, and hopefully the third time is lucky, but I think it's a wonderful piece. I believe in it. I think Kander and Ebb's score is wonderful. You have to think and feel in order to care about this piece and that's what I think theater should be about. This hopefully will be it, but if nothing happens we will have a wonderful experience with some wonderful artists.
I've heard the writing process for this piece was surprisingly quick. Did that make you think the production was going to be smooth sailing?
You never think that, but I did think that with four Tony Award winners, we might have had come up in the front of the line a little bit, so for a few years I was a bit grumpy about it. I just didn't understand. All I wanted to know was the truth. I kept saying to people, "Okay, tell me the truth! What did you really think?" For years! Just this past year, I've gotten very calm about it — honestly feeling that if it's meant to be it will be.
Were you surprised The Visit came around again?
I was very mature. [laughs] I didn't want to get all excited. I really hoped, but I don't hang onto things. I've been around so long that I know it's like watching water boil. You just have to do what you do the very best you can do it. Be present in that moment, give it everything you've got, and then you can sleep at night. And then you just have to wait because it's not up to you. It's up to so many things. But I feel when it's something that's smart and real theater, you just want to share it.
What has kept you coming back to this show time after time?
Because it's really worth it and I'm looking forward to a new approach. John Doyle is a very talented man and he certainly is a wonderful man to sit and talk to. I've been so lucky my whole life to be in the same room with Jerome Robbins and Leonard Bernstein and Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon — all of those great people — to be in the same room with these geniuses and just watch them. I wish young kids could have that. The kids should not live without the greats like Kander and Ebb. They just shouldn't. What are they going to have? And besides, if we don't have new musicals, what are we going to have to revive?
Terrence McNally commented in an earlier interview that he feels this growing trend of long development periods for shows is more harmful than it is helpful to the creative process. Do you agree?
I completely without a doubt agree with him. I don't know the reason, but this is odd. Does it have to be this way?
So this isn't how productions used to unfold?
No way! With Bye Bye Birdie, I heard the score with Dick Van Dyke, Gower Champion, Charles Strouse, and Ed Padula, we said yes, they had their date, and we did it. I think it's important to go out of town and to work on it and find its flaws, but you're only out for four weeks — six weeks at the most — and then you come in. All of this other stuff to me is wasting time.
Have you found this change to be gradual or sudden?
It's been happening. And it's good that theater changes. First you had the big shows with the dancers and the singers and lots of sets and then you got the smaller shows, like the Irma la Douces. Right now we seem to be into Disney and [pre-existing] music, so where does that put our new composers and lyricists? You can't change the face of it but if we stick by what we believe in and what we've learned through the years and we still have something to say, then we should do it.