Chita Rivera Tells Her Stories About Gwen Verdon, Bye Bye Birdie, and More

Sample what audiences will be treated to in the return of Rivera’s 54 Below solo show.

Chita Rivera brings her solo show back to 54 Below this month.
Chita Rivera brings her solo show back to 54 Below this month.
(© David Gordon)

Chita Rivera loves theater. She loved West Side Story and Kiss of the Spider Woman. She hated —but then eventually loved — Bye Bye Birdie. She adored Gwen Verdon and didn't mind Antonio Banderas. And she loves bringing back beloved theater memories for audiences of her her 54 Below solo show, which returns this spring, beginning May 27.

Rivera also never fails to give credit for the many successes of her long career, which has also included The Visit, Sweet Charity, and many more iconic shows, to her estimable collaborators. "I give all the credit to those people who have created the shows," she says, "the Hal Princes and the Fred Ebbs and the John Kanders, the Terrence McNallys…And I have great friends from it."

Chita Rivera on stage in 2013.
Chita Rivera on stage in 2013.
(© David Gordon)

This concert is something that you did before, and you're coming back to do an even longer engagement of it. What made you want to return to it?

I've been lucky enough to have done some pretty amazing shows throughout the years. So I've had a lot of material to choose from, so I can keep turning those shows around. And it brings back wonderful memories for people who come to the show.

And also, the size of the place is very different. I've played regular theaters that were 1,200, 1,500. Then you go on the road and you go to universities and sometimes they are huge, two and three thousand. And then you go into a sweet, small place where you can practically see the faces. So it really is a completely different show.

I continuously think, "Thank god I don't have anything on my, my drawers." And I like to joke about things anyhow; it makes it more fun. But you don't want to talk too much to them. But there are some things that happen during a show that you can't ignore, because if you ignore it, then you're not being aware of, of what's going on around you.

You have a tribute to Kander and Ebb in the show. What made your partnership with them work so well?

I have no idea what makes it work so well. But I love their material. There isn't anything they can't write, and Freddy's material was everything that you wanted it to be. They tell beautiful stories. And that's what you're there for. You're there to take an audience on a trip, and you hope that the trip will be interesting and fun. Or sad.

You know, I went to see Network and it blew me away. I thought Bryan Cranston was just extraordinary. And he said, "You know, live theater is recognizing great material." And I then said, "And just doing it, you just do the material." And that also relaxes an audience and allows them to be taken away if they want to be and not distracted. It's exciting. Theater is exciting.

Speaking of the difference between theater and other sorts of media, have you been watching Fosse/Verdon?

No, I haven't, because I want to see all six at the same time. They're making history by putting this on. And I just hope they're doing it right.

What are your memories of that time?

Oh, there's so many. I remember just absolutely adoring Gwen before from film. Yeah. Just thinking what an extraordinary performer she was. And then all of a sudden, years later, I find myself onstage with her, and her inviting me into her dressing room during the audition of Can-Can and telling me, "You should really look for parts that really fit you. Because, you know, you have a future in, in the theater." And that was a heck of a thing to do — very unselfish and terrific thing to do, and superb advice.

When you look back through your roles, which are your favorite characters to revisit?

It's a little hard because it's if you've been lucky enough, as I said before, to be offered and to have done these wonderful shows. I mean, West Side and Birdie and Spider Woman. Spider Woman was just beautiful to look at, and deep enough to get involved. My clothes were extraordinary.

Bye Bye Birdie I thought on paper was the worst thing you could ever imagine. I read it and I thought it was horrible: Elvis Presley and telephones and all that sort of thing. And that taught me a huge lesson: that we don't necessarily know what we're talking about. So when I finally did go in, having told my agents that we're going to turn this down, you know the first half of the show, I totally fell in love with the innocence of it, the naïveté. I immediately said I have to do this, and my agent fell off his chair. So we had to change our story very quickly.

And West Side, I hear that music today and my skin goes up.

If you ever hear or read a story where I'm bitching about anything in the theater, you'll know firsthand that somebody's lying. Antonio Banderas, how are you gonna not talk about that? That's material that you have to put in your club act.