Back in May, when she came onstage at the Paramount Theatre to receive the Elliot Norton Lifetime Achievement Award, Broadway legend Chita Rivera hiked her skirt up to the knee and waggled a leg, raising hopes in the audience that she might break into a step or two. It wasn’t her night to dance, but at 80, she certainly could have. Last year, at 79, she came to the Citi Shubert Theatre in “Chita Rivera: Broadway My Way” to perform songs from a career that’s ranged from “West Side Story” to “Kiss of the Spider Woman.” On Sept. 7 and 8, she’ll be appearing in Provincetown as part of the “Broadway @ The Art House” series.
Rivera’s best-known early role was Anita in “West Side Story.” We talked last year and I asked her whether she had ever played Maria in that musical. “Oh no, no, I was never that innocent,” she told me.
No, she wasn’t, as you can see from this 1957 photo. But as the years have gone by, she’s grown even less innocent, more subversive, more swivel-hipped. She was 48 when the film version of “Pippin” came out, in which she “Spread a Little Sunshine” as Charlemagne’s wife, Fastrada, using his crown as a garter and leaving no doubt as to the location of “the promised land.” The following year, 1982, she sang and danced “America” (from “West Side Story”) at the Kennedy Center in the TV special “Broadway Plays Washington,” looking and sounding, with her trademark throaty chuckle, more dangerous than Rita Moreno (who replaced her in the film version of “West Side Story”) has ever been.
She was back at the Kennedy Center in 1998, hoofing her way through “All That Jazz” (from “Chicago”) and, at 65, stealing the spotlight from her accomplished 39-year-old partner, Bebe Neuwirth. Onstage in “Anything Goes” at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey in 2000, she was an impossibly spry 67; with that body, anything really could go. Her most recent show, “The Dancer’s Life,” for which she received her ninth Tony nomination, is a master class in body language, whether she’s swaying her hips or kicking a still-fabulous leg up high.
Her career started at, of all places, George Balanchine’s School of American Ballet, before Broadway beckoned. Maybe that’s where she learned how to say so much with so little movement. Wherever she learned, at age 80, Rivera still has plenty to teach us.