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Chita Rivera brings Broadway to Worcester

Chita RiveraLAURA MARIE DUNCAN

Celebrated musical theater star Chita Rivera stayed quietly at home during the worst of the pandemic, but the minute she could, she got right back on stage. The 89-year-old’s busy schedule of appearances included introducing the National Symphony Orchestra’s performance of “America” from “West Side Story,” as part of July’s PBS special “A Capitol Fourth,” and she hasn’t stopped since.

“All I did was introduce ‘America,’ ” Rivera says on the phone from her home in New York. “The orchestra sounded wonderful, and I kept thinking, ‘Why aren’t I singing?’ But you know that music is so glorious, you don’t need to hear the words.”

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Rivera’s performance as Anita in the 1957 Broadway production made her a star, but it was only the beginning. She continued to wow audiences in “Bye, Bye Birdie,” “Chicago,” “The Rink,” “Nine,” “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” and most recently “The Visit,” to name just a few. On Friday, she will talk about her 70-year career with pianist and interviewer Seth Rudetsky and sing some tunes at the Jean McDonough Arts Center’s BrickBox Theater.

“It’s always a joy to be onstage with Seth,” Rivera says of the Sirius XM host. “Normally I have to rehearse and know exactly what’s expected, but I trust his taste, his deep knowledge of the theater, and his friendship. So, while we do a sound check, we really just wing the conversation. I hope it makes it feel more natural and intimate for the audience.”

Chita Rivera in 1957, the year she premiered as Anita in the original Broadway production of "West Side Story."AP

Although she’s not planning on doing any elaborate dance routines with Rudetsky, Rivera laughs at the notion that the evening will just be a conversation.

“Part of being a dancer is that you move with every part of your body, from the top of your head to the tips of your toes,” she says. “You should see me now. I’m waving my arms even as we speak.”

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Plus, she adds, “Seth has a tremendous sense of humor, so we joke around a lot. I hope it feels like two friends talking.”

Rivera has never been one to wallow in nostalgia, but says she enjoys talking about some of the legendary choreographers, directors, composers, lyricists, and playwrights she has worked with and how much she learned about herself through those collaborations. One bonus of the event in Worcester is that she’ll be available for a free question-and-answer period before the show that’s open to Worcester area high school and college students. (Students and teachers may register at www.broadwayinworcester.com.)

Rivera says she got through the pandemic by working on “Chita: A Memoir,” with co-author Patrick Pacheco. The book engages the journalist who interviewed her in 2005 while doing research for her musical revue, “Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life.” While that show, with a book by Terrence McNally and additional music by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, focused on her professional persona, her memoir, due out April 25, 2023, will provide more insights into her personal life. It will be published in both Spanish and English by HarperOne.

Chita Rivera and Ariana DeBose share the stage as presenters at the 75th annual Tony Awards at Radio City Music Hall in June.Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions

“I feel very close to Patrick,” she says. “I’m able to live my life again, but through his eyes. It’s amazing to go back in time and relive these moments, but he has a different perspective on them and gives me another outlook.”

Having grown up in the Golden Age of Broadway, Rivera was surrounded by extraordinary creative teams. But, she says, earlier retrospectives focused on her professional career, while this is an opportunity to explore what happened before and after she stepped onstage.

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“It’s fascinating to look back at ‘this is where I was then,’ ” she says. “But you can’t go back. You are made up of these moments that happened in your past but you have to live now.”

Terry Byrne can be reached at trbyrne@aol.com.

AN EVENING WITH CHITA RIVERA AND SETH RUDETSKY

At Jean McDonough Arts Center, BrickBox Theater, Worcester. Sept. 23 at 8 p.m. $82-$132. 877-571-7469, www.jmacworcester.org