She created the roles of Anita in West Side Story, Velma Kelly in Chicago, and Aurora in Kiss of the Spiderwoman. The indomitable Chita Rivera is a Broadway legend with two Tonys to her credit, and at 79, will headline the 2012 Swellegance Gala to Benefit Boston Youth Moves at the Shubert Theatre on May 4.
YOU'VE BEEN IDENTIFIED AS A TRIPLE THREAT: A DANCER, SINGER, AND ACTOR IN ONE PACKAGE. BUT YOU'VE ALWAYS PRESENTED YOURSELF AS A DANCER FIRST. WHY? That's what you feel like. What you did at the beginning that gave you the foundation and opened the doors for other things. Dancers are pretty much like that. No matter what they go on to, they always basically think of themselves as dancers. Even if you can't do the things you used to do — which is fine! — you still have that dancer's mentality.
WHAT DOES THAT MENTALITY CONSIST OF? Rhythm. Music. Movement. It's a close society: dancers are used to being next to each other, they're used to having people around. As opposed to standing alone. The boys in my club act always used to say, "Move down, Chita, move down." But I always felt more comfortable in the middle of the dancers.
BUT THAT'S OKAY BECAUSE THE SPOTLIGHT FOLLOWS YOU. [Laughs] I'd say so!
PLAYWRIGHT TERRENCE MCNALLY CALLED YOU "A WALKING HISTORY BOOK OF THE GOLDEN AGE OF AMERICAN MUSICAL THEATRE." It's wonderful for him to say that. He's right. I can really thank God for that because I really came around at a great time. There were fabulous shows to be done, and I was right there auditioning or being called. I consider myself really, really, really lucky. I still tell the story of [how] I was walking down the street and saw a poster for [the revival of] Bye, Bye Birdie, and then I saw a poster for Chicago, and a big bus went by and it said West Side Story. And I thought, "Shouldn't I be someplace at 8 o'clock tonight?"
WHAT MADE THEM SO GREAT? All the shows I was lucky enough to do, each department was supreme: the score, the dancing, the direction, the book, the lights, the costumes, all worked as one. I'm not so sure that shows today do that. And there's a reason for that too: time and money. It's always money, isn't it? You know? What a shame.
CONGRATULATIONS ON WINNING THE PRESIDENTIAL MEDAL OF FREEDOM. WHAT DID BARACK OBAMA REALLY SAY TO YOU? You saw that picture, huh? He and Michelle Obama have this wonderful, welcoming, caring, singular friendliness that is directed right at you. I was sort of teasing him at one point. I told him that when they were having their inaugural dance he was dancing like I remember the boys in our school used to dance. I actually showed him, and he laughed. I said, "You had that little bop in your step, and I remember the guys in high school dancing like that." And Michelle said, "Yeah, and that's the only stuff he's got." Meaning, of course, that he doesn't dance, but I don't believe that! I believe he dances, and sings.
YES, WE HEARD HIM SING AL GREEN! He's just cool.