The biggest news to hit Broadway this season comes far from the Great White Way, from a place called Mandalay. There, the legendary Chita Rivera will star in the Kander & Ebb drop dead musical Chicago beginning March 3rd.
An accomplished and versatile actress/singer/dancer who has won two Tony Awards as Best Leading Actress in a Musical and received five additional Tony nominations, Chita Rivera will be kicking up her heels and thrilling the crowds in this, her fifth decade of Broadway stardom. Chita recently toured with her new musical, Chita & All That Jazz, a musical celebration of her spectacular life in the theatre and starred in the Broadway and touring productions of Kander & Ebb's Kiss of the Spider Woman, directed by Harold Prince.
For her starring role in Kiss of the Spider Woman on Broadway, Chita received the 1993 Tony Award as Best Leading Actress in a Musical as well as the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Achievement as an Actress in a Musical, the Outer Critics Circle Award as Outstanding Actress in a Musical, the Drama League Award for Distinguished Achievement in Musical Theatre and The Astaire Award honoring outstanding achievement in Broadway Dance. Chita first played the role of the Spider Woman in the Toronto production of the show in 1992, receiving unanimous acclaim. She then repeated her triumph in the fall of 1992 in the London production of Spider Woman, which won The Evening Standard Award as Best Musical of Year.
Chita's performing aspirations began with ballet training at the age of 11 in her native Washington DC. Five years later, Chita moved to New York, where she auditioned for legendary choreographer George Balanchine. Balanchine of course recognized Chita's talent and gave her a scholarship to the American School of Ballet where she began taking classes with such dancers as Edward Villella, Melissa Hayden, Allegra Kent and Maria Tallchief.
As an aspiring 17 year-old ballerina, Chita decided to accompany a friend to an audition for the chorus of Call Me Madam. Although she had no serious intention of pursuing a part in the show, Chita was cast as a principal dancer, and the ballet world's loss was Broadway's gain - a future legend's theater career was born.
After completing a cross-country tour of Call Me Madam, Chita returned to New York to replace Onna White as a principal dancer in Guys and Dolls Following Guys and Dolls, Chita joined the cast of the original Broadway company of Can-Can, in which her future co-star, Gwen Verdon, first achieved stardom.
Chita then went Off-Broadway to prove that she could do more than dance, doing so to great acclaim with her amazing performance in Ben Bagley's Shoestring Revue, in which she did a devastatingly on-target Marilyn Monroe impersonation. Chita's co-stars in The Shoestring Revue included Beatrice Arthur and Arte Johnson.
Chita then returned to Broadway as a featured performer in Seventh Heaven, choreographed by Peter Gennaro; and Mr. Wonderful, starring Sammy Davis Jr.
But it was not until September 26, 1957 that Chita made the transition from accomplished Broadway performer to a toast of the town Broadway star with her electric performance as Anita in the Broadway premiere of West Side Story. Chita then took some time off for the birth of her daughter, Lisa Mordente. Chita had met and married Lisa's father, dancer Tony Mordente, during the run of West Side Story.
Chita then went on to star in the London production of West Side Story which had been postponed until Chita was ready to perform after Lisa's birth. Chita's New York success was repeated in London and she stayed with the show there for a year. She then returned to Broadway to star as Rosie with Dick Van Dyke in the new musical, Bye Bye Birdie in which she led the show-stopping number "Shriner's Ballet." Then it was off to London with Birdie at Her Majesty's Theatre where she first achieved London stardom in West Side Story.
Next up for Chita, back in the States, was her triumphant performance as Jenny in the national tour of The Threepenny Opera, soon followed by the title role in the national tour of Bob Fosse's Sweet Charity. Chita was also cast in the film version of Sweet Charity in which she played Nicky opposite Shirley MacLaine. During the filming of Sweet Charity, Chita fell in love with Los Angeles and decided to make it her home for the next seven years.
But touring theatre successes often took her from home. She played Billy Dawn in Born Yesterday and Serafina in The Rose Tattoo; she toured opposite John Raitt in Zorba, and she extended her range in such productions as Kiss Me Kate, opposite Hal Linden, Jacques Brel..., and Oliver Hailey's Father's Day. All of these productions and other projects had kept Chita away from Broadway for eight years, far too long according to her friends and colleagues Fred Ebb, John Kander and Bob Fosse. So they lured Chita back to New York to star as Velma Kelly, opposite Gwen Verdon as Roxie, in their new musical, Chicago.
But as soon as she arrived in New York, Chita discovered that Chicago's rehearsals had been postponed because director/choreographer Fosse was ill. It was then that Fred Ebb, who had written a highly-successful nightclub act for Chita in the 60's, went to work on another act for Chita to keep her busy until Fosse was better. The act opened at The Grand Finale to rave reviews and capacity crowds. The New York Times called Chita "the most exciting nightclub performer in the business; a singer who essays a ballad with consummate skill and has a sense of humor."
After the great success of the act, Chicago was ready to go. The show opened to glorious reviews and Chita and Gwen Verdon were the toast of Broadway. Both received Tony nominations as Best Actress in 1976. During the run of Chicago, Chita co-starred with Liza Minnelli for the first time, when Liza subbed for five weeks for an ailing Gwen Verdon.
Chita's fourth and fifth Tony nominations as Best Actress came in the early 80's with her performance opposite Donald O'Connor in Bring Back Birdie and then as the Evil Queen in Merlin, opposite Doug Henning. But it was not until 1984 when she re-united with Liza Minnelli in her friends' John Kander and Fred Ebb's new musical, The Rink, that Chita won her Tony as Best Actress, along with the Drama Desk Award.
Chita returned to Broadway again shortly after The Rink in Jerry's Girls, co-starring with Leslie Uggams and Dorothy Loudon. In 1988, Chita toured the country in Can-Can, co-starring with the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes.
Beginning March 3rd Chita will once again take the spotlight in Chicago, the drop dead musical, at the Mandalay Bay Hotel/Casino in Las Vegas. This time around, Chita will get to play Roxie Hart. Within minutes of it being announced on the Internet, travel agents lines lit up as Chita fans from all over the world began making plans. One fifteen year old fan from Atlanta talked his parents into a Las Vegas vacation; such is the absolute devotion Chita has throughout the world. I know it would take wild horses to keep me away from Mandalay!
People ask me about Chita all the time. I don't know too much about her, other than, of course, what you just read. ; )
And today January 23 is a special day...Happy Birthday Chita!
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