The audacious Anita from West Side Story, the vaudevillian Velma Kelly from Chicago and the shifty Spider Woman from the Kiss of the Spider Woman will be visiting Chautauqua during Week Nine, the conclusory week of the 2022 summer assembly.
Critically-acclaimed Broadway performer Chita Rivera, who has embodied all these famed roles and more, will grace the stage at 8:15 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 27 in the Amphitheater, carrying Chautauquans through one of the final Amp performances of the summer. And there’s no one better to do it.
“Chita Rivera is not only theater royalty, she is a national treasure,” said Laura Savia, vice president of performing and visual arts. “Chita Rivera’s body of work and her onstage persona are larger than life and absolutely electrifying. Engaging her artistry felt like a fitting capstone for a very full and thrilling summer.”
It was 1949, and Rivera was 16 years old when she auditioned for the father of American ballet, George Balanchine. Hinting at her soon-to-be prolific career, Balanchine offered her a scholarship with New York City’s American School of Ballet; she now exists as an icon in Broadway’s fabled history.
Rivera first stepped under the lights of Broadway in 1953 as she took on the role of principal dancer for Guys and Dolls. The next five years witnessed Rivera stepping into lauded roles off-Broadway, on Broadway and in London’s West End. Tucked within those five years, in 1957, Rivera slipped on the full-skirted lavender dress of Anita in West Side Story. This performance is hailed as the one that made Rivera a star.
She is now on the cusp of her 90th birthday and brings to the Amp stage, “The Rhythm of My Life,” as she looks back on her unforgettable career so far.
Savia had the chance to work with Rivera at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts, where Savia contributed to programming and organizing special events; this was a position she held directly before stepping into her role at Chautauqua. There, she was able to see Rivera’s talent firsthand.
“I can personally attest that her instrument and her charisma and her talent are unparalleled,” Savia said. “There is nobody on the planet like Chita Rivera.”
Rivera’s career is one that transcended expectations for who can be on Broadway. She began musical theater at a time when Latinx women were not booking Broadway roles, “let alone originating roles,” Savia said. She was the first Latinx woman to win a Kennedy Center Honor, has won three Tony Awards, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom Award, and in 2015, had a documentary created about her life.
In 2023, Rivera plans to release a memoir, aptly titled Chita: A Memoir, with journalist Patrick Pacheco. She strives to use her position as a celebrated performer to shepherd in the new generation of musical theater artists.
“She is mindful of passing on her wisdom to future generations,” Savia said. “She has taken early career artists, particularly female artists, under her wing. She is generous inside of a rehearsal process, and she loves being a part of the educational and apprenticeship tradition that still thrives in the American theater.”
Saturday night, Rivera will bring all this, and her dazzling performance, to the Amp stage. She will reimagine moments from West Side Story, Chicago, Kiss of the Spider Woman, as well as from Sweet Charity and Bye Bye Birdie. Rivera’s Amp performance will also feature a musical tribute to her cherished friends, the acclaimed songwriting duo of John Kander and Fred Ebb. And, if this showcase could garner any more excitement, music from Leonard Bernstein, Jerry Herman, Stephen Sondheim and musical partners Charles Strouse & Lee Adams will be woven into the night.
And while this performance is sure to be showstopping and Rivera is a “real triple threat,” Savia said, her performance at Chautauqua will draw audiences in — in a new way.
“When Chita Rivera is here on the Amphitheater stage, this will be a rare opportunity for Chautauquans to connect with her in a more intimate way,” Savia said. “She’s going to speak about her own life, her extraordinary life, in her own words. She’s going to invite us into a space where she can show us her full self, not just refracted through a character.”