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At 82, Chita Rivera's Still Got 'A Lot of Livin' to Do'
November 6, 2015  | By David Hinckley

Don’t count Chita Rivera among those surprised she’d still be headlining a Broadway musical at the age of 82.

“I’m not amazed at all,” says Rivera. “I still love telling stories. I feel sorry for kids today who take it easy.”

That attitude may explain why Rivera’s Great Performances special Friday night on PBS (9 o’clock) is titled Chita Rivera: A Lot of Livin’ To Do.

Don’t expect a retirement party any time soon.

The PBS show tracks a career, mostly on stage, that led her to become the first Latina to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in 2009.

She started in 1951, age 18, in Call Me Madam. She went on to create or play characters as memorable as Anita in West Side Story (left), Rosie in Bye Bye Birdie and Velma in Chicago.

She thought about quitting after the birth of her daughter Lisa in 1958, she admits, “but then I realized I could continue my career and also raise my daughter. So I did.”

A lot of performers probably would have retired in 1986 when a car hit Rivera’s taxi on W. 86th Street and broke her leg in 12 places.

That’s not the kind of development you want when you’re a dancer in your 50s.

But she was back on Broadway by 1990 in Hello Dolly and then in Kiss of the Spider Woman, for which she won one of her two Tonys.

Not surprisingly, Rivera has a reservoir of stories from her years in show biz.

Dean Martin “made me a little nervous” when she appeared on his TV show, she recalls, “because he came in on the day of shooting, and I was used to rehearsals.”

Sid Caesar made her nervous in a different way. “He was so talented,” she says, “that you felt you had to live up to his standards.”

She talks about working with Elaine Stritch back in Call Me Madam. She suggests she was “a little luckier” than fellow Puerto Rican Rita Moreno, who played Anita in the film version of West Side Story.

“Rita found more discrimination than I did,” says Rivera. “She was typecast from being in the film. From the Broadway show, I wasn’t.”

The discrimination problem with the Broadway version, Rivera says, came from the Tony Awards.

West Side Story didn’t win a Tony,” she says, with a look as incredulous as it must have been more than 50 years ago. “Can you imagine that?”

Still, engaging as Rivera’s early show biz stories remain, she often steers the conversation toward the present.

She’s extremely proud, she says, of having played the lead Broadway role last spring in The Visit (left), a dark musical by Terrence McNally, John Kander and Fred Ebb.

While it only ran about three months, Rivera won another Tony nomination for her performance. Beyond that, just getting the show to Broadway at all was an epic achievement, since it took 14 years and four productions.

“It’s a great show,” says Rivera. “It’s about what’s happening in our world today. I wanted to take it to Beijing and Singapore and London so everyone everywhere could see it.

“A lot of people thought it was a story about revenge. It wasn’t. It was a love story. But I guess people don’t always like to see what is going on in their own backyards.”

Rivera also went through a personal drama over those 14 years: Her voice changed.

“The doctor always told me to be prepared,” she says. “Because it will happen. And when it changes, you have to go with it. He told me to listen to Mabel Mercer.”

She laughs.

“I hope to be somewhere near that good.”

More specifically, she says, “When I first heard the music for The Visit, I wanted to sing it like Renee Fleming. I told that to Fred Ebb and he said he didn’t write it for Renee Fleming.” But if everything about that show took a path of its own, Rivera says that’s all right, because her life has done the same thing.

She’s fine with the constant being change, and she says she’s looking forward to more rounds of the same.

“Just walking into a theater,” she says, “is an extraordinary feeling” – as is a song she performed in Sweet Charity.

“Every time I hear Where Am I Going,” she says, “it puts me in the exact place I want to be.”

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