When Chita Rivera was a young girl, she had a dance teacher named Miss Jones. Miss Jones was the tyrant of the dance studio and, as the young Hispanic dancer was trying to compete with the willowy blonde showgirls alongside her, Miss Jones stopped the class and walked over to Chita.
As she stood over the young girl, Miss Jones barked, Chita, stay in your lane -“ and don’t ever forget that!
Speaking to the Star on the eve of her first Australian visit, the 73-year-old Rivera says they were words of advice she has followed all her life.
I really didn’t know what she meant until years later, but she meant to focus and to be myself, and not to try to imitate anybody in any other lane. It was about doing what I felt from my heart.
That’s the only way to get through life and understand yourself. As you focus, and stay in your lane, you won’t be distracted by everything else going on.
Rivera obviously learned the lesson well, and has been doing things her way to great acclaim over the past six decades.
She made her Broadway debut in 1952, and became a star five years later when she created the role of Anita in West Side Story. Iconic roles in such shows as Bye Bye Birdie, Chicago, The Rink, Kiss Of The Spiderwoman and Nine, as well as her recent triumph in her autobiographical show, The Dancer’s Life, have kept her in the spotlight ever since.
But while Rivera has performed all over the world, she says she has always been holding out for the chance to perform in Australia. Her one-woman cabaret show plays at the Sydney Opera House from 12 to 19 August.
I have been asked so many times to come to Australia, but this time it just worked out, she says. I had some time between The Dancer’s Life on Broadway and taking it out on the road, so I decided it was time to come down.
I was once working on the QEII, and there were a group of Australians on our table, and they were so much fun. I remember making the comment, -˜Australians are what Texans should be,’ and I do hope you know what I mean by that, she laughs in that famous throaty voice.
There are two Australians, however, she is more than keen to talk about -“ Peter Allen, the late husband of her close friend and former co-star Liza Minnelli, and the man playing him in The Boy From Oz, Hugh Jackman.
Peter Allen was a great friend of mine, she says almost wistfully.
No one talked like Peter, no once could dance like him or show off like him -“ and that smile! Peter Allen should be a folk hero in your country, and Hugh Jackman is not chopped liver either!
We did two Tony Awards together, and he had men, women, children, dogs and cats falling over him.
I watched Hugh closely, and he is a naturally good person. He deserves every good thing he gets, and is going to tear up your town with The Boy From Oz.
It’s high praise indeed coming from such a brilliant singer, dancer and actress.
While Rivera has spent the majority of her career on the stage, she has made only a few appearances on screen. In recent years, she did a cameo in the movie of Chicago, and joined fellow Broadway diva Michelle Lee to play a lesbian couple in Will & Grace.
I remembering seeing Chicago for the first time and when I came on the screen, I thought I looked like Cher in drag, she laughs
But then I figured that maybe that is not such a bad thing.
And I loved doing Will & Grace. The first day I walked on to the set, and I heard someone playing the overture of West Side Story.
When I looked to see where the music was coming from, it was Sean Hayes (Jack) playing the piano for me. He just looked up with that adorable face, and so I walked over and slapped him. I said, -˜How dare you be this talented!’ We had such a fabulous time.
While Rivera admits West Side Story remains her favourite of all shows, there is a sense of dark irony as she tells it makes her angry that the show, with its tale of racial intolerance, is still relevant for modern audiences.
Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to look back at it and say, -˜Oh, that is how things used to be’? she says.
It is a brilliant show, but its subject matter is still current as people have not learned to live together, to appreciate differences and to share the planet with each other. It is very disheartening.
But that is one of the things I have been blessed with in my career. I was able to do shows that really meant something and that had something to say about our culture and the times.
It was the same with The Kiss of the Spiderwoman. That story was phenomenal and it was something I wanted to say about the difference in people and how beautiful those differences are, as opposed to being frightening or threatening.
Miss Jones, who died only recently, must have been proud of her star pupil. By staying in her own lane, Rivera has earned her status as a legend. She now passes the wisdom she’s learned to performance students she lectures to.
I tell the kids coming up not to take it too seriously and for God’s sake keep a sense of humour. You really are only as good as everyone around you, as no one really stands alone. You don’t do it by yourself.
Then with another throaty laugh, and referring to her dance number in Chicago, she adds, I simply cannot do it alone!
Chita Rivera plays at The Studio at the Sydney Opera House from 12 to 19 August. Bookings on 9250 7777.