Chita Rivera and Brian Clarey, together at last

by Brian Clarey

What the hell does a guy like me say to Chita Rivera?

Frankly, our names don’t even belong in the same sentence, let alone the same room.

A quick review of our respective bodies of work:

She was trained as a ballerina at a young age and used that discipline to become one of the biggest stars on the Great White Way. My background is in booze and video games. The two have done me very little good over the last 25 years.

Chita Rivera performed in the original Broadway productions of West Side Story and Bye Bye Birdie. I was in inaugural member of the mug club at the Loyola University campus bar.

Chita has been nominated for eight Tony Awards, winning two of them, and was presented a Kennedy Center Award by President George W. Bush. I was named “most improved goalie” at Adelphi University Soccer Camp in 1978 and “best sports writer” in a college journalism contest for a piece on a female personal trainer that was shamelessly loaded with sexual innuendo.

At 73, Chita has the legs and ass of a 35-year-old. I am beginning to be concerned, at 36, about varicose veins.

Yet she still conceded to a phone interview, and even over the long-distance line I was intimidated.

“I’d like to ask you something you’ve never been asked before,” I said to her.

“Good luck with that one,” she says.

She’ll be in town Thursday night for a show at the Carolina Theatre, part of the UNCG University Concert/Lecture Series, to perform and talk about her career, which began with rigorous training in George Balanchine’s School of American Ballet in New York City. So I open with that.

“Ballet shaped my career,” she says. “It’s got everything to do with the foundation. Certainly that’s what I tell all the kids: Without ballet training, longevity is not the same; the body is not the same. You can only build a house with a good foundation. If something goes wrong, technique takes over for you and saves the day.”

But surely her success has something to do with the roles she’s chosen. Right?

“I can’t say I picked them,” she says. “The door was open and I was smart enough to go through. When you’re asked by Fred Ebb, Bob Fosse, Michael Kidd, all those great choreographers and directors, you’re kind of foolish not to take it. I put a blindfold on. I came along at a great time; these were great people. I wanted to be next to them.”

She likes writers, too.

“The writer makes a good character. Passion. An edge. A darkness. In the case of Birdie, a sense of humor. Naturalness. It’s the writer; the writer makes the character interesting. All these kids on stage today think they can write their own script. I want to speak the writer’s words – don’t leave it up to me. I can ad-lib, but I want the writer. You gotta speak the writer’s words in exactly the way he wrote them, and in rehearsal if they don’t work that writer will change them to fit.”

This unlikely senior citizen also advises up-and-coming female performers to eschew the term “diva.”

“I hate it. I see that as kind of a’… it’s nothing. They’ve given that word an attitude. It was originally given to a great, great, great opera singer. That comes with experience and talent and time. Now, whatshername’… I can’t even think of these young kids’ names’… the poor girl who was lip-syncing on TV and her sister.”

“Ashlee Simpson?”

“Yes. Now Christina Aguilera is a brilliant singer. But she’s brilliant. But the Simpson girls’… they probably give the Hilton girls the title of ‘diva’ these days. I just loathe it.”

As far as advice for the whippersnappers, she is blunt.

“All I know is to work hard, to respect your work, respect the actors you’re with and not to be alone. Don’t think you’re out there by yourself – listen to the director. It’s a collaborative feel; collaboration is a very important thing. When you’re young you just listen and do: That’s how you learn. Don’t think you’re better than everybody else. They should have the freedom and the courage to show themselves, to give of themselves to the craft. That is the only way you find out who you are and the only way to find out what talent you’ve got – not by copying anybody, but by being yourself. Have a passion for your work – there’s no easy way out. You gotta work hard.”

Perhaps the only things Chita and I have in common are this acceptance of hard work as an ingredient to success and a loathing for the Simpson sisters.

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