She may be a well-traveled stage icon, having originated the roles of high-spirited Anita in “West Side Story,” resourceful Rosie in “Bye Bye Birdie” and the venomous title character in “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” which brought her to St. Paul's Ordway Center in 1995.
But Chita Rivera, 85, can't remember ever setting foot in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.
“I swear to you, I’ve been alive so long I feel like I’ve been everywhere, but I don’t think I’ve been to Minnesota,” said Rivera, who received a lifetime Tony Award on Sunday in New York and will perform a concert with her trio Monday at the Guthrie Theater.
“And the Guthrie is such a famous and wonderful place,” she said. “It’s an honor to be in the theater where so many other really talented people have left their mark. Do they have a lot of Puerto Ricans there?”
Well, there will be a lot more at the Guthrie, at least, with “West Side Story” taking center stage there this summer. Previews begin Saturday but fans can see Friday’s dress rehearsal in a benefit for Puerto Rico hurricane relief. Rivera’s concert is a “bonus” event linked to the theater’s annual fundraising gala on opening night June 22.
Born Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero in Washington, D.C., she was one of five children raised by a homemaker/government clerk mother and musician father. Rivera has lit up the stage longer than most people have been alive — 66 years, ever since she made her stage debut in 1952 as a principal dancer in the national tour of Irving Berlin’s “Call Me Madam.” Rivera is still active, performing on “The Visit” on Broadway three years ago, doing concerts and TV specials.
“I’ve been very blessed that way,” she said. “I started out pretty good. The shows were wonderful that came along. And I’m still doing it. And that feels good.”
We caught up with her by phone as she walked around the house she bought five years ago in semi-rustic Blauvelt, N.Y., just north of New York City.
Q: Ms. Rivera —
A: Call me Chita, please.
Q: OK. I read about how active you were as a child — were you really a hellion?
A: I broke a lot of furniture with my dance. If it wasn’t for my mother putting me in ballet school because I broke up all the furniture in the house, who knows where I would be.
Q: So, is this career path something you knew early on?
A: No. I was one of five and was always very energetic. I loved to dance. And there was always music in our house; my father was a musician. My mother was wise to channel that energy by putting me in ballet school. My mother did it, really. I was just me being me. That’s what I want kids to know: Just be themselves and they’ll find out what course their life is going to take.
Q: Guthrie artistic director Joseph Haj is staging “West Side Story” as the theater’s summer musical. What does that show mean to you?
A: It’s very special. Jerry [choreographer Jerome Robbins] was a genius. By the way, the Jets and Sharks were told never to speak to each other during rehearsal. So what did I do? I met one of the Jets [Tony Mordente] and married him and had a baby. I have a daughter [singer/dancer/choreographer Lisa Mordente] who’s half Jet, half Shark. She would never be here otherwise. It’s sweet.
Q: You’ve had this wonderful, long career. You received your third Tony on Sunday. You’re jetting around the country and world to perform. What keeps you going?
A: Life. The opportunity to do all of this. Sunday was mind-boggling to me. This is a wonderful business to make people feel whatever it is they need to feel. You’re telling stories to people and singing at the same time. You’re lucky enough to be kind of breaking molds and opening doors. You don’t know all of that when you’re doing it. You have to do what you’re called to do, otherwise you keep breaking furniture.
Q: A couple of years ago, I read about your dressing-room exercise routine.
A: Yes. I find little corners and stand on my hands with my legs above my head. I don’t do that as much anymore. And I’m forever stretching. I’ve got a bicycle that keeps calling me but I keep ignoring it. Whatever I do, I naturally exercise.
Q: How do you feel about receiving the lifetime Tony?
A: To be sharing it with Andrew Lloyd Webber. … I’m standing on the outside looking at him and his life, and thinking, that’s pretty wonderful company to be in. It makes you reflect on your own life. You’ve really been a worker all your life, never expecting anything except the satisfaction of doing what you do to live. It makes you say, “Wow!” You don’t think about this when you’re doing it. You’re doing it because you love it. Now I know a little more about who I am. Just a little bit.
Q: This is only your latest honor. I remember seeing you get the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009.
A: When I met our wonderful ex-president Obama, I told him that I looked at him at the inauguration ball, when he danced with Michelle, and he was doing what we called the bop. You step and you touch, you step and you touch. He was so sharp. I said, “Mr. President, it was very cool when you were dancing with your wife. That’s the kind of dance we did in high school.” Michelle leaned over and said, “That’s the only step he’s got.” We had such a good laugh.
Q: What can we expect from your show?
A: I’ll be telling stories about experiences in certain shows and singing some of the songs that I’ve been privileged to do, like from “West Side Story,” “Sweet Charity,” “Chicago,” “The Rink,” “Bye Bye Birdie” and so many of the shows I’ve been lucky to be part of. I’ll be doing that and hopefully lifting spirits. And showing people over 21 that life goes on.