By SIGAL RATNER-ARIAS
2009-09-04 09:09 AM
At 76, the two-time Tony winner is almost as active as when she was 35, working in the theater and preparing to release a new album that she says makes her feel even more alive.
In an interview, Rivera talked about her life and career in the theater, particularly the changes she has seen on Broadway where she appeared in musicals such as "West Side Story," "Chicago," "Kiss of the Spider Woman" and the 2003 revival of "Nine."
The ballerina-trim Rivera laughed when remembering important moments in her life, and fought back tears when talking about loved ones who have died, including her father and friends such as Ricardo Montalban and Leonard Bernstein.
AP: Congratulations on your Medal of Freedom. What was going through your mind when President Obama made the presentation?
Rivera: (Laughs.) Oh my goodness. I couldn't believe I was looking into the eye of MY president. ... As I was sitting among all these amazing people, I had time to really try to be comfortable because I was in awe of everyone, not believing that I was actually sitting there myself.
But then I heard the president speak. And before he gave us our medals, he said that we were people who did what we did out of passion. Not for fame. Not for money. Just because we had to, because we wanted to. And that we have done everything in our power to be examples for the future. ... (And then) I actually said to myself, "Yes, that is my intention. Yes, I have worked all of these years. Yes, I do look forward to being an example for the future of our children." So suddenly I felt it was all right to be with Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Sidney Poitier and Mary Robinson.
AP: You were born in Washington to a Puerto Rican father and a mother of Scottish and Italian descent, but you are considered by many to be a Latina star. What can you tell us about your father?
Rivera: I was 7 years old (when he died) and there were five of us: Carmen Maria, Pedro Julio, Armando Modesto, Dolores Conchita (Chita) and Lola (Lolita). ... We were very, very close. My father was a musician. He was very strict. We were never quite sure whether or not I would have been allowed to go to New York at the age of 14 to continue my schooling there, to accept a scholarship to the New York City Ballet ... had he been alive. Who knows?
AP: You recently starred in the Broadway and touring production of "The Dancer's Life," which celebrated your career. What was it like?
Rivera: It was difficult for me at the beginning when I was talking about my life (to the writers) because when you've had such a huge one, and, thank God a long one, you don't know which section of your life you want to talk about. ... (But) most of all it wasn't something like, "Look at what I've done." It wasn't that at all. It was, "Look at what you can do if you want to have a career as a dancer. Look at what YOU can do." It was my way of thanking publicly so many people that I have worked with: Ricardo Montalban, Antonio Banderas, Leonard Bernstein. I have really worked with the creme de la creme.
AP: Many of them are no longer with us. Whom do you miss?
Rivera: Well, I miss Jerome Robbins (director-choreographer of "West Side Story") desperately. I miss ("Chicago" and "Spider Woman" lyricist) Fred Ebb desperately. ... Of course, my father. But the great people that I worked with, Donald O'Connor, I miss him very, very much. Leonard Bernstein (composer of "West Side Story"). ... Those were experiences that I wish the younger kids could have because it enabled me to be whatever I am today, certainly appreciate the business, the art of the theater the way I do.
AP: How about your experience with Banderas and Montalban?
Rivera: Pshhh. (Banderas) is just everything you would hope he would be. I actually did "Nine" because I wanted (to work with him). I had this image of Antonio being this enormous beautiful bird that's just flying. ... So I said, "I wanna ride on his trip." ... (And) it was a fantastic experience. ... He was brilliant in the role ... he sang amazingly. ... And of course, he's not bad to look at. Ricardo Montalban was (she puts her fingers together and kisses them) a dream, a gentleman. He was just a beautiful, beautiful man and a great friend.
AP: How much has Broadway changed since you began?
Rivera: Well, we don't seem to have quite as many big choruses. All of the dancers now sing. They sing as well as they dance. There are many revivals, which is terrific because they're wonderful shows. (But) I don't think we have as many young writers as we had before. And I think we're missing original musicals. That's what we're famous for.
AP: What has been your proudest moment?
Rivera: Well my proudest moment is my daughter Lisa (Mordente). (After that), my proudest moment is the Medal of Freedom.
AP: Any upcoming projects?
Rivera: This album I'm very excited about because I've always said through the years that I would like to be like Rosemary Clooney. I would like to be like Tony Bennett. I'd like to be cool and jazzy and hip. ... So I'm being able to do that through this album. ... And it's going to be called "Chita Rivera and Now I Swing." I think that's neat. Don't you?