The Wonderful World of Wanzie: Remembering Chita Rivera, 1970s Broadway and Chita’s many Orlando connections

Remembering our beloved Chita Rivera brings back so many wonderful memories. Not only memories of the inimitable “triple threat” and seemingly ageless performing legend herself, but of my early introduction to Broadway and my resulting theater-inspired life journey, which in later years would culminate in a significant personal interaction between she and me, which also involved contemporary Broadway star, Justin (“Rock of Ages” / “Spiderman” / “Bonnie & Clyde”) Matthew Sargent.

I realize that to many readers of this column I am likely thought to be older than Christ’s underwear, but no, I did not personally see Chita’s celebrated performance as Anita in the original Broadway production of “West Side Story” because that show actually opened the year I was born: 1957.

And also, no, I am not going to recount Chita’s career at large as so many other far more qualified individuals have already done, perhaps none more personal and in-depth than the memories shared by my pals Seth (“Mr. Broadway”) Rudetsky and his husband James Wesley during their recent Stars in the House webcast tribute.

Nor is this column meant in anyway to be an obituary, but rather a celebration of happy Chita-related (And often Orlando-centric) events and encounters.

So, let’s get to it.

I had just turned 17 in 1974 and I knew I was about to drop out of high school to run-away to Florida. Since at that time I had never seen a Broadway show, despite my having always lived only 90 miles or so from Manhattan – because my father felt that going to NYC in the ’70s was tantamount to “asking to be shot” – a sentiment which he could easily overlook whenever he would pack up the family and take us to the annual Sportsman’s Show at the Coliseum – I convinced two of my favorite teachers and drama club advisors to allow me to organize a field trip to see Glynis Johns and Harmonie Gingold in A Little Night Music. The show was absolutely mesmerizing in far too many ways to recount here, but that rather lavish production had wet what would eventually become my insatiable appetite for musical theater, and I couldn’t wait for the next the course. So much so, that just months after escaping to Orlando, I flew back to NYC, without my father’s knowledge, (Remember, I had run away and I was still technically a minor traveling alone) specifically to see my second Broadway musical which was “Pippin,” staring John Rubenstein, Irene Ryan and Ben Vereen.

While those first two brushes with the then rather gritty – and admittedly dangerous – “Great White Way” were certainly sensational, it wasn’t until seeing Chita Rivera and Gwen Verdon, the following year, in the original production of “Chicago” that made me realize musical theater could be all about the star-quality performances more than any other single element of this highly collaborative art form.

While I knew very little of her at the time (having only ever seen Chita in the 1969 movie version of “Sweet Charity” in which Shirley MacLaine had the starring role), I instinctively knew that I was witnessing the talents of a major and incredibly gifted star who was uniquely captivating in every way. And the show itself resonated with me in a way in which the previous two had not.

At the time I saw “A Little Night Music” my unsophisticated theater palate could not fully appreciate the complexities of Sondheim, nor could I easily relate to the 1900-Sweden time and setting of the show. Likewise, the visually spectacular “Pippin” was set in the middle-ages, and I while I could, and did, so identify with the directionless angst of the title character as he searched for his “Corner of the Sky” – which precisely mirrored my own circumstance and feelings at the time – the whole King Charlemagne connection was as much a history lesson as it was musical theater for me. I was as much impressed by the highly stylistic set designs and innovative technical achievements of both these productions as I was with the material. Then came “Chicago.”

The single-set structure on which “Chicago” was staged didn’t really change much during the show and was devoid of any actual scenery that would suggest a setting. And, while there is no discounting the wonderful music & lyrics of Kander and Ebb or the sensational Bob Fosse choreography, it was so clearly obvious that the absolute wow-factor of this particular production was generated by the jaw-dropping execution of that choreography and the raspy vocal dexterity of the delivery of those songs by the show’s two female leads.

While I would go on to make nearly annual trips to the Big Apple to satiate my Broadway appetite it would be another 18 years before I again managed to see Chita on the Broadway stage, which was in another Kander and Ebb show – “Kiss of the Spiderwoman.” I, along with everyone else who was fortunate enough to witness this physically demanding performance by a Chita who was at that time fully 60 years old, was absolutely gob smacked by her performance. You see, Chita’s career as a dancer had long since but declared over, owing to a devasting car accident she endured in 1986 leaving, perhaps her greatest commodity – her legs – in shambles. The accident left Chita with her left leg broken in twelve places, requiring eighteen screws and two braces to get her back on her feet. It was widely, and wrongly, assumed that her career as a dancer had been effectively ended. But the irrepressible “gypsy” in her not only proved the skeptics wrong, as among other shows and award-winning performances, she danced her ass off in spectacular fashion in her 1988 national tour of Can Can. But, in “Spider Woman” she seemed super-human; performing while suspended on an ariel harness, executing exhilarating choreography that would have posed a challenge to a dancer of any age…but there she was, dancing on full par along with an ensemble a fraction of her age, none of whom, like her, were dancing on a leg which had literally been bolted back together following her multiple breaks and subsequent tenacious approach to excruciatingly painful physical therapy. It was amazing to witness her unbelievable flexibility and indomitable stamina in that show and I was lucky enough to have done so in person!

While Chita toured her way through Florida in multiple productions in the years since, my earliest and fondest memory of seeing her live in Central Florida was attending her positively thrilling performance at the Top of the World on the 15th floor of Disney’s Contemporary Resort Hotel. While the venerated supper club of a bygone era was a regular haunt of mine in the mid ’70s through the ’80s – where I saw many a showbiz great – it was only Chita who incorporated dance into her nightclub act to an extent no other performer had ever before done. And in the intimate setting of that particular nightclub, it was truly a once in a lifetime experience, I shall never forget. Just as I’m certain the unsuspecting high school students from Minnesota who were in town to participate in an “Acting 101” seminar at EPCOT will never forget their surprise visit from a vacationing Chita who unexpectedly dropped in on one of their sessions to inspire the students and answer their questions.

Chita was also a multi-year celebrity narrator of Disney’s Candlelight Processional which I was also fortunate enough to witness on multiple occasions. While it was typical for most narrators to stand in silence during the musical portions of that presentation, Chita would unabashedly sing out in full force along with the massed choir and Voices of Liberty. This came off as completely acceptable because it was not so much that she was “performing” but rather that she was respectfully caught-up in the stirring emotion of the proceedings and simply couldn’t help but join in. From time to time when it was obvious she didn’t fully know the more intricate lyrics of some of the lesser-known hymns she would often turn her back to the audience so she could more full enjoy the efforts of the assembled singers behind her – making direct eye contact with many – and never failing to enthusiastically applaud them after each and every number. This too was uniquely and charitably, Chita.

Never in my life would I have ever imagined a time when I would personally engage with Chita Rivera, but that did indeed happen:

I was both fortunate and honored to work with the team of people who brought “From Broadway With Love: A Benefit Concert For Orlando” to the stage of the Walt Disney Theater within just a few weeks of the tragic 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting. Chita was but one of more than 20 Broadway stars who donated their time and talents to this effort, but she was certainly the most pedigreed and most legendary member of the cast. And yet, she could not have been more giving, more gracious, or more down-to-earth.

During rehearsal I was seated dead center in an otherwise empty row situated directly behind the director’s table. Chita had just arrived and while waiting her turn to rehearse she just happened to sit herself down at the end of my row in an aisle seat. Justin Sargent was just taking the stage to rehearse “Don’t Stop Believin” from “Rock of Ages.” Midway through his number I noticed Chita had gotten up and stepped into the aisle. While literally beaming up at Justin she began to totally rock-out and danced to the remainder of the number. When Justin concluded his first pass at the song there was some discussion between he and musical director, Seth Rudetsky, as to whether or not the tempo had been to his liking. During that conversation Chita made her way down the row and plopped down next to me. I was “I need-to-pinched” astonished as she very politely excused herself for the interruption, but confessed to me that she had no Idea who she had just seen perform. When I told her It was Justin Sargent she enthusiastically proclaimed her belief that he was destined to become a major Broadway star. About that time, Justin, who had expressed to Seth that he would prefer the Orchestra play at an accelerated tempo, began his second performance of the song. Chita, blurted out, “Oh, he’s doing it again!” and without excusing herself she hurried back down the row and into the aisle where she then proceeded to again dance throughout the entire 4 ½ minutes-long, faster version of the rock song. She was 83 years-old at the time! Immediately after completing that 4 ½ minute impromptu dance, Chita was called to the stage to rehearse her own number – “All That Jazz” – which she accomplished in one take, flawlessly, and without need of a breather following her rather animated aisle dance. I was then, and remain now, absolutely amazed by her physical stamina and still pitch-perfect voice. At 83! I was further amazed when Chita showed up at the official after party at the Abbey where she graciously met and spoke with those directly affected by the Pulse tragedy, gave out autographs, and posed for pictures. Legendary status had clearly not affected this major star’s humanity and her never-ending impulse to give of herself as had been evidenced throughout her entire career by the number of times she performed for free for every charity imaginable. One of her last such endeavors was remembering her own by performing with Seth at the Actor’s Fund Home where she delighted in the “All That Jazz” sing-a-long as her many retired peers (most younger than herself) gleefully chimed in.

Like most everyone else who loves musical theater, I was devastated by the loss of Chita Rivera, who managed to remain relevant, engaged, and active right up into her 91rst year of a life so exquisitely well lived. But, it does not escape me how fortunate I have been to see Chita Rivera perform live, multiple times, and how blessed I was to have eventually have had a personal interaction with this phenomenal woman who I had so long revered.

There is truly a most luminous new Star in the heavens, and I am quite sure she is still dancing.

Michael Wanzie is an Orlando-based playwright, actor and ordained minister. He is most recognized for his direction of productions in the Central Florida area.

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