- Purchase/rental options available:
Theatre Journal 54.3 (2002) vii-xix
[Access article in PDF]
In the fall of 1957, a relatively unknown performer in one of her first major Broadway shows broke out of gypsy anonymity to launch a career that would establish her as one of the major performers of American theatre in the twentieth century. Chita Rivera's performance of Anita in West Side Story, in the original Broadway production at the Winter Garden, is among the legendary moments in Broadway history (Fig. 1). Dance Magazine placed her on the cover of its November 1957 issue and wrote glowingly of her performance:
About the dancers, who also happen to be the singers and actors in West Side Story: They are, as dancers and sometimes as actors, superb. They can't sing Mr. Bernstein's complicated score, and it is his best thus far, but oh, can they dance! Each and every one of them has soloist possibilities in his own genre. Star of the piece is, indisputably, Chita Rivera. She is one of the few who can sing, can act, and, of course, dance magnificently. Here is a performer of enormous individuality with a dance approach quite uniquely her own. She has made the transition from chorus to star with seemingly no effort, shedding irritating mannerisms and replacing them with the superbly assured manner of, with luck, a future great lady of the American musical theatre. 1
Dance Magazine's prophetic claims for Rivera as a "future great lady of the American musical theatre" were echoed in various other production reviews of the period. Rivera was consistently singled out for her performance, particularly for her lead in the Shark girls' number, "America." West Side Story has been written into theatre history mainly for the brilliant contributions of its artistic team: Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents, and Stephen Sondheim. We read little, however, about Rivera's performance except in the initial reviews, and, in fact, when discussions finally turn to the actors, it is now the Academy Award winning performance of Rita Moreno, who starred as Anita in the film version of West Side Story, that is the one most often associated with the role.
Chita Rivera was born Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero in Washington D.C. on January 23, 1933. She started training as a dancer at an early age. In Washington D.C., she studied ballet with Doris Jones and when her family moved to New York City when she was eleven, she won a scholarship to the School of American Ballet where she trained for three years. Before her breakout performance in West Side Story, Rivera had already appeared in a handful of musicals beginning with the 1952 national tour of the Ethel Merman vehicle Call Me Madam and including roles in Can Can and The Shoe String Revue. This is an impressive resume for any aspiring actor, but for a young Latina working in the 1950s this was a remarkable achievement. Her roles after West Side Story established her stature as one of the few Broadway stars who has endured throughout the decades in shows such as Bye Bye Birdie, Chicago, The Rink, and Kiss of the Spider Woman, The Musical. Indeed, this fall marks her fiftieth year as a Broadway performer. Anyone who has seen her perform can attest to her boundless energy and charisma on stage.
Strange then, given Rivera's talents and professional affiliations, that so few of us in theatre studies have focused our attention on her work. If not for the popular press and the drama critics who review for it, and the occasional memoir of one of Rivera's collaborators or historical peers, there would be little documentation of her distinguished career in the theatre. Theatre studies seems ambivalent around the topic of stars, as if generating intellectual energy toward celebrities and the performers we admire undermines our scholarly project and reveals an uncritical love for theatre. 2 The fear that our love of theatre [End Page 7] [Begin Page 9] will call into question our critical capacities follows from our field's efforts to credentialize itself...