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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Chita Rivera, finding her voice

Chita Rivera in “Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life,” at the Schoenfeld Theater in New York, Nov. 22, 2005. Rivera, the fire-and-ice dancer, singer and actress who leapt to stardom in the original Broadway production of “West Side Story” and dazzled audiences for nearly seven decades as a Puerto Rican lodestar of musical theater, died on Jan. 30, 2024. She was 91. (Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)

By Jesse Green

Yes, the legs. Yes, the line. Yes, the look.

But also, less commented on, the voice.

Chita Rivera, who died Tuesday at 91, was a Broadway star as long as anyone — and maybe longer. At first, making her way up in the 1950s, from the chorus of “Guys and Dolls” to Anita in “West Side Story,” dancing was her calling card. In the ’60s and ’70s, comedy and satire followed, with “Bye Bye Birdie” and “Chicago.” Later, in works like “The Rink” (1984), “Kiss of the Spider Woman” (1993) and “The Visit” (2015), her sense of drama prevailed.

Yet for me, it’s her voice that remains indelible.

It almost didn’t emerge. Back when she started, dancers stayed in their own lane. (There were often separate ensembles for dancers and singers.) Like many people exceptionally intent on mastery, Rivera was single-minded. At her audition for the School of American Ballet at 15, she kept tossing off fouetté turns despite a burst blister that was bleeding through her toe shoe. George Balanchine himself dressed the wound. (She was accepted.)

Mastery is not what she felt about her singing. As she relates in “Chita: A Memoir,” written with Patrick Pacheco, she always “hung back” when cast members went out after shows to drink and flirt and belt out show tunes. But while she was on tour with “Call Me Madam” in the early 1950s, a piano player at a theatrical hangout in Chicago overheard her and offered lessons. “Chita, you can sing,” he said.

“I could sing? Really? That was news to me.”

There are singers who make sure it’s news — they’re great. And then there are those who just sing naturally, with little break from their speaking voices. Rivera, perhaps because she at first felt less confident in song than in movement, never got fussy about the border between dialogue and lyrics. She plowed right past it, sounding exactly alike in both: slightly reedy, husky yet clarion, unaffected but full of comment and character.

You can hear all of that in her Anita, whose furious lyrics for “A Boy Like That” (by Stephen Sondheim) are essentially prose dialogue anyway. (“A boy like that, who’d kill your brother!”) And indeed, anger was always a good key for Rivera. Even in a comic role — even in a comic song — she worked the edge of the notes and emotions.

Listen to “An English Teacher” from “Bye Bye Birdie.” Though cast in the basically upbeat role of Rose Alvarez, the girlfriend of a songwriter who was supposed to go to grad school but didn’t, Rivera made sure we heard both love and frustration. Her little grace notes and glottal scrapes — what the Broadway musical director Seth Rudetsky describes in his “deconstruction” of the performance as “sassy riffs” — rough up the comic sheen of the number and reveal something about the woman’s defenses and disappointment. She makes mixed emotions an art.

In the memoir, Rivera describes a similarly split self. “Chita is sweet and kind,” we are told, but Dolores — her given name — “is a bat out of hell.” Dolores is “the one who rises up, eyes flashing, smoke coming out of ears, when, as my daughter Lisa says, ‘Mom goes Puerto Rican.’ Not hard to imagine, right?”

Not if you saw her as Anna in “The Rink.” Though Anna, the owner of a ruined skating palace, is Italian, Rivera played her as a total Dolores, especially regarding her wayward daughter, Angel, played by Liza Minnelli. Customized like couture by John Kander and Fred Ebb, Anna’s numbers are mostly fiery and Angel’s mostly soaring. But as the pair reach toward rapprochement, in their ecstatically earthy duet “The Apple Doesn’t Fall,” their harmonies and hubba-hubbas intertwine. In a bravura display, the singers seem to pass rawness and polish back and forth repeatedly, like regifts.

By her 80s, Rivera’s rawness and polish, her snark and sentiment, were indistinguishable. In “The Visit,” about a fabulously wealthy woman come to wreak revenge on her hometown, Kander and Ebb give her songs, like “Love and Love Alone,” that keep reversing polarities: They fester with affection and ache with anger. The double-sided lyric, seemingly about the joy of love, is also, as Rivera makes plain with her craggy but unstoppable voice, about its depredations. It’s as if Dolores and Chita were dancing.

But then, having interviewed Rivera several times, I’m not convinced the split between the two avatars was real. Are the two sides of a coin split? In any case, in Rivera’s thrilling and alarming voice, they became one.

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