Considering that Chita Rivera has a seven-decade reputation as being one of the nicest people in the theater, how can she handle playing one of 20th century drama’s most notorious villains?
“I don’t think of her as a villain at all,” Rivera says calmly of Claire Zachanassian, her character in the Broadway musical The Visit.
That’s in keeping with what every actor is taught: When you play a villain, you cannot think of your characters as evil.
“It’s not just that,” says Rivera. “She’s entitled to the feelings she has.”
You be the judge to what degree. Claire Zachanassian was created by Swiss playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt for his 1956 drama, which came to Broadway in 1958 in a Maurice Valency translation. Claire grew up illegitimate and poor in a small Central European town. She fell in love with the handsome young Anton who impregnated her, then abandoned her in favor of a woman whose father had a business that Anton saw himself inheriting.
The local citizens blamed Claire and drummed her out of town. She worked as a prostitute until one of her customers fell in love with her. He became the first in a series of wealthy husbands, all of whom have since died. The result is that she is currently no less than the richest woman in the entire world.
Now that Claire has announced a visit back home, Anton and the other townspeople hope she’ll bail them out of decades of economic ruin. Indeed she will, bestowing on everyone more than they could have ever hoped.
But in return for the money, Claire wants the townspeople to murder Anton.
Talk about “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” This lady can hold a grudge.
A play that asks if two wrongs do indeed make a right may not seem to be fodder for a Broadway musical — until you hear who’s behind it. The score is by composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb, most famous for such tough musicals as Cabaret and Chicago; the latter starred Rivera.
The libretto is by Terrence McNally, who has won two Tonys for plays (Love! Valour! Compassion! and Master Class) and two for musicals (Kiss of the Spider Woman and Ragtime); the former starred Rivera, who came away with her second Best Actress in a Musical Tony for it. Her first one came for The Rink, a 1984 musical written by — you guessed it — McNally, Kander, and Ebb.
Says Rivera, “I always pray to God, ‘Oh, please, let me always work with these guys.’”
Claire may well become Rivera’s third jewel of the Tony triple crown. She says she isn’t thinking about that, but is simply concentrating on how to make the character believable and even sympathetic.
“She just wants the truth told,” says the star. “She’s angry with good reason. Besides, I do believe that part of every one of us, deep down inside, has some Claire in us. We’re all capable of very dark feelings. It’s why the audience relates to the show.”
When Dürrenmatt’s play debuted on Broadway in 1958, Rivera didn’t see it because she was getting her big break, appearing as Anita in the original production of West Side Story.
“Maybe I could have gone on one of my nights off,” she admits. “But I tend to do anything but go to the theater when I’m free. So the play was new to me when I started working on it.”
Nevertheless, like so many who heard the hype about the original production of Follies in 1971, she did make an exception to see that on one of her nonperforming nights. “And while watching,” she says, “that’s when I noticed one of the dancers: Graciela Daniele.”
Four years later, they shared the stage as two of the “merry murderesses” in Chicago (in which Rivera introduced the standard “All That Jazz”). Nine years after that, Daniele choreographed Rivera in The Rink. When time came for Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life, Daniele directed and choreographed. Now she’s doing the dances for The Visit.
“Graciela constantly keeps reminding me that we all have to keep stretching and moving,” she says. “We can’t stay stagnant.”
As if Rivera could. Nevertheless, many might not assume that the legendary star would now be capable of any dancing; how many octogenarians are? But just as Claire brags, “I’m unkillable,” Rivera (thank the Lord!) seems so too. In 1986, she was the victim of a car accident that shattered her left leg in 12 places. That resulted in the insertion of 18 screws and two plates. The word on Broadway was that her then-35-year career would now be forced to come to a close. But here she is, nearly 30 years and five musicals later.
“The accident was part of life,” she says matter-of-factly. “It’s not what happens in life — it’s how you deal with it.”
And yet, because Rivera walks with a cane throughout The Visit, many theatergoers might assume that it’s a necessity. “No,” she says. “The musical states that Claire has an artificial leg — and even an artificial hand. But just in case anyone thinks I need that cane, at the end of the show I come bounding out boldly for my curtain call. Terrence McNally said, ‘Chita, if you had to, you could do this role in a wheelchair,’ and I immediately replied, ‘Don’t say that! That’s really tempting fate!’”
Claire Zachanassian — the third and fourth syllables, interestingly enough, are pronounced as “Nazi” — comes from a gypsy background. “It’s not the first gypsy I’ve played,” she says. “I was one in Bajour and another in Zenda.” Both of these ’60s musicals were failures (not of Rivera’s making), with the latter not deemed good enough to even come to New York. A lesser star wouldn’t even allude to one flop, let alone two, but Rivera is secure enough to acknowledge history.
Rivera thinks of herself as a gypsy in another way. “It’s the term dancers in a chorus used to describe themselves in the days when they left one show and went into another,” she says. “I’ve found through the years that gypsies are warm and caring individuals and become a family unto themselves. That’s why I’m always proud to say I am one.”
Rivera isn’t at all sad that John Doyle, The Visit’s new director, did make one specific change. “When we first did the show in 2001 in Chicago, and then again in 2008 in Virginia, Claire smoked cigars,” she says. “And even though they got me ones that were as good as Cubans, I really didn’t like smoking them — and not because of the smoke. Claire should be tough, yes, but the cigar made her look crude. Now if they asked me to smoke a pipe…” she jokes.
Rivera has been associated withThe Visit for 14 years. “And they were working on it long before I got involved,” she says. Indeed, Ebb didn’t even live to see the second production, for he died in 2004.
“I never lost faith we’d get here,” she says. “Because I’d say to my friends, ‘Tell me the truth: Is it any good?’ and they’d tell me yes. I believe in timing, and this is the right time for us to be here.”
Of course, most people who recently passed an 82nd birthday have long since retired or, at the very least, are considering it. “Gosh, no,” Rivera says, sounding surprised that such a subject should even be broached. “That’s up to God. But in the meantime, life is fabulous and I’m lucky enough to have lived a long time while surrounded by the greatest creative people. I have too much to dance and sing about yet, and too many people to entertain. The Visit won’t be my last musical — well, unless we run for years and years and years and years.”
Photo credit: Laura Marie Duncan