Chita Rivera has received plenty of accolades over the course of her 70-year performing career, among them: three Tony Awards (including 2018’s lifetime achievement award), the Kennedy Center Honor and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
On Wednesday, the 88-year-old Broadway legend, who originated the role of Anita in “West Side Story,” will receive yet another honor. Chicago’s Porchlight Music Theatre will celebrate Rivera with its Icon Award in recognition for having “forever changed the landscape of American music theater.” Lesser known than other awards, the Icon Award — to Rivera — is no less dear.
To be acknowledged for one’s dedication to theater is quite an honor, Rivera said. Still, she said she has always cared more about the work than the awards, which she credits to luck or chance — though anyone who’s seen her perform would likely disagree.
“I’m flattered,” said Rivera, who originated the role of Velma in “Chicago” and played the titular role in “Kiss of the Spider Woman.” “But the most important thing is to be honest, be true to your craft and get out there and tell the most wonderful stories.”
When it comes to success, Rivera insists “there’s an awful lot of luck involved. The right show comes at the right time. You meet the right person … It’s luck to me, but I guess God says ‘I’m going to give it to you.'”
Lauded as a triple threat, Rivera says she is “a dancer first and a dancer always.”
“A dancer is an actor without words,” said Rivera, who at 15 received a scholarship to the School of American Ballet, founded by choreographer George Balanchine and affiliated with the New York City Ballet.
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“I just wanted to dance, sing and act,” she said. “Most of all I’m a clown. I’m really a very silly person.”
Yet, Rivera is best known for playing femme fatales and uncompromising women. Among her favorite roles is Claire, the oft-widowed, wealthiest woman in the world and central character in the Fred Ebb-John Kander musical “The Visit.”
“I loved that story. I loved it because everybody thinks it’s a story about revenge, but it’s complicated. It’s a love story,” she said. “I loved doing that show just as I loved doing ‘Kiss of the Spider Woman.’ It had that intensity.”
At this point in her career, Rivera could sit back and collect kudos from admirers. She doesn’t intend to do that. Hinting at a project in the works, she says, “I’d like to tell some more stories. I’d like to be some other people.” “Nothing stops. Energy doesn’t stop. Life doesn’t stop,” she said. “We have to keep moving because life keeps moving. Time keeps moving.”
• For information on Porchlight’s Oct. 20 Icons Gala honoring Chita Rivera and the Bayless Family Foundation, see porchlightmusictheatre.org.