She’s a legend. She has been nominated for a Tony 10 times, winning for The Rink and Kiss of the Spider Woman. She has a Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement, plus at least 10 other lifetime achievement awards. President Obama awarded her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She has been declared a Living Landmark in New York.
Chita originated Anita in West Side Story on Broadway. The producers of West Side Story in London delayed the production by half a year so that Chita could originate the role there as well, after having her daughter, Lisa, who she refers to as her “greatest production.” She has been on Broadway an amazing 18 times, ranging even more amazingly from 1950 to 2015!
In her late 80s, Chita was finally convinced to write her autobiography, Chita: A Memoir, written with Patrick Pacheco. She had been reluctant to discuss her personal life, and this book focuses 95% on her work. She has the ability to know her worth without being full of herself. She knows she is a great performer, but she doesn’t assume that makes her a great person. However, in this autobiography, she certainly seems like a great person, full of love and humor, honest but not mean, a joy to spend some 300 pages with.
The book is arranged roughly chronologically, with 20 chapters. There is also the occasional “Entr’acte,” where Chita focuses on a particular person or topic–e.g., her daughter, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. The photo section is unusually rich, with wonderful pictures in both black-and-white and color. The book lacks an index, which is too bad, and while it provides an impressive list of her awards, it does not provide a list of her credits.
Chita says that she is not as nice as people think she is. She has this alter ego, you see, named Dolores, who she describes as a bat out of hell. (Chita’s not-quite-full name is Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero.) In general, Chita is eager to please, as, she says, dancers are. Dolores, on the other hand, doesn’t take shit from anyone. For example, when Janet Leigh was cast in the movie version of Bye Bye Birdie in Chita’s role, she writes, “I was disappointed; Dolores was pissed off.”
Chita’s life has been beyond remarkable. She’s done everything and known everybody. Her anecdotes include such people as the Beatles (“I’d never met anyone as subversive as John Lennon”), many Hollywood stars, and the Obamas, but mostly she focuses on the greats of Broadway, many of whom she worked with. In particular, she writes about Gwen Verdon (who she adored), Liza Minnelli (Chita loves and respects her but is honest about the complications of working with someone who has drug problems), Bob Fosse (talented but nasty), Roger Rees (wonderful and charming in general, heroic in his last days), and her “dear and beloved Freddy Ebb.”
And she knows how to tell a story. There’s no way to tell how much Pacheco contributed, but however they worked together, the book is a fast, fun read full of fabulous tales, smart and insightful. It may well make you laugh and cry. And I bet you’ll be sad when it ends.