To the Girl From Washington D.C. , Thank You

Chris Peterson

Katherine Anderson del Rivero noticed her 11 year old daughter, Conchita, was a tomboy. To tone down her rambunctiousness, she enrolled her in the Jones-Hayward School of Ballet, a school run by an impressive pair of women, Doris Jones and Claire Haywood. When Conchita turned 15,  a teacher from George Balanchine's School of American Ballet visited their studio. She was one of two students picked to audition in New York, and was accepted on scholarship based on her audition. 

Two years later, Conchita accompanied a friend to auditions for a national tour of Call Me Madam, for support. Conchita ended up landing the role, thus beginning one of the most prolific and important careers in Broadway history. 

Chita Rivera's career has been all about defying the odds. 1950's America, it was hard for most audiences to accept seeing a non-white leading lady in their shows, that is until they saw her dance. 

And what started with a national tour has turned into a career consisting of 10 Tony nominations, at least one in each of the last six decades, two wins and a slew of prestigious honors such as the Kennedy Center Honors and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. 

But beyond the awards, Rivera's greatest contribution to the American theatre is blazing a trail for the thousands upon thousands of Hispanic performers who have followed in her footsteps. Sure, someone else could've broken through the color barriers, but they wouldn't have been inspired by Rivera who attacked every performance with an explosiveness rarely seen on Broadway before her. 

With the announcement that The Visit, will be closing tomorrow night, it's been widely thought, reported, speculated without confirmation that this will be the last time Chita Rivera takes a bow on a Broadway stage. If that's the case, I hope the audience gives her a standing ovation and never sits down. 

There is a certain tenacity with a Chita Rivera performance. She takes hold of you and doesn't let go until the final bow. Having seen her in four separate productions, each one is uniquely spellbinding. 

And if we're talking about tenacity and guts, this is one of my favorite Chita Rivera stories" 

"In 1986, she broke her leg in almost 20 places, in a car accident on the Upper West Side. She was starring in the Jerry Herman musical Jerry’s Girls at the time, and was replaced by no less than seven different dancers, one for each of the numbers—seven 20-somethings to fill in for one 53-year-old." - Vanity Fair

For stories like this and everything else, 

Thank you Chita Rivera. 

Always Wanted to Do This

Aaron Netsky

Last night I read that the Broadway production of The Visit, Kander and Ebb’s last collaboration, will close. I’ve been following the progress of this musical for a long time, because it has been progressing for a long time. In fact, the first scheduled Broadway opening for The Visit, based on a play of the same name by Friedrich Dürrenmatt, was March 15, 2001. It might have been one of the first musicals I ever followed the Broadway opening of, part of my first ever watching of the Tonys. It would have been a really weird addition to that year’s musicals, it fits in this year’s group much more nicely, but fitting in was never the point. This was a passion project. All involved have been trying to get this musical to Broadway for fifteen years, and even though it is closing without Tonys and with only a few months of performances, the mark of its success is that no one gave up on it in all that time. Oh, to be part of a passion project.

I actually have been part of passion projects. Not on the scale of The Visit, no, and not on Broadway, or even off. I’m referring to the musicals I have been part of that started with the director saying, “I’ve always wanted to do this piece,” and really meaning it. Either it was never the right time, or there were never the right resources, or she didn’t feel ready, for whatever reason; people often put off what they most want to do, because it’s got to be special. I myself have such a show, two in fact, that I want to put on one day, but for me it’s a lack of resources, I’m not waiting for the right moment (though it might be along in the coming months, if I’m very lucky). There is something magical about knowing that you are making someone’s long-term goal come to fruition. It makes you want to do your best, not that you should ever do anything less.

My first experience in a passion project came about my junior year of college, when the fall musical was Pacific Overtures. The director loved Asian culture, taught several classes about it, and incorporated it into classes that were not specifically about it. She routinely put on Asian-themed plays, but, as has been recently observed with the coming of Allegiance to Broadway, there are not a lot of Asian-themed musicals, and even fewer written by Asians. Pacific Overtures, of course, was written by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman, but it was based on the story of the “opening” of Japan by the West, and, originally, was performed mostly in the style of Kabuki theatre. We used some Kabuki, some Noh, and I learned to use a bokken for an awesome fight scene, choreographed by a fellow student who made special trips to a dojo to learn the art. It was nothing like any of us who were involved had ever done before, so we were immersed in a way that being in more conventional musicals does not require.

The next one was my first professional show out of college, one that I actually got not from an open audition, but on a recommendation from a former professor. It’s always cool to get a gig on a recommendation. The musical was Zorba, and the director, himself of Greek descent, had always wanted to do it, and he chose it to be the inaugural production at a brand, spanking new theatrical space that was not even completed when we opened, which meant we were dancing on the concrete floor of a former bus station, but we didn’t care. The thrill of “will the show be ready” was amplified by “will the audience’s seats be ready,” and we bonded over the rush of it all. It was a special time for our leader, and that upped our game. There’s an actual stage in place, now, but my legs and I will always remember the concrete floor, which was perfectly appropriate for a musical about mine workers.

As exciting as these experiences were for me, though, I look forward to the day that I can truly understand how the directors felt to see their long germinating project finally appear, so they could share it with others. For a lot of people, that is their first Broadway production, but for some it is sharing their passions with generation after generation of theatre students who might not otherwise have looked into an obscure, foreign sounding musical, or christening a new theatre far from the hustle and bustle of New York City. Watching The Visit, I could tell that Chita Rivera was particularly proud to be performing this particular musical on Broadway, because of all of the years and work that went into it. So don’t wait too long for the perfect moment to make your passion project happen, but don’t despair if it takes a decade or two. They could have given up on The Visit dozens of times, but they made it to Broadway, and they did with persistence.

Aaron Netsky writes the 366 Days/366 Musicals blog: a new essay about a different musical every day through next May. It’s only just begun, so come on over and get caught up: http://366days366musicals.tumblr.com

Monthly Mailbag : Tonys, Kelli O'Hara, Literature and Theatre Education

Chris Peterson

Every now and then I receive questions from readers, colleagues, etc, about various topics. Rather than answer them privately, in the interest of transparency, I like to post them here so that we all can benefit. So the following are a collection of questions I've received in emails, conversations or Facebook interactions. If you have have a question, please email me a cpeterson@onstage.blog

It looks like you stepped in some hot water over this theatre education debate. Do you regret your position?

What your referring to is the column where I suggested that if the budgetary choice came down between math and science versus theatre and the arts, I would have a hard time not supporting math and science, especially given our rankings in those subject areas. 

To answer your question, no I don't regret my position and I'm not surprised at the reaction its received. But many of those who disagreed with me, missed my point. My point was that cuts to any program should be an absolute last result when it comes to school budgeting. The first should always  been salary freezes and re-evaluating the quantity of school administrators. The next would be working with school and union officials to try to come up with a plan of spending that doesn't decrease the number of staff and does't diminish school services. The third would be going back and adjusting the collective bargaining agreements to see if funds can be freed up that way. The last option would be cutting staff and programs all together. 

Now people thought I was suggesting and supporting cutting the arts to save money, I'm not saying that at all and wouldn't want to see that ever. I'm suggesting in the specific situation of a school, whose students are failing in the math and sciences, who wanted to put more of their resources into those subject areas, and by doing so would take away funding from the arts program, while I wouldn't like it, I wouldn't protest it either. 

I agree that the arts can help a student with their academic courses. But that's not without having strong, comprehend able academic programs as well. There isn't and educator out there that can say honestly that having a strong theatre program and a weak math program will improve math scores.

Can the arts help science and math? Absolutely. I agree that creativity benefit both these areas. But math and science require absolute singular answers.  2+2 with always 4, what goes up, will always come down. While sparking the idea takes creativity, discovery takes skill. 

If a school says they want to put more funding into areas where students can learn those skills easier and more widespread, I can't argue against that and chances are, neither can you. 

I really want Kelli O'Hara to win a Tony, but I'm afraid it's not going to be this year. Who do you think will win?

Chita Rivera. For a couple of reasons: 1. It's her last time on Broadway, there is no chance Tony voters are going to let a living legend walk away empty handed. 2. She's very good in that role. 3. She's won the Drama League Award, which is a pretty good prognosticator. 

But I'm with you on O'Hara, I absolutely want her to win one. In fact she should already have one(The Bridges of Madison County), arguably two(South Pacific). But she will get hers someday, I hope.

You mentioned last week how there aren't more musicals based on pieces of literature, which I agree with, what are some you'd like to see?

Very good question. Not that there are but if there are any composers reading this, I hope it might spark some ideas. 

The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler

All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

China Dolls by Lisa See

What's next for OnStage? 

Well we're coming up on our first anniversary which is very exciting. We're finishing up some of our ranking lists and making deals to bring on new writers. We've broken in areas like Texas and Boston in a big way, so I'm very excited about that. I'm also excited to announce that we're adding at least two writers from Canada, so it will be great to over what's going on up there as well.