Theatre: Still tough, still at the top

Chita Rivera made her Broadway breakthrough in 1957 as the fire- spitting Anita in West Side Story. Now 66, the legendary dancer arrives in London to play Roxie in Chicago, the smash-hit in which she starred in the original 1975 productiondict
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Even a terrifying car accident in 1984 didn't stop Chita Rivera. After having 12 bolts inserted in her leg, and an 11-month break, she worked herself back to strength doing her night-club act on the quiet on a cruise ship.

Eight months later she was high-stepping it in a revival of Cole Porter's Can-Can, doing three cartwheels and three sets of splits every night with the Rockettes. "I'm not glamorous," she says dismissively, "I'm a workhorse." Either that, or she's an athlete.

At 66, the amazingly lean, muscular and frankly exuberant Ms Rivera is still top of Broadway's A-list. No other dancer, except possibly Gwen Verdon, has had more shows built around her. But unlike Verdon she's still hungry, and from Monday she'll be wowing them nightly as murderous Roxie in the smash-hit Chicago, a feat that will surprise no one who saw her slaying audiences in another Kander & Ebb musical, Kiss of the Spiderwoman, in London in 1992. She reprised the success on Broadway - winning everything in sight - before taking it on the road for another two years.

"Listen, I come from the time when you stayed with shows," she says. "I'm still like that. Mind you, on this one, I'm beginning to feel like I'm in The Mousetrap." She squeals with laughter.

But she has a point. She played the other lead, Velma, in Bob Fosse's original 1975 production of Chicago. A decade later she played her first Roxie in Atlantic City, and when Ann Reinking left the New York revival a couple of years ago, Chita got the call. She declined the offer but later caved in, and wound up opening the Las Vegas production.

Her playing a woman who fakes a pregnancy in order to escape a murder rap may cause mutterings about "mutton dressed as lamb". But the character has always had the line, "I'm older than I ever intended to be, and all my life I've wanted to be a dancer in vaudeville", which, even when trimmed, sounded peculiar coming from the lips of London's first Roxie, the otherwise terrific Ruthie Henshall, who could have passed for 23. "Yes," agrees Rivera. "You looked at her and thought, `what life?'"

In Rivera's case, on the other hand, it's certainly been some life, but you have to know musicals to know her. Despite receiving the first of six Tony nominations for her breakthrough as the fire-spitting Anita in West Side Story, she lost out to Rita Moreno for the film. Indeed, she has made only one movie, spicing up Sweet Charity opposite Shirley MacLaine.

Charmingly, she's still starstruck, and is a devotee of Judi Dench in Amy's View - though the two of them hadn't met since Rivera played Anita in London in 1959. "She used to take dance class with us," she recalls. They met again, momentarily, when Dench won this year's Tony. "She winked at me," Rivera giggles self-deprecatingly, gleaming with pleasure.

She's done a little drama herself, and even turned down the chance to play Maria Callas in Masterclass on Broadway. She played the lead role in Tennessee Williams's The Rose Tattoo, in a converted synagogue in New Orleans.

"The audience were so close, phew. And the guy playing the priest had been in the original production. I felt so exposed. I said to myself, whatever you do, don't turn your feet out like a dancer."

Intriguingly, Williams later agreed to a musical version, but troubles with the projected Jule Styne score meant that the idea foundered. Rivera later asked Jerry Herman to try it, but that too never happened. So was it really such a good idea? "Look, if you can do Spiderwoman, you can make anything into a musical."

Still, as she admits, she read West Side Story, looked at the end, and - "there's this dead body being carried out", and thought it would never work. "Remember, those were the days when you finished a show with the girls on the boys' shoulders singing a great big "O-kla-homa!!"

Even just listening to the astonishing original album of West Side Story gives you a vivid impression of Rivera's impact, much of which she credits to the legendary director/ choreographer Jerome Robbins. This puts her in a minority. Robbins's bloodied enemies far outnumber his friends. Carol Lawrence, the original Maria, remembers him as only ever working through public humiliation.

One famous rehearsal story tells of Robbins addressing the company, who watched as he backed off the stage and fell into the orchestra pit. No one did a thing to stop him.

"OK," says Rivera, "there are some rough stories, but there are also stories out there that are lies. I loved and adored him. If he told me to jump off the roof, land on my left foot and take two steps forward, I would do it. He taught dancers to do unbelievable things that none of us had ever had the chance to do before. Until Jerry, we never thought we could open our mouths, or do anything except breathe. Jerry made us be those people."

This is no exaggeration. He kept the Sharks and Jets apart during rehearsals to build tension and rivalry, and incited people into real fights. "He asked questions about our characters. At that time, that just flipped us over as dancers."

Which is why, although she has worked with almost every major choreographer since Balanchine awarded her a scholarship to study ballet, Robbins remains her inspiration. Despite that, she's surprised that the current West End revival is a virtual carbon copy of Robbins's original, right down to the sets, some of which look as if they were dragged out of storage from 1957. "No, no, no," she hoots. "Everything needs a face-lift!" It's a long way from there to 1491, by Meredith Willson, which Rivera gleefully describes as "the worst thing I ever did, just awful".

Worse than Bring Back Birdie, the 20-years-on sequel to Bye Bye Birdie, which had turned her into a name-above-the-title star? "No, that one was tough," she concedes, "but I got to work with Donald O'Connor."

In a miserable and dangerously eclectic score, she did her usual trick of turning at least one number into a showstopper, but none too often. The technical demands of the show's dozens of live TV monitors precluded out-of town tryouts. It previewed on Broadway - "like having an operation in the middle of 42nd Street and inviting everyone to come take a look" - then opened to hideous reviews. "Nothing much wrong that couldn't be put right by World War III," spluttered one. Four days later she was unemployed.

The composer/ lyricist team of Kander and Ebb has proved to be luckier. She first met them on Zorba, which she believes may be their finest score. Then they gave her Chicago and The Rink, which finally netted her the Tony. She'd been nominated for four Tony awards, but never won. Upon winning, her first thought was, "What am I going to do with my night-club act?" For years, she'd been bringing the house down with "Losing", Kander and Ebb's song specially written for her.

"People like it when you're honest, so Fred Ebb wrote me this number about no matter how gracious you are - and, believe me, I could give lessons - you actually want to put your fingers around her throat, throw her over and kick her in the ass!" She's laughing her head off, but not for nothing does she have a reputation as a fireball.

Unlike many dancers, she has no interest in reinventing herself as a choreographer. "Sure, I could do phoney. I have the information, but I don't have the gift."

And don't expect kiss-and-tell memoirs. "I don't want to expose my friends. I'll talk about my experiences but," she adds quietly, "I don't like talking about myself. Who wants to give them all that private stuff?" There will, however, be an autobiography, in the form of Chita's jazz and all that, a show in which "I'll say thank you from the stage... with the help of six hunky, gorgeous men".

In Sweet Charity, she famously sang "There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This", but that can only be a lie. She shrugs. "I'm not much for regrets. What happens, happens. How can you complain about a career as good as mine?" No complaints from this end, either.

`Chicago' is currently running at the Adelphi Theatre, London. Box office: 0171-344 0055