Metro Weekly

Chita Rivera Honored at Signature’s Sondheim Award Gala

Signature's evening celebrating the legendary Chita Rivera was filled with enthralling musical moments and poignant personal tributes.

Chita Rivera by Laura Marie Duncan

The Italian embassy got dressed up Monday night, April 3, to celebrate Signature Theatre’s 2023 Sondheim Award honoree, theater legend, and homegrown D.C. icon, Chita Rivera. Inside the sweeping embassy atrium, Signature opened up a whoopee spot, where the booze was cold and the piano hot for musical tributes led off by Nova Y. Payton swinging through “A Lot of Livin’ to Do,” a signature tune from Bye Bye Birdie, just one of the landmark musicals Rivera opened on Broadway.

The A-list lineup, including Tony winners Stephanie J. Block and Jessie Mueller, served up several highlights from the illustrious career of 10-time Tony nominee and two-time winner Rivera (she also holds a Tony for Lifetime Achievement). 

While the black-tie crowd sipped “Kiss of the Spider Woman” cocktails, David Merino, recently seen as Jack in Signature’s Into the Woods, dipped into a bouncy “Dressing Them Up,” from the musical Kiss of the Spider Woman, which won Rivera her second Tony.

Then, Natascia Diaz, praising Rivera for “the glass ceilings you shimmied and kicked through for all Latinos,” performed a delightful “Chief Cook and Bottle Washer,” from the first musical that earned Rivera a Tony, John Kander and Fred Ebb’s 1984 curiosity The Rink, which co-starred Liza Minnelli.

Arguably the composers most theater aficionados would associate with Rivera, Kander and Ebb, also responsible for Spider Woman, Chicago, and Rivera’s last starring role on Broadway, The Visit, were well-represented at the Sondheim Gala — in song, in person (via event chair Cathy Bernard, niece of the late Fred Ebb), and on video, courtesy of a recorded heartfelt congratulations to Rivera from the 96-year-old Kander.

“As a unique force, you kind of changed the direction musical theater took,” said Kander, before adding his own honors to the Sondheim Award, including “The Freddy and John Award, because whenever we finished a new song, we usually picked up the telephone and called you, and played it for you over the phone, and you were…really kind. And the John Kander award, because I love you.”

The Kander and Ebb love flowed freely throughout the evening, climaxing with Jessie Mueller delivering a heavenly version of Chicago’s “Nowadays.”

Songs by the gala’s namesake composer were in relatively short supply, but there were two stellar selections from the collaboration that cemented both Sondheim’s and Rivera’s careers, West Side Story, for which Rivera created the unforgettable role of Anita.

Austin Colby sang a practically perfect “Maria,” and Mueller graced the room with a soaring “Somewhere.” To everyone’s surprise, Hollywood’s most recent Anita, Oscar-winner Ariana DeBose, popped up in another video tribute to sing Chita’s praises.

It was followed by a message from Rivera’s friend from the cast of The Rink, Jason Alexander, performing a charming “Old Friends” from Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along.

Finally, the legend herself took the stage. Rivera, 90 years young and beaming with joy, joked that, after listening to all the beautiful words and songs, she had to wonder, “Did I do all that?” Then, to healthy applause, “I guess I did.” 

Rivera took a moment to share fond memories of performing in  Signature’s 2008 production of The Visit — making Rivera the first Sondheim Award recipient who’s actually performed on the Signature stage.

“I knew Stephen Sondheim before he was Stephen Sondheim,” she pointed out, before regaling the room with the story of seeing the young West Side Story lyricist for the first time at her audition for the show, then later learning the music and lyrics for “A Boy Like That,” seated at the piano with composer Leonard Bernstein.

“I have to say, I’m a lucky gal,” Rivera told the crowd. “I seem to have been in the right place, at the right time. And continue doing what I love.”

Thanking her mother, siblings, and daughter, Lisa, for their support, Rivera wrapped up the night expressing gratitude for her ballet teacher, Miss Doris Jones, a founder of D.C.’s Jones-Haywood Dance School, for her New York mentor George Balanchine, and for collaborators Kander and Ebb, and Terrence McNally.

“And so many brilliant people who’ve taught me so much,” she said, without naming all the names. “You’ll just have to read my book,” she quipped. “I can’t believe I’m saying that, but I’m saying it.” Chita’s sure-to-be juicy book Chita: A Memoir is due this spring.

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