Chita Rivera first met Bob Fosse as he was meant to be: with a lit cigarette perched between his lips ― the song-and-dance man’s signature look.
It was the late ’60s. Rivera landed the starring role in a national tour of “Sweet Charity,” a musical Fosse had directed on Broadway. In 1969, Fosse put her in the big-screen adaptation, his first in a string of inspired movies that also spans “Cabaret” and the autobiographical masterpiece “All That Jazz.” A few years after that, Rivera became the original Velma Kelly onstage in Fosse’s “Chicago,” appearing opposite his wife, Gwen Verdon, with whom Rivera remained steadfast friends until Verdon died in 2000.
Verdon’s name has since faded from the cultural spotlight, even though she was instrumental to Fosse’s success. How predictable: the man, who was at once an era-defining teller of women’s stories and a notorious womanizer, remains a veritable legend while his right-hand lady is largely lost to history.
The new FX series “Fosse/Verdon,” in which Rivera is a minor character, seeks to right that wrong. As the title indicates, Verdon is treated as Fosse’s equal, someone who not only performed his choreography but bettered it. Fosse died in Verdon’s arms in 1987, long after they’d separated. Despite his indiscretions, “they were the perfect match,” Rivera told me.
When “Fosse/Verdon” premieres Tuesday, the 86-year-old actress ― who originated the role of Anita in “West Side Story” and appeared in everything from “Can-Can” to “Pippin” ― gets to sit back and watch her life unfold as a mere spectator. The show opens with Bob (played by Sam Rockwell) and Gwen (Michelle Williams) staging a glittering number from the cinematic “Sweet Charity.” Chita stands among a cabal of showgirls. She’s portrayed by Bianca Marroquín, who recently played Roxie Hart ― the part Fosse developed for Verdon ― in a “Chicago” revival on Broadway.
Rivera has earned no shortage of accolades, including three Tonys and a Presidential Medal of Freedom. Soon she’ll take her club act to Feinstein’s/54 Below in New York City. But seeing her past dramatized is its own “wonderful” reward, she said by phone last month. In her raspy lilt, Rivera recounted her experiences with Fosse, Verdon, Liza Minnelli and other complicated legends chronicled in the series.
When did you first hear about “Fosse/Verdon”?
You know how word gets around. There wasn’t anything specific. I heard that Michelle Williams was doing Gwen. Then I heard from a gypsy or something that [the show was] doing their relationship, which I thought was a good idea. I love keeping their names alive. The kids today don’t seem to care about the history of anything. They just seem to care about being a star. Those are two people that had great experiences and were true, true dancers, and then they found each other. They were the perfect match.
I’ll never forget doing the movie “Sweet Charity,” and there was Gwen, the best Charity in the entire world. We’ve all played her, but there’s nobody like Gwen — she was Charity. There she was on top of this very high ladder, doing exactly what Fosse needed for that moment. She was his assistant, and absolutely happy to be. It’s kind of wonderful.
I do like Michelle Williams. She seems very sweet and very clear because Gwen had that clear, clean redhead look. She could do this bump and grind, but it would never look filthy. She would do the sexiest thing and it would just look sexy, not vulgar. Michelle has a very nice quality about her.
What do you remember about your first encounter with Bob Fosse?
He was sweet. Very, very sweet, very humble.
Did he have a cigarette in his mouth?
Oh yeah. You just reminded me of something I used to say all the time. I don’t know if I can remember all of it, but I used to say, “Oh my god, I saw Bobby today on the street and he had on a color. It wasn’t a black shirt and black pants.” And somebody said, “Well, what color?” And I said, “Navy blue,” which is practically black. And you know what? He’s absolutely right because that’s all I wear now. It’s the easiest thing. And the cigarette, I don’t know how he ever did it, but it’s a great look. He could manipulate that cigarette and do whatever he wanted with it.
But the first time, I believe, was “Charity,” which was phenomenal. I remember sitting in the back of the theater while Gwen was doing Charity. I was sitting in the last row of the theater here in New York, and I was screaming with laughter, just jumping up and down with excitement. I felt it whenever she was onstage — she and Carol Haney. All of a sudden I felt this tap on my shoulder, and it was Bobby. He said, “Having a good time?” I said, “Yes!”
I just remember wonderful things. I don’t remember any encounters or anything like that. It was all very joyous and a lot of fun. We couldn’t wait to get in there to get started. We loved what we were doing. The music was fabulous. We’re dancers, we just jump on in there.
You were part of Bob and Gwen’s lives as their relationship blossomed.
Yeah, but not that close. We didn’t have dinners together and drinks and stuff like that. We could have, but our lives just didn’t go that way. I would be in California or whatever, but we knew that we could count on each other.
I remember standing in the wings when I wasn’t onstage in “Can-Can” and watching Gwen and just saying how amazing she is and “God, I’d love to dance with her one day” outside of the show we were doing. She called me into her dressing room one afternoon. They were auditioning for her understudy, and she was the first person to tell me that I had my own set of talents that I should go and explore. She said, “You don’t need to be my understudy.” I thought, “Wow, that’s pretty fabulous. She didn’t have to say anything at all.” And so I did. Several years later, I get this call from Bobby asking me if I wanted to play opposite her in “Chicago.” So there we are [and] it’s like full circle from me standing in the wings watching her in “Can-Can,” saying, “Oh, wouldn’t it be nice?”
I wish you could have seen it just for Tony Walton’s sets. Too extraordinary. There was a drum in the center of the stage, a huge opening: doors that opened to a half-circle, and we were inside it with our top hats and canes, preparing to enter and do a number called “Two Dancing as One.” The drum was just about to open, and I looked up and I saw her and it just hit me. “Oh my god, I’m standing next to her.” It was a great moment for me. Then we flew together. It was wonderful, the kind of thing that you wish those you love could have. It’s called excellence.
You were also around Bob and Gwen as Bob was, infamously, having affairs and becoming known as a womanizer. Did that ever put a strain on the work you were doing or on your relationships with them?
You know, I never saw it. I heard about it. I couldn’t believe it. She never brought it, to my knowledge, into the rehearsal hall. And I would have attempted to do the same thing, but I don’t think I’d be as successful. You know what I’m saying?
It’s very hard to separate those things.
Please! I mean, please! There she is, and she never divorced him. Never!
Why do you think that is?
It’s wild. I don’t know. Some people simply say, “I’m never going to divorce this person.” It could be that simple. Or she could have said, “Listen, I love you and I will be faithful to you forever.” Maybe he could be a bad boy. But unless I’m asked to get into someone’s business, I don’t get in it. I’ve got to say: Nobody brought that into the rehearsal that I could recognize.
You were also good friends with Liza Minnelli, who is depicted on the show. When was the last time you spoke to Liza?
I am so ashamed because I haven’t spoken to her in about a year. She’s living in California and I just haven’t spoken to her. I’ve been all over the world, but that is no excuse. That is absolutely no excuse. I miss her. I miss not speaking to her on the phone or seeing her, but it’s kind of interesting. I think not seeing her name in the papers is kind of a good sign, I think.
What do you mean by that?
Well, because newspapers really are very happy with sensationalism and Liza’s the perfect subject. You get somebody to write something really nasty and it just pisses me off. So I’m just hoping that she’s well. I hear she is well and likes it out there in California. I think California’s the best place anyhow.
Liza quickly became Bob’s main attraction, with “Cabaret” and “Liza With a Z.” What did you think of that?
It’s like getting on a good ride. I think they both did great things for each other. He gave her a style and directed her a certain way, made her look a certain way, gave her sensational stuff to do. And she gave him another place to be. She’s Liza! She was extremely active at that time, so she put him in a certain place. They did it together. That’s great when you find people that you can help and they can help you. You go on this beautiful experience ― or adventure, I should say, because nobody knows what’s going to happen in life. Nobody knows. They ask me, “So when you did ‘West Side Story,’ did you know it was going to be such a big hit?” Of course you don’t know. You can have a feeling about how it felt that day, but you don’t know. Nobody knows anything.
You were part of Gwen’s final stage appearance at a benefit concert in 1998. What do you remember about that night?
That was thrilling. I think she did the closet scene [from “Sweet Charity”]. It was fabulous because she was who she is.
By the way, I do Gwen in my club act and the audience just loves it. I do “Nowadays” [from “Chicago”]. The music plays and I look up and I go, “You know, there’s only one person I see standing next to me, with her own hat and her own cane: the fabulous Gwen Verdon.” I go back to the piano, put on my top hat and get my cane. This was Graciela Daniele’s idea for the one of the shows I did: A spot goes next to me and I sing the first chorus; then I imitate that little voice of Gwen’s. I sing the second verse with her voice, and the audience just adores it. They all know who it is. It’s so cute. So she’s with me all the time.
Bob Fosse’s legacy is complicated, but there’s no denying how radical his choreography was. Does today’s dance and theater culture properly appreciate him?
Gah, I don’t know. You see those tiny movements, which actually wasn’t all Fosse did. I mean, he was a fabulous dancer, period. His technique was great. He could do any kind of jazz movement you wanted. Certainly he was a hoofer.
There’s a story I’ve told, which is true: Tony Stevens, a great, sweet friend of mine who’s passed on, and Chris Chadman, who’s also gone, were Bobby’s assistants. I was doing “I Can’t Do It Alone” in “Chicago,” and I had to get on this chair. What the girl [in the show] does now is not what I did. It was very athletic, and it was cartwheels over the chair and all kinds of things. Finally, one day, I said to Tony, “Tony, please, would you ask Bobby to get me off this damn chair? Let me use up that stage well.” What did I say that for? Then he said, “Oh, sure.” So we still did the stuff on the chair, but then he moved me out to the middle of the stage and I was doing flying splits and cartwheels. But it was great. It was absolutely a lot of fun and brilliantly choreographed, and it was not the tiny little movement. It was grand jetés.
What was your relationship with Gwen like after Bob died?
Our relationship was what it was from the day I stood beside her in “Chicago.” She was a strong woman. She was private. She used to, which is really kind of cute because I would call her on it, sometimes dramatize a story and would say, “Isn’t that right, Chita? Don’t you remember that?” And I wasn’t even there. I would find myself saying, “Yeah, absolutely.” She was so terribly funny, really, really funny.
Given the sensual spirit of Bob’s work, one might assume you guys were always out on the town, boozing and reveling, New York ’70s style. Is that at all accurate?
Would it make everybody unhappy if I said no? Their bubbles would be busted. Hey, we had fun. Were we out at bars? Yeah, heck, I guess so. But we weren’t guzzling down martinis and screaming in the streets. Dancers know how to take care of themselves. There’s always a bar by the stage door of a theater, and usually what we did is we would finish the show and we’d all go to the bar. There would be a piano player and all the frustrated singers, who would do their club act. And all the dancers who had never sung before, somebody would make them sing. It was like a family. We ate together, we mostly drank together. That’s exactly how they discovered that I was trying to learn how to sing, just at a bar like that. It’s an extension of the show that you do because you really can’t do eight shows a week and be stupid.
That’s true ― it’s an athletic discipline.
Absolutely. I’m not saying I didn’t wake up sometimes with a hangover. I can’t remember when. But we had a blessed time. We really had a wonderful time. And the cast of “Chicago,” look, Graciela Daniele is still running around and directing. She directed my show that I did in London a couple of weeks ago and it’s wonderful. I hear from Candy Brown [who was in “Chicago” and “Pippin”]. So we stick together.
Were you asked to consult on any aspects of “Fosse/Verdon”?
Oh yeah, I’ve been asked to sit and talk to the kids, but I was going to London and San Francisco. I was all over the place, so I’ve not been able to go through with having lunch or something with them. It’s so sweet that they would even want to, and I’d be honored to.
I don’t know about you, but my days are crazy. I don’t want to get to a point where my spirit gets off the bed and my body’s laying on it and I have to say, “One more time! Please, one more time!”
Does it feel nice to see your life dramatized this way?
Oh god, yeah. It’s wonderful. It’s fun and sweet, as long as it’s truthful. It’s an honor, really. It’s nice when your life goes that way and you’re climbing and climbing. Shows that you used to do years ago are a great foundation for you. They give you more courage and they give you more information to give to the kids. I think being an example is the best thing you can be. They have their own experiences and they form their own selves, but looking at somebody else and saying, “Well, if she did it, maybe I can do it.” That’s good stuff, I think. It keeps things moving forward.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.